"Freakishly smart" sensors embedded in a basketball send shooting and dribbling data to a smartphone app and provide new level of coaching.
Someone tell Lakers center Dwight Howard that his free throw woes are over: A new basketball packed with motion sensors can teach him how to stop heaving bricks.
The product, 94Fifty, developed by InfoMotion Sports Technologies, promises to bring the geeky worlds of mobile computing and data analytics to a court near you. The ball and its "freakishly smart" sensors collect shooting and dribbling data, feed that data to a smartphone app that helps players make adjustments in real time while practicing, and provide a wealth of coaching drills and assistance. Just stopping at that, the technology makes a Nike Fuel Band or a FitBit, which use sensors to quantify distance and speed, seem like the digital equivalent of Chia Pets.
But like so many innovations in the era of The Internet of Practically EVERYthing, there's much more behind 94Fifty. Its promise isn't limited to basketball, or even sports. Founder Mike Crowley says the technology has potential applications for any activity that requires the precision and practice that create muscle memory, from playing musical instruments to performing surgical procedures.
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A Basketball Aha Moment
Crowley, a serial entrepreneur who has started medical device and enterprise application integration companies, hit upon the idea for 94Fifty while indulging in excessive basketball watching -- a common affliction that, untreated, produces a certain springtime madness.
Crowley traced a noticeable erosion in fundamental on-court skills to all of the new technology that competes for the attention of young athletes. Instead of trying to fight it, Crowley decided to use that very same technology to fix the problem.
"In any technology evolution you have these hurricanes" from which innovations emerge, Crowley said. "These forces were all coming together ... you could just see it coming." And along came Nike+ Running and similar, wearable sensor-based athletic technologies. But those technologies don't factor in interaction, like between a player and a ball or an opponent, he noted.
Crowley's aha moment came when it occurred to him that the key element is the ball, not shoes and other clothing, and he began working on the technology in 2008, producing a team version of the product in 2011. (This ranged in price from $2,500 - $5,000 and required a laptop.) 94Fifty is a consumer-oriented version, priced at $295 for the ball and smartphone apps.
A basketball takes a tremendous pounding banging against various kinds of court surfaces and (especially in Howard's case) a steel rim, so this isn't like tagging docile cattle or instrumenting a traffic light.
The 94Fifty has nine sensors seated on a circuit board that weighs less than 20 grams, and those sensors detect the ball's spin and acceleration and provide a 360-degree view of any force, Crowley said.
He wouldn't reveal the secrets behind the sensor array, but he said there's also a great deal of engineering involved to ensure that the sensors don't wiggle. The board can't impact the weight and balance of the basketball either: A shooter's touch relies on extreme precision, and even a misplaced ounce can alter everything.
As if that's not enough, the operating system that runs 94Fifty must look for motion patterns, spot problems and communicate it all as feedback in less than 100 milliseconds via Bluetooth to a smartphone. It must also store that data, rank it against previous player data, and even help players use it to compete with other athletes in 94Fifty games. And don't forget the wireless charging through the ball's skin.
The 94Fifty, named after the dimensions of a college basketball court, was in field testing for more than a year before the team version began shipping. The company takes the balls to Detroit to put them through automobile shake tests and a variety of heat and humidity conditions, Crowley said.
On the software side, 94Fifty was designed to help players with ball handling and shooting. When a shot isn't working it generally doesn't have enough backspin, the arc of the shot is too flat or the shooter's release isn't quick enough. The sensors detect those elements (including the shot's arc down to the degree), and the software infers shooting weaknesses, like an incorrect release point, not enough leg strength or deep-rooted psychological issues. (OK, that last one I made up.)
The accompanying application can let players focus on particular aspects of their game, or put their scores into a game, where they compete against other players, not just on how many shots they make, but also on the quality of the shot.
The idea here is to burn technique in, Crowley explained, to create muscle memory, so that a player can react to situations almost without thinking, with confidence. And this is where 94Fifty diverges from wearable technology. Crowley characterized his technology as "points of force," where what gets measured is the force applied to an object. "We can infer things from forces," he said, and get "accurate snapshots about muscle memory."
That notion of muscle memory and confidence applies beyond basketball. The technology will find its way into soccer, the next natural sport for it. But Crowley said he has heard from music companies that want to instrument violin bows, and medical device companies that want to help clinicians improve and speed up their surgical skills. "Quality muscle memory is everywhere in the world ... it's part of what makes us a dominant species," he said. "The opportunities are everywhere."
Coming To A School Near You
The 94Fifty project was funded further through Kickstarter, the crowdsourced micro-funding platform, where InfoMotion reached its goal of $100,000 in 35 days. Crowley said the company has $4 million of equity capital invested into the business, none from institutional financing. Texas Instruments is a key component supplier, and both Kickstarter and TI have helped provide exposure.
94Fifty is being used at all levels (high school, college and even the NBA), and around the world. The Atlanta Hawks (NBA) and Atlanta Dream (WNBA) use the product, along with Michael Conley, a rising star on the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies. Other customers include the University of Wisconsin and Purdue University men's basketball teams, the UCLA women's team, and international teams like Olympia Milano (Italy), Pellacastrano Biella (Italy) and Guler Lecacy (Turkey).
Beginning early this week, customers can pre-order the ball directly through the company's website. The ball begins shipping in the fall in limited quantities. Retail outlets could carry the ball, but InfoMotion Sports Technologies hasn't committed to any deals just yet, according to Crowley.
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