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Meet the New Coach
The 94Fifty® Bluetooth Sensor Basketball uses multiple motion sensors embedded inside the ball to provide real time measurements of a player's dribbling and shooting skills. The device sends immediate feedback on the player's performance to a mobile smartphone via Bluetooth, giving the player the opportunity to improve muscle memory skills efficiently and effectively.
Photo courtesy of 94Fifty/InfoMotion Sports Technologies
A look at some of the engineering feats that made a "digital coach"—the 94Fifty Smart Sensor Basketball—possible
It's a blustery, gray skied Tuesday afternoon in mid-November, hoops season has just begun, and Dave Calloway is power dribbling a basketball inside Manhattan's Metropolitan Pavilion at 18th and 6th Avenue. His head is up as he rhythmically pumps the ball on the hardwood, raising his voice just loud enough to be heard above the buzz of the crowd. But Calloway, Monmouth University's single season record holder for three-point field goal percentage, isn't looking for a teammate streaking past a defender on the way to the hoop. Instead, the man who played his last college basketball game in 1991—and followed that up with a 20-year career as a Division I coach at his alma mater—is breaking down a different strategy in his new role as director of global basketball sales for 94Fifty Sports Technologies— maximizing the benefits of muscle memory training with a Bluetooth-enabled, smart-sensor basketball.
The occasion? CES Unveiled, in the heart of New York City. Where Calloway stands, it's hard to tell if the gathering crowd is more excited about the product he's demonstrating, the much-anticipated International CES in Las Vegas, or the fast approaching holidays. But today, at The Consumer Electronics Association's annual sneak peek at some of the most innovative products soon to be on display at CES, Calloway, like a good coach, is seizing the moment as he demonstrates what you can do with the 94Fifty Smart Sensor Basketball.
"You can do any drill you want: shooting or ball handling," he says of the 94Fifty basketball, which looks exactly like any other basketball of regulation size and weight. "I'll just show you. When you dribble, it can count for you and it will measure your control, your speed, depending on what you want to do with it. The key is that the feedback is instant and accurate. Right now, I have it on 'power,' so it's measuring the power of my dribble. It knows the difference between a dribble and a bounce, so if I drop it, it's not counting. I start dribbling [thump, thump], it counts. I dribble harder [thump-thump-thump-thump-thump], the power goes up. You can also measure control. If you lose your dribble, the control [score] goes down."
The 94Fifty Smart Sensor Basketball that Calloway is demonstrating, also called the 94Fifty Bluetooth Basketball, was introduced last year by InfoMotion Sports Technologies (www.infomotionsports.com), a pioneering company co-founded by CEO Michael Crowley and vice president of engineering Kevin King. The product is part of an interactive system that employs nine motion sensors inside the ball to deliver real-time feedback on ball handling and shooting skills—including shot speed, backspin, and arc measurements—to an iPhone or iPod touch via Bluetooth Low Energy. The idea is to give players of any skill level the ability to improve important muscle memory skills more efficiently and effectively.
"You can also use it to measure your shooting," Calloway continues. "You shoot the ball and it gives you the feedback instantly when you want to measure your arc, your rotation, and your release time. If you're shooting it too high, you might be using too much shoulder. If you've got a side spin, maybe you've got your second hand in there. If the arc's too flat, you might not be getting your legs into it. Those types of things."
It's his eye for those types of things that makes Calloway, as a former college basketball coach, a key member of the InfoMotion Sports Technologies team. His knowledge of the mechanics of dribbling and shooting a basketball, ability to spot flaws in the execution of those motions, and input on how to correct them are valuable not only in demonstrating the product, but in in formulating the digital coaching feedback that's communicated wirelessly to users via their smartphones. The product comes with a coaching app for individual skills training, and a competition app that lets users compete head to head with up to five people.
"It also keeps track of your history, the win-loss record, for every game you want," he said. "There's also social media. You can do a particular drill—shooting, ball handling—and then afterwards, go on Twitter, and send it out. You can compete against someone in Connecticut or anywhere else while you're here in New York."
