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Smart Sports Equipment: Coming to a Sports Event Near You

18 Nov, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

To the universe that includes smartphones and smart watches, add these: the smart basketball and the smart tennis racquet, as well as smart golf clubs and smart bats for baseball and softball. All equipment has embedded sensors that interface with mobile apps to track personal user data. And if the manufacturers have their way, that equipment will be seen in sports events nationwide. It’s all a part of the Internet of Things, that great interconnected universe quickly becoming the new normal in sports.

The Wilson X Connected Basketball  has an embedded sensor that, in addition to personal stats and information the consumer receives from various ball motions, Wilson also receives data snapshots.

With automated scoring and make/miss technology, the Wilson X Connected basketball looks to reach a broad audience, get kids back outside, and solve arguments occurring in driveways worldwide, notes SportTechie. Was that sick shot you just sank a three-pointer? Where’s your sweet spot on the court? What’s your percentage from the free throw line?

“Wilson is getting insights they never had before,” TempoIQ CEO Steve Subar told MediaPost in an interview.

Bouncing the ball activates the sensor, which allows Wilson to track same-day sales, since a ball typically is used a short time after being purchased.

The ball is available in two sizes: official (29.5 inches) or intermediate (28.5 inches). And while its technology is currently limited, that’s about to change, says SportTechie.

While it’s currently a shooters’ ball, only measuring makes and misses from beyond seven feet, Wilson is working on drills for everything including passing, dribbling, and layups. They are also working on a multiplayer mode that will allow the ball to track multiple players using RFID technology. And staying true to their goal to bring video games to the driveway, recreational players will be able to play with people in different locations. Now, kids can take on their cousins across the country in a game of H-O-R-S-E the same way they can play each other in Call of Duty.

Wilson is also working to bring this high-tech basketball to the NCAA. In fact, NCAA approved the use of a sensor in the ball last year. As a result, fans will benefit from more interesting game broadcasts with real-time stats and analysis from the data drawn from the ball and the RFID technology that players will wear. Qualitative stats about the distance of a shot and proximity to a defender will elevate the game broadcasts. Student athletes and coaches will also benefit from the use of the connected ball in NCAA play. They will receive stats and analysis in accordance with the NCAA rules of the game of basketball for real-time analytics. The same heat maps and distance measurements that amateur players can use to practice on their own will help collegiate teams know exactly where to get their hot shooter the ball.

SportTechie has noted, however, that there is not a specific timeline for this NCAA implementation. Wilson’s technology partner SportIQ is now working with the NCAA to determine how to best execute player tracking and ball data in live games.

TechTimes noted the ball comes equipped with a $200 price tag on average, nearly twice the cost of a typical NCAA ball. However, the article noted, “Parents will probably also love the fact that they can track their youngster's performance with smartphone app in hand, while muting the virtual coach on the app, offering live direction and verbal support themselves.”

But it’s far from the only sport incorporating this technology. Tennis – yes, that bastion of conservatism and tradition with its white clothing and its rules against screaming and yelling – is taking on interactive technology as a means of giving player feedback.

In late December 2013, Babolat announced the commercial launch of Babolat Play, unveiling the world's first connected racquet: the Babolat Play Pure Drive, with global distribution following in 2014. The racquet recorded in-game data including shot power and ball impact location (sweet spot) along with number of strokes (forehand, backhand, serve, smash), spin level, total and effective play time, endurance, technique, consistency, energy and rallies. At the completion of play, information could be transmitted through a Bluetooth connection with a smartphone or from a USB to a computer, where it was viewable on any type of device (including tablets).

Not to be outdone, Zepp Labs offered up a tennis sensor that could be moved from racquet to racquet, as well as on golf clubs and bats for baseball and softball. Sony has its own tennis sensor as well.

The technology to follow games and analyze shots is coming to facilities as well. The PlaySight Smart Tennis Court, for example, uses four automated cameras to capture every aspect of a game and provide real-time statistics, line calling, instant replays, complete debriefing and bio-mechanical analysis. Players and coaches can analyze every aspect of their game and track their progress without the need for wires, sensors or devices.

It’s not too difficult to imagine a world where referees, line judges and other officials, once so necessary to sports events, will become obsolete.

In an interview with ComputerWorld, Jason Fass, the CEO of Zepp Labs discussed a future for sports where sensors are everywhere: in balls, bats, footballs and in a player's clothing.

"We believe that every ball, bat, racquet, club, glove and helmet will be digitally connected," said Fass. "We are building a company platform to enable those experiences and capture all that data."

Zepp is ready to harness the growing market. In 2014, the Los Gatos, Calif.-based company, founded in 2012, announced that it had received $15 million in additional funding. That brings to $20 million the amount of money it received in 2013.

The technology research firm, Gartner, estimates that the market for wearable electronic devices, along with apps and services for fitness and personal health, was expected to rise to $5 billion by 2016.

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