How the NBA is going to bring you closer to the court with connected tech

No matter the platform, the NBA wants to be there
The NBA dives into connected tech

For the past couple of years, the NBA has attempted to show more and more games in virtual reality, specifically with Gear VR and Daydream. Why? It knows that people are branching out to other platforms, and it wants to experiment.

That has never been as true or as broad as this NBA season, with the NBA soon launching a bunch of connected experiences that'll influence how you interact with the sport, whether that's while watching a game, playing around in augmented reality or even talking to Alexa.

Read this: The best ARKit apps and games

The NBA and Golden State Warriors invited me to check out some of these experiences during the big season opener. So which ones are big baller status and which ones could spend some time in the D League? Read on.

Augmented Reality

The NBA wants to bring you closer to the court with connected tech

Over the past couple of years, the NBA has seen a number of its teams - like the Warriors, Sacramento Kings, Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, LA Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies - fall under the ownership of tech luminaries and venture capitalists. Those tech-savvy owners, according to Fast Company, have helped the league build bridges with Silicon Valley and have inspired it to jump on technology trends quicker.

The league also puts on networking events during All-Star Weekend, so that it can meet and mingle with smaller companies. If it finds companies working on solutions to problems the NBA wants to try out, collaborations start. AR is its latest venture, and most likely an investment in the future.

The NBA's focus on augmented reality is really a flirtation with two of the biggest names in AR today: ARKit and Snapchat. The NBA saw how popular Snapchat's dancing hot dog was getting and figured it could do its own version. So it came up with an augmented foam finger that similarly mixes with the real world. When you tap him he'll animate in some way, either happy or sad which - and maybe inappropriately - makes his big finger all limp.

After The Warriors lost I thought I could pep up All-Star Stephen Curry in the post-game press conference was. Not much consolation for him, perhaps, but I enjoyed it. My foam finger was donned in Warriors gear because I was at the Warriors home stadium. At the other NBA stadiums, you can expect to get foam fingers also adorning the home team's colors.

The second big AR initiative is NBA AR, an ARKit app that is simple, terribly hard and addicting all at once. You get a virtual basketball half-court you can place anywhere, and then shoot some hoops. It's also the first AR app by a major American sports league, and the NBA plans to expand the app with more augmented reality experiences in the future.

Our entertainment lives are increasingly being fragmented, and that will happen more so with VR and AR. The NBA is basically fighting a mind share battle, and it wants you to be able to always be within touching distance of basketball.

It's not hard to see the NBA becoming the first sports league to release apps for AR smartglasses. While the NBA won't speak to the tech right now - largely because there are no real consumer-grade glasses out there - it did say it would like to offer a bespoke AR experience built for smartglasses.

Seeing how there's a number of small companies in the AR world, it's not hard to imagine the NBA looking into what could be possible. After all, Warriors small forward Andre Iguodala gave us maybe our best taste of what Magic Leap is like. So yeah, while flicking your phone to score baskets and placing an adorable AR mascot on people is fun now, it might not make the cut in the long run - but there are plenty of things that could.

NBA in your home

The NBA wants to bring you closer to the court with connected tech

Amazon Echo and Google Home are the two big names in smart home speakers, but the NBA is creating two different experiences for Alexa and Google Assistant. The NBA told Wareable that it finds most people just turn to Google Assistant when they need information.

So if someone wants to know a sports score or check out the latest news on something, they just ask Google. With Alexa, however, people are more likely to want specific apps that can dive deep into the information.

That's why the NBA's Alexa skill is more of a general purpose repository. You can download a skill for whatever teams you want, asking, "Hey Alexa, open the Warriors for me." You'll then be able to ask about news, the schedule, statistics and more. If you're on an Echo Show or Echo Dot you'll get some visuals alongside your information too. It all worked pretty well when I tried, and Alexa will even tell you where you can watch the latest game should it be on when you ask.

On the other hand, the Google Home experience is a trivia game in which Google Assistant will belt out about five questions for you to answer. At the end of the game, you'll get your score and be placed on leaderboards (I got three out of five - for shame). Starting out, the multiple-choice questions are actually pretty easy if you have a cursory knowledge of the NBA. The Google Home experience will launch this fall, while the Alexa experience is out now.

Virtual reality puts you in the game

Last year, the NBA, Oculus and 'm ss ng p eces' (yes, that's how it's spelled) won a sports Emmy for a VR documentary about the 2016 NBA Finals. This year, they teamed up again to create a new doc about the 2017 VR Finals. And whoa boy, is it good.

I got to watch the 8-minute doc on a Gear VR, and it was easily one of the best VR videos I've seen in quite a while. There's a lot of good behind-the-scenes footage, putting you right in the tunnel with the Golden State Warriors as they get ready for a game. But then the doc will whisk you away to the sideline, where you'll be standing next to an analyst who tells you what they think will happen, or you'll be next to a player's mom as she tells you her hopes.

It really does make you feel like you're there, and those people are telling you their private thoughts about the NBA Finals, not some thing where they're telling an interviewer hiding behind a camera. At the same time, you get some VR footage from the actual games. Being put in the action with a bunch of tall, strong and fast guys running and dunking and shooting is intense.

Let me put it this way: There was a roaring arena of about 20,000 people excited about the Warriors getting championship rings and I was clueless because I was totally enveloped in this VR experience.

You can watch the doc for free now if you've got an Oculus Rift or Gear VR. Speaking of watching games in VR, you'll be able to watch 27 games in full VR this year on the NextVR app if you've got the NBA League Pass subscription service. Seven of these are free previews, so if you're not sure about subscribing you can check them out. I wasn't able to try it out as the games officially start on 21 October.

In addition to all of that, you'll also be able to watch up to 13 games at a time in VR on one giant virtual TV. I'm not sure when exactly you'll ever be able to watch 13 games at a time, since there are typically about eight to ten games a day and they're usually split up between three time slots, but I guess you never know.

The NBA is putting out a wide net into connected technology, poking and probing to find new and interesting ways to connect with fans - some will work, some probably won't. But as we spend more time in VR, AR and intertwined with various bits of smart home tech, there's no arguing that sports bodies are going to need to keep up.

Lead image source: NBAE/Getty Images


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