We asked Calloway who came up with the idea for the product, one that combines insightful training in fundamental basketball skills with a unique application of motion sensor technology and sophisticated pattern recognition algorithms. "I wish I did," he said. "I'm just a former college basketball player. Our CEO, Mike Crowley, and the vice president of engineering, Kevin King, came up with the idea."
In addition to measuring a shooter's backspin and arc of the shot, the 94Fifty Smart Sensor Basketball measures and reports a user's speed of release
Photo courtesy of 94Fifty/InfoMotion Sports Technologies
A little more than a month and a half later, we're heading to Las Vegas for the opening of the 2014 International CES, projected to bring 150,000 visitors to town to see the emerging technologies that everyone is talking about—3D printing, automotive electronics and connected cars, robotics, wearable technologies for health and fitness, the Internet of Things (IoT), and the Internet of Everything (IoE), for that matter. We have a hunch that InfoMotion Sports Technologies will be a big draw on the show floor because it's been named a CES Innovations 2014 Design and Engineering Awards Honoree for its first product, the 94Fifty Smart Sensor Basketball, in three different categories: Embedded Technologies, Health & Fitness, and Gaming Hardware & Accessories. And we want to make sure we have a chance to talk with Mike Crowley and Kevin King to find out more about the product and what makes it so unique—the inertial motion sensor arrays that are embedded so invisibly inside the ball, the engineering challenges associated with that achievement, and the algorithms that analyze and interpret all the data that's communicated wirelessly as feedback to the user.
A couple of things jump out at us when we see InfoMotion's booth for the first time: It's bigger than expected—with a 10-foot high hoop, it looks like you could play a game of half-court basketball—and alive with activity. A half dozen or so people are waiting in line to test their shot making skills when a brave visitor clangs one off the front rim, and then another. Amid shouts of encouragement and the occasional barb, the voice of the 94Fifty digital coach—"Get that arc up!"—rings out from a smartphone about ten feet away from the player. But we've got an appointment, so it's time to get down to business.
We meet up with Shannon Kalvig, public relations consultant for InfoMotion, and she introduces us to the company's co-founders, Mike Crowley, himself a former college basketball player at St. Joseph's College in Indiana, and Kevin King, a mechanical engineer who leads the development of InfoMotion's core technology. King, a Villanova graduate with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan, is an expert in applying MEMS inertial sensors to the measurement of motion in sports applications. Basketballs are flying on the makeshift court, the voice of the digital coach is booming with feedback, and it's not long before our questions about the basketball—including what was the unmet market need that InfoMotion identified and is striving to meet—are being answered.
"There was a clear need because of the shift in the way that, particularly, young kids learn," Crowley said. "They're clearly raised now on digital information, and if you can't give it to them, they're not interested. As we started talking to a lot of coaches, parents, and players, in all sports, we saw that participation in sports is way up, but [the numbers of people who are] quitting sports is way up, too. So the missing link is 'How do you learn in the way that you have to?' So we developed a product that fit that gap.
"The first person I went to was Kevin, at the University of Michigan, because he specialized in this particular field. It was a little different type of request; Kevin had never thought about putting this technology into a ball. But the origin of this product is the concept of measuring repetitive muscle memory so you can zero in on the quality of the muscle memory. And in some sports, like basketball, soccer, or core fitness, the unique requirement is that you've got to control an object while other people try to take it from you. It's sort of different from any other sport, and very complex. But from there, we started building prototypes and got it to market. It's been five years now."
It's clear that the 94Fifty Smart Sensor Basketball is a unique product that required an enormous amount of engineering to get it to the point where a consumer could use it reliably every day. We asked King and Crowley to zero in on what is truly unique about it and what makes it a breakthrough product.
"We looked at what we had to achieve from a measurement perspective," King said. "We had to make the technology seamless to the consumer; we had to make the ball equivalent to a standard basketball, and in order to do that, we had many innovations along the way. We're the first ball to ever embed the electronics; we've added Bluetooth; we've added wireless charging so you could wirelessly charge the battery. We produce the feedback in real time. The ball itself does all that processing. These are things that were revolutionary about the design, and development of the engineering that leads to the user experience that's never been provided before."
