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Originally published Monday, March 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Trading-card maker Topps hopes to score on 3D pitch to fans

Since the 1950s, Topps has sold baseball trading cards filled with photos and stats, bringing the game to life. Now the company is bringing its cards to life.

The New York Times

Since the 1950s, Topps has sold baseball trading cards filled with photos and stats, bringing the game to life. Now the company is bringing its cards to life.

Beginning today, collectors who hold a special Topps 3D Live baseball card in front of a webcam will see a three-dimensional avatar of the player on the computer screen. Rotate the card, and the figure rotates in full perspective. It's called "augmented reality," a combination of a real image with a virtual one.

"We see this baseball season as a redefining moment for us," said Steve Grimes, chief digital officer at Topps.

Topps needs to augment reality because baseball cards are struggling in the Internet age. Today's collectors, most of whom are still boys, can just as easily and less expensively find the sports facts they want online.

While once a $1 billion business, the market for sports trading cards has shrunk to $200 million in yearly revenue today, according to information provided by Major League Baseball Properties in a recent lawsuit against a former card licensee. (The players association licenses the right to use players' likenesses.)

The baseball-card business is dominated by Topps, based in New York, and Upper Deck, based in Carlsbad, Calif. According to Chris Olds, editor of Beckett Baseball, a card collectors' publication, Topps has the edge. "When people think baseball cards, they think of Topps," he said.

Michael Eisner, the former chief of Walt Disney, did too, and in 2007 his Tornante Co. and Madison Dearborn Partners bought Topps for $385 million. They hatched big plans to make trading cards relevant again.

Total Immersion, a French company, brought Topps the augmented-reality technology. It has already been used in a theme park and for some auto-design work. Using the technology, card collectors see a three-dimensional version of a player and can play elementary pitching, batting and catching games using the computer keyboard.

Scott Kelnhofer, editor of Card Trade, an industry publication, says the Total Immersion technology could strike a chord with boys. "This is the boldest technology idea we've seen in sports cards so far. The key is not to have it be a novelty and then it's on to the next one."

On deck: virtual cards that "come alive and contain video," said Louise Curcio, vice president for marketing at Upper Deck.

For Eisner, the Topps 3D Live cards are a natural extension of the brand. "We take technology as our friend. The playing card is the beginning, not the end."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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