It's been nearly 50 years since manufacturers began marketing packs of baseball cards for kids and even longer since they were first introduced as premiums in packages of cigarettes. In the years since their release, sports-card manufacturers have made rookie cards, 3-D hologram cards and special foil-based collectors' cards, but the end product has remained unchanged - a single photograph of an athlete or a play. Unchanged, that is, until now.
"There have been some hologram cards in the past, but nothing to the extent of this. No technology has ever approached what Screen Plays has done," says Mike Payne, a senior editor at Beckett Publications, publisher of leading baseball and sports card publications.
Screen Plays, a new line of baseball cards that Payne, speaking for himself and not Beckett publishing, describes as the "coolest" product of the year, are cards that use lenticular technology, a process from Eastman Kodak that enables manufacturers to place moving images on a single card.
At first glance, Screen Plays cards look like photographic slides printed on a hard plastic card. The Mark McGwire card, for instance, shows a pitcher/batter scene. As you rotate the card, the pitcher winds up and releases the ball, McGwire swings and misses, and the catcher ends the play.
The card can show the play as smoothly as a television broadcast, or you can rotate it slowly to view the action frame-by-frame.
The thing that enables this technology is a series of tiny and sophisticated ridges along the front face of the card.
"Those ridges are actually very sophisticated lenses," explains Beth Kuenstler-Meyer, Eastman Kodak marketing director for dynamic imaging. "As you move the card up and down, those lenses trick your eye into seeing different planes."
It's not an easy trick to pull off. According to Kuenstler-Meyer, the material used for Screen Plays has 50 lenticules per inch. Each lenticule has up to 24 separate views, each holding a small portion of the sequenced pictures needed to show an entire play.
While lenticular technology is a breakthrough in sports cards, it is not unique to Topps' Screen Plays. Last year a company called MotionVision released a series of football cards called Digital RePlays that utilized the same Kodak technology.
"Technology has gradually increased in 2.5-inch by 3.5-inch sports cards over the years, but nothing had ever reached that level," Payne says. "They started off selling for $6 each, then the company came out with a series that cost $1 more. Quite frankly, that really didn't deter sales."
Unlike Digital RePlays, Topps Screen Plays Baseball cards retail for $10 and come in stylish tins. "Frankly it remains to be seen if Screen Plays becomes a collectible item and people collect all of the cards or if it becomes a novelty product and people simply want cards with their favorite player," says Marty Appel, Topps director of public relations.
One of the factors that may determine the popularity of Screen Plays is whether collectors accept the $10 price tag. "The price point is what it needs to be to bring this product to market," Appel says. "The history of trading cards is that it takes people to embrace new technologies. We'll just have to wait and see what happens."
Appel says that Screen Plays sales have been strong so far, though he was unable to release specific information. Topps has released 20 standard cards and six premium cards so far.
According to Appel, Topps is still experimenting to decide how the new cards will fit into their lineup. "If the public embraces this, the imagination takes you in all directions. You might even see people doing scenes from their wedding on these."