IT & Systems Management

Got game? This sensor-equipped basketball will be the judge of that

"Ball don't lie," Rasheed Wallace famously said during a basketball game once. Stick nine sensors in that same basketball, though, and you can really find out the truth about your game.

That's the idea behind the 94Fifty Smart Sensor basketball, developed by InfoMotion Sports Technologies. The ball bucks the current FitTech trend in which people wear sensors on their wrist or elsewhere on their body to record exercise data, moving those sensors to the equipment itself.

"Wearables weren't the way to go," says InfoMotion CEO and founder Michael Crowley. "They can't tell you what you need to know."

What the 94Fifty can tell you is whether your basketball shot has too much arc or if you're dribbling the ball with the wrong amount of force. The sensors in the basketball use of point-of-force technology to record data about your shot and your dribble, beaming it via Bluetooth LE to a nearby mobile device running the 94Fifty app. The goal is to teach muscle memory: Shoot or dribble the ball consistently in one of 94Fifty's timed drills, and you'll be able to repeat that action on the court.

I didn't get to play with the 94Fifty basketball long enough to build up that kind of muscle memory, but I did have the chance to get my hands on the ball for a little one-on-one time. One immediate impression: regardless of the sensors inside the 94Fifty, it felt no different in my hands than a regulation basketball. "That's by design," Crowley says.

Pair the 94Fifty basketball with a nearby iPhone app--the ball can connect with devices within a 150-foot range, good even when you find yourself on the opposite end of the court--and you'll get a lot of immediate feedback on your game.

Testing out a shooting drill, for example, I not only saw the arc of my shot displayed on iPad mini, but the 94Fifty app also gave me a visual indicator of whether I need more or less arc. In case I'm keeping my eye on the ball and not on a mobile device screen, a virtual coach shouted advice about improving the arc of my shot. Repeat the drill often enough, the thinking goes, and I'll be able to fire off a consistent shot, even with a 6-foot-4 defender bearing down on me.

A dribbling drill--which challenges the user to complete a set number of dribbles as a clock counts down to zero--works much the same way. The 94Fifty's sensors are smart enough to know when I'm in control of my dribble and when the ball's bouncing away. That virtual coach will pipe up again to tell me when I'm running out of time on the drill.

There's a heavy element of gamification here, as the 94Fifty app keeps track of scores, offering that added incentive to keep practicing. "If [players] experience a little bit of success, they'll use it again and again," Crowley says.

For an added element of game play, you put your skills to the test against four other people in the app's head-to-head mode. (The app stores performance data for four players, and a fifth player slot is available as a guest account.) You can even set handicaps when competing against players of differing skills in the head-to-head mode.

The 94Fifty app offers drills at four different levels, and players can level up as they master certain skills. It takes some doing, though: getting past all the pro-level drills takes about six months, Crowley says.

This level of sophisticated, instantaneous feedback comes at a price. The 94Fifty Smart Sensor Basketball costs $300, substantially more than what you'd pay for a sensor-free ball at your local sporting goods store. But Crowley thinks that's a price the aspirational audience for the smart basketball--anyone from kids looking to make their school team to weekend warriors hoping to find an edge in pickup games--will be willing to pay. The ball/app combo is "like having an elite trainer with you every minute of the day," he says.

"It's basically a $300 coach that looks like a basketball," Crowley adds.

Whether you think it's a coach or a basketball, the 94Fifty certainly boasts its share of clever design touches. The ball comes charged out of the box. You activate its connection to your mobile device by dribbling four times. You charge the ball by placing it on its own charging stand, lining up the logo on the stand to charge--a blue light appears to let you know you've lined things up properly. (A full charge gives the 94Fifty eight hours of constant battery life, which, in practical terms, translates out to a couple of days of use between charges, Crowley says.)

94Fifty's app is only available from the iOS App Store as of this writing; it runs on any device that supports Bluetooth LE (basically an iPhone 4s or later, a fifth-generation iPod touch, a third-generation or later iPad, and all iPad minis). An Android version of the app is due in the coming weeks. By March 2014, InfoMotion hopes to add a subscription offering to its app, where for $4.95 a month, you'll be able to get videos tailored around improving specific aspects of your game.

InfoMotion doesn't plan to stop with basketball. Any high-intensity sport where players benefit from developing muscle memory would be a prime candidate for enhanced equipment like the 94Fifty ball, Crowley told me, citing soccer as just such an example. The company is also working on a cross-fit application with a sensor-equipped medicine ball that would deliver the same kind of muscle memory training to workout sessions.


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