Shoot Smarter: One of the Biggest Technological Innovations Basketball has Ever Seen

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Basketball hasn’t seen much technological innovation in recent decades. Aside from balls featuring sweat-wicking material and footwear incorporating the latest technology, there have been few upgrades to the game.

But as young athletes grow increasingly attached to their smart phones and social media feeds, the pressure grows to find new ways to inject more fun into the sport.

According to a recent study by The Aspen Institute Project Play, nine out of 10 children say “fun” is the main reason they participate in sports, and increasing youth participation in sports boasts big benefits: Student athletes are four times more likely to attend college, have an 11 percent higher graduation rate than non-athletes, and are 50 percent less absent than non-athletes.

Wilson is taking the opportunity to add more fun to the game and create a new way to connect with young athletes with the launch of Wilson X. Wilson X is a smart basketball that tracks each make and miss using an internal sensor that analyzes player shooting habits over time.

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Image: Andy Hurr / Design: Kevin Luyster

The ball

By appearance, the Wilson X doesn’t give away any secrets. In fact, it looks and feels exactly like a regular basketball: same burnt orange color, same dimpled leather, and the same official size.

The key difference is an embedded sensor that weighs less than 10 grams and is about the size of an AAA battery. The sensor utilizes wireless Bluetooth technology to connect to the Wilson X app in a player’s smartphone and offers real-time, accurate feedback. When activated and used on any regulation 10-foot hoop with a net, the ball tracks each shot (2-pointers, 3-pointers, and free throws), records a player’s makes and misses, and analyzes strengths and weaknesses. The Bluetooth sensor represents the first major innovation to a basketball in almost 10 years.

“You only get better when you’re putting shots up,” says engineer Bob Thurman, who heads the innovation department at Wilson Labs in Chicago. “That’s what this basketball encourages.”

The Wilson X can be used indoors or outdoors, and it never needs charging. Because the sensor only wakes up when the ball is paired with the app and engaged in the shooting motion, Thurman says the battery lasts for more than 100,000 shots. That’s equivalent to 300 shot attempts every day for a year. If, in fact, you do kill the battery, Wilson will replace the ball. “We designed it for an avid basketball player, so if someone shoots 100,000 shots in a year, they will be our personal hero,” says Kristina Peterson-Lohman, Corporate Communications and PR Director for Wilson.

The ball comes in official (29.5-inch) and 28.5-inch sizes, and while it can certainly be used for normal play or practice, the real advantage comes when pairing it with the app.

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Image Design: Kevin Luyster

 

The app

The Wilson X app, a free download in Apple’s App Store and Android’s Google Play, is programmed with four game modes that breathe new life into the solitary experience of practicing jumpers. Still, coaches, parents, and even some players might question whether the world of youth sports is really in need of a $200 “connected” basketball. But Thurman, a former youth basketball player who has been developing sport products at Wilson for more than 20 years, believes the market has changed.

Across the board, fewer young people are playing sports, and the ones who are playing aren’t hitting the court (or field, or track) as often. Purists can shake their heads, but facts are facts. Today’s kids need more incentive to suit up and work on their skills.

“[Teenage] basketball enthusiasts love playing video games, and they love sharing with their friends on social media,” Thurman explains.

“Our theory is that if we can bring gaming mechanics into the sports environment and reach the digitally connected culture, more kids will take to the court—and stay out there,” he says.

That’s why the Wilson X is paired with an app. The app not only eliminates the need for a cord or some other external device that attaches to the hoop or wrist, but it also takes advantage of the device that many players are already using non-stop—cell phones. The app tracks made shots against shot attempts and even provides real-life audio scenarios like crowd noise and timer countdowns that force the shooter to test his or her skills under pressure.

The pressure component is key, Thurman says, because users’ “Game Time” mode shots are consistently less successful than when they play in “Training Mode.” This kind of analysis can help players pinpoint what they need to work on and help them identify where on the court they shoot most effectively and consistently.

Upon logging in, users swipe through a sharp red-and-black aesthetic, where they can choose how they want to play. In each mode, optional voiceovers provide analysis, give props for nice shots, and offer advice after misses. The app is geared to be “audio immersive,” Thurman says, because players can’t shoot and look at their phone simultaneously. Stats can be shared via Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, which adds a social element to the experience.

Here’s a breakdown of the Wilson X’s features:

  • “Free Range” mode tracks shooting accuracy from anywhere on the court, within or beyond the three-point line.
  • “Free Throw” puts the player on the charity stripe, where he or she can work on form. This mode tracks all makes, misses, and lifetime attempts.
  • For the players looking to tap into their clutch genes, “Buzzer Beater” is a game that sets a timer to each shot. If you make a shot, more time is added to the clock, which means more opportunity to showcase your skills.
  • In “Game Time,” players are placed in real game situations. From providing points on the board and minutes on the clock, to untimely foul calls and crowd noise distractions, this feature aims to simulate an actual game, even when the player is in his or her backyard.

 

Image Design: Nicole Wageck
Image Design: Nicole Wageck

The experience

Development on the Wilson X started in 2012, but it wasn’t until this past summer that the ball was put to 13 weeks of field testing. The ball’s target market—school-aged boys and girls—got their hands on the Wilson X at various facilities in the Chicago area, including NBA champion Dwyane Wade’s basketball camp. Overall, 90 kids used the ball and provided feedback.

Reactions were positive, Thurman says. “We kept hearing, ‘I didn’t even know this was possible.’”

It’s definitely possible, thanks in part to SportsIQ, a technology and analytics company based in Helsinki, Finland, that worked with the Wilson X team to develop the sensor. “They had clever techniques that used machine learning and artificial intelligence to teach the sensor patterns of acceleration,” Thurman says. The team essentially created a data map for the sensor, plotting points (or test shots) from all over the court. This way, whether the ball hits the rim, the backboard, or swishes through the net, the sensor knows where the ball is in space. SportsIQ created a model that is 97 percent predictive or accurate of the shot outcome.

The Wilson X has a bunch of high-tech features, but it’s definitely not made of magic. “It’s not going to shoot itself for you,” Thurman laughs. Players who want to improve their shots will have to shoot. For athletes who mean business, that might translate to hundreds of shots per practice session.

Every serious shooter is driven by a personal goal. For the dedicated player practicing in the driveway, at the park, or in the gym after hours, the Wilson X can help you achieve it.