This time of year, the biggest news in basketball is which multimillionaire baller is moving to what city for how big a pile of cash. But the real money may not be in the star players, but in using technology, specifically the Internet of Things (IoT), to improve the games of millions of young players and aging weekend warriors. And how well that technology works provides a useful yardstick for measuring the progress of the IoT.
As a confirmed member of that second group, I've long been interested in finding technology that could give me an edge in my weekly sessions of flinging three-pointers from the corner. So far, I've come across a trio of approaches to doing just that, and together they collectively illustrate the potential—and the current reality—of the Internet of Things' ability to really change our lives.
Since they teach aspiring journalists that "three of anything is a trend," let's look at all three of the devices, in order of their appearance, to see if there's any useful takeaways.
Balls, nets, and wrists
First, there was the 94Fifty Smart Sensor Basketball from InfoMotion Sports Technologies. When I tested it at last year's CES in January, it cost a pricey $295, but it's now down to under $200 (still a lot for a basketball). But the thing cleverly uses internal sensors to track everything from shot arc to backspin to the force of your dribble—then uses Bluetooth to send the info to an app on your iOS or Android smartphone. It instantly detected my shot's painful lack of proper backspin.
Late last year came the $149 ShotTracker, which combines a wearable wristband with a sensor that goes on the net to track when you take a shot and whether or not it went in the basket—again sending the info to a smartphone app using Bluetooth. (94Fifty now makes the $19.95 SmartNet that works with the Smart Sendor basketball to do a similar job.)
And today, Onyx Motion is launching an Indiegogo campaign to fund development of Swish, "the world's first digital basketball coaching app for smartwatches." Assuming the smartwatch is rugged enough for use on the court (I wouldn't suggest using one of those $17,000 Apple Watches, for example), it would seem that leveraging the sensors in a smartwatch would be a good fit for basketball. A lot easier than climbing up a ladder to affix a sensor to the net—and then climbing back up to remove it when you're done training, for example.
Data is only the beginning
But just as in many IoT applications, capturing the data is the easy part. The real value comes in using that data to change the way you work and the results you get. And all three of these companies are working to do just that: ShotTracker is working with Klay Thompson of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, while Onyx Motion has partnered with Ben Gordon, recently waived by the Orlando Magic. 94Fifty, meanwhile, compares your results against goals "tested with tens of thousands of players across the globe," according to a company video.
I'm excited by the possibilities here, but I'm not yet convinced that the analysis these devices provide will be a difference maker for most players. The key to getting better at basketball is practice. It's not all that hard to tell whether your shots are going in or not, for example, while truly analyzing your shooting form is still beyond the capabilities of any of these devices.
Putting in the time and repetitions, not instructions from an app—even if the advice is smarter than I suspect—is what will really improve your shot. Heck, if the devices and apps encourage players to practice more, that's a big win right there.
From data to action?
That, ultimately, is the biggest challenge for almost all IoT applications. It's relatively easy to collect data, but much harder to figure out what data really matters and to present it in such a way that can help users reach their desired goals—whether that's raising your hoop shooting percentage or making your network run more efficiently.
And that doesn't even address the most difficult challenge - actually changing your behavior based on the data in order to reach those goals. The IoT may give us more data, but it's up to us to use it wisely and well.