Real time feedback is important to the user experience, Crowley emphasized. If it doesn't come instantly, literally, within 100 milliseconds of the motion that's being measured, then the learning experience that people are seeking is lost, he said.
"So you have to turn the ball into the equivalent of a digital coach—something that is as elite as any coach you can find, and super affordable. You don't have to pay him $300 an hour; you pay $300 for the life of the ball. But to get that experience, it has to feel like it's instantaneous, almost like somebody's watching you and sensing you."
Players can compete head to head with people anywhere and post the results to social media
Photo courtesy of 94Fifty/InfoMotion Sports Technologies
The process of getting to that goal, Crowley said, required what he called "some really, really tough engineering" to shrink all of the technology down into something that's very tight, that can be secured inside the ball, and that doesn't wiggle around too much.
"You need to get the signals out so the motion sensors can be interpreted; the firmware inside the ball knows how to operate it; it turns on every single time; and it doesn't break, even after a million bounces," he said. "That's why there are three of those [CES Innovations Award Honoree nominations] up there on the counter because we're the only company in the entire CES that bridged the gap in video gaming, in sports and fitness, in embedded systems—all these things that bring a product like this together and make it simple and easy to use. From that point, it changes the way that people learn sports, and that's the revolutionary part of it; it gives you information that you never had access to before, because, as Kevin will tell you, the human eye is built to perceive, not count. This counts what it perceives."
In the Smart Sensor Basketball, InfoMotion has combined the inertial motion sensors with embedded pattern recognition algorithms to process the motion data that the sensors collect. That was the only way to reliably provide feedback in the 100-to-200-millisecond window, King said.
"The key to what we do is recognizing events," he explained. "How do you block out what you don't want to see and have the ball just recognize those key events? So the ball is able to basically filter through the raw motion data and detect the events that allow us to look at each individual dribble, look at the quality of that dribble, look at each individual shot, look at the quality of that shot. Being able to process through all the data in real time, and pull and recognize and pattern out the key events in real time, was the real challenge in developing those embedded algorithms."
King, who has worked in the field of inertial motion sensors for years, said that outside of the 94Fifty basketball, applications for the sensors are "amazingly broad." Why have they made it into the sport of basketball? King said that it's a combination of their miniature size, low power, and accuracy that has driven the inertial sensor market. "They are silicon machine, high mass-produced quantities that are capable of measuring these motion quantities with relatively high accuracy," he said.
As an honoree in three separate categories of the CES Innovations Design and Engineering Awards, the 94Fifty Smart Sensor Basketball impressed the judges on a number of fronts. Criteria used in judging for the awards included engineering qualities, based on the technical specs and materials; aesthetic and design qualities; and the product's intended use, function, and user value. What were the key features and benefits of the ball that King and Crowley highlighted in the award submissions?
Crowley said that the elegance of the design is in what people can't see because the ball is designed so that the technology isn't visible. "We don't want the consumer to know there's any technology; we don't want the consumer, or the user, to have to put something on their body. So the design of that is, make it invisible. Make it so that four bounces, it turns on every time. It goes to sleep by itself; it can talk to you. And when you start with that and get down to how fast it reports to you, and all the different things it can measure, and how we made it invisible, and the ball has the same performance as any other ball, that's the real story. It's not what you can see; it's everything that's inside the ball, and the connection between the ball and the phone."
King offered some insight as to why the ball was recognized in the gaming category. "We used our capability of the ball and then drove it through an app experience that allowed that younger player, and even older players, to experience basketball in an expanded way, to compete in a little bit different form, and to develop their talents in a new way. They feel like they're just progressing and working through a game experience, but they're really working with that digital coach. And that's why we were recognized in the gaming category."
If you've been following either the NCAA men's or women's college basketball tournaments, chances are good that your favorite team is using—or will soon be using—the digital coach. The 94Fifty Smart Sensor Basketball is the official smart basketball of the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
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