Graduate student designs VR experiences for pro baseball players

Thursday, November 7, 2019
Jesse Easdon tests equipment in the WIN Reality lab.

Jesse Easdon, left, a graduate student in Integreated Media in the Department of Theatre and Dance, works with the tracking system in the WIN Reality test lab with Michael Stephens, one of the company's head developers.

Jesse Easdon is a third-year graduate student in the Integrated Media program in the Department of Theatre and Dance, with a thesis focus on how to tell stories and engage audiences using technology. He’s also working full-time with WIN Reality, which creates virtual and augmented reality experiences for baseball players through VR headsets and projection to practice batting. He’s worked closely with clients such as the L.A. Dodgers and the New York Mets, whose players use the product to practice batting skills in an environment that simulates pitches from specific pitchers.

Why did you choose the Integrated Media program in the UT Department of Theatre and Dance?

I studied aerospace electrical engineering as an undergrad at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and I worked afterward for an engineering firm that developed satellite communications and ways that we can communicate with satellites and that satellites can communicate with each other. I did this for a little while and decided that that wasn't where I wanted to be in life.

I'd always remembered a fondness for entertainment. In high school, I was one of those kids who loved sports, but I also loved working in the theatertheatre, and I had a lot of friends in the theatre. I wanted to get back into that life and get back into entertaining people. So, I decided to go work in theatrical design. I joined Royal Caribbean as the lead lighting and media designer for the China market.

Hold up. How did you go from being an engineer to designing theatrical shows for Royal Caribbean?

I had a friend who was a dancer on a cruise ship, and I talked to him for a while. He said, "Why don't you just apply? Why don't we just see what happens?" I got a phone call the next day after applying, and they asked, "Why do you want to do this?" This is a great question because for me there was a lot of good work that we were doing in engineering. Engineering is an amazing field that I'm very passionate about, but I didn't see a way that I could contribute to the world. That was important to me, to be able to help shape the future of how humanity interacts. And I know that at our core, we interact through storytelling.

I didn't know where that would land. I didn't know what that meant. But it started with cruise ship design, and that's the road that I went down. Doing that for a few years led me to really trying to understand the industry and having that understanding I realized I wanted to be able to better communicate with my collaborators. That led me to the conclusion that I needed to study what I'm doing in some form.

I started looking at grad schools and stumbled across the University of Texas. It's one of the first schools you find when you search "theatre design." I found out that they were doing this amazing program called Integrated Media for live events that was part of the Theatre and Dance program.

What types of projects did you hope to work on while you were at UT?

So, I had a love of sports and a love of theatre. I wanted to try to combine those in some ways. I also knew I wanted to do something big. I wanted to lead big projects. I'm very interested in project managing, project leading. I guess at the end of the day I wanted to learn how to lead a group of artists to create something that was game changing. This was my goal when I decided to come to UT. I wanted to be able to manage in an environment that was safe for me to experiment and see what I could do.

I also think it's important to understand why I chose the Department of Theatre and Dance department over a design school or a communications school or even a radio-television-film program. All of those areas are super valuable, and I've taken classes in all of those schools. But, the reason why I love working with Theatre and Dance is that storytelling is at the core of what they teach.

And in my mind, that's what extended reality and virtual reality needs to be a successful tool for engagement—storytelling. The way I see it, storytelling is theatre and dance, and we have told stories through theatre methods since the dawn of humankind. And if I can go back in history and understand that and understand how we've done that, I can now lead storytelling technology into the future. You can't understand what the future is going to be without understanding the past.

Theatre and Dance here at UT, specifically the Live Design program, really emphasizes that. I couldn't have hoped for a better place than where I am.

Logan Smith, Jesse Easdon and Michael Bruner in the PLAI Lab at UT.

Jesse Easdon, center, Logan Smith, left, and Michael Bruner, right) during a projection test for an escape room project in the PLAI Lab.

Tell us about your role at WIN Reality and how it evolved from an internship into a full-time job.

The first semester I was working as an intern, I was mostly working with their system that they already had in place and trying to make small tweaks to the projector and tracking systems that they use for their baseball players. During that time, I did a lot more technical work. Eventually I started talking to the CEO and many members of the team about how we could make the product more engaging and more fun for the players.

It's turned into a full-time position where I am working in the research & development on the hardware side of things in the company. We look at what can be done, how we can engage the users more. We look into the future. We are looking at things that are five, six years down the road now.

What has been the feedback from teams using the product?

They are constantly amazed by the progression that we are making with our products. The players are ecstatic because we are basically taking a video game and giving it to them and saying, "Hey, you can become a better baseball player by playing this video game." Something that they were pretty much always told was a waste of time is now part of their professional training. Coaches and owners were more hesitant, but we have a great team working on analytics to show data of how these players are getting better by using our product. By showing them that, we can show them why it's worth them spending the money on this product. 

What's next for you?

WIN Reality is a great company that has a future that's so open and can do so much. I would love to continue with them in some form. I do know that no matter what, I want to keep telling stories. I want to turn my thesis into a book and keep writing and trying to talk about how we can respectfully use this new technology and media in a way that is helpful for humanity.

From left, Smith, Easdon and Bruner test projection

From left, Smith, Easdon and Bruner test projection and the A.I. puzzle on the escape room ahead of its installation. Photo by Sven Ortel.

Jesse Easdon sits at his desk at WIN Reality.

Easdon at his desk in the WIN Reality lab working on the VR experience for their pitching simulation. 

Back to top