Countdown: NBA going techie?
The NBA is exploring technologies like the ones used in the film 'Avatar'
The league hopes to enhance statistical analysis and social networking
More topics: Carmelo Anthony's thoughts, NCAA picks, Michael Jordan
5 High-tech innovations that will change the NBA
Let me first apologize for not writing the Countdown last week. A bad bug did me in. More important, here are a number of ideas that will change the way you view basketball and other sports over the next decade.
"Avatar" technology. James Cameron's blockbuster was filmed with the help of motion-capture suits worn by actors. The facial expressions and movements of the actors were recorded and then converted digitally into animation. That is how the actress Zoe Saldana was transformed so convincingly as the character Neytiri, an animated blue alien 10 feet tall.
The NBA is hoping to apply similar technology to someday track every movement of its players during every game. "I'd like to have all of the information James Cameron was getting in 'Avatar,'" said Steve Hellmuth, the NBA's Executive Vice President of Operations and Technology.
Hellmuth isn't interested in capturing the facial expressions of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. At least, not yet. But he would love to be able to track and analyze every movement of every player during every game by attaching sensors to the uniforms and shoes. "We can track the players as blobs on the court -- where they're going and what they're doing," said Hellmuth. "So I'll be able to figure out the positions of the shoulders, the feet."
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban believes the technology can help improve players' fundamentals: "From shooting form to how they get over a pick," he said. "If we can do release-point comparisons on a shot, like they do with baseball pitchers, we may be able to improve our shooting."
Another obvious application for this new data would be for video games. "It could be used for simulations," Hellmuth said. "It could be used for coaching staffs, fans, mobile applications and a definitive statistical representation of the game for analysis."
In other words, the league won't begin to understand all the opportunities until it actually has the data in hand. "All kinds of things can flow out of player tracking, and I can't tell you what fans are really going to latch on to, but I'm certain they will latch on," Hellmuth said. "For starters, when Kobe scored his 81 points [against the Raptors in January 2006], we could have used player tracking to tell you who was guarding him.
"I'm really bullish on this. We need to pick the right system, the right technology, stand it up and then develop applications around it. We're on the road to it, and it's valid, no question.
"Eventually, we'll have face recognition, and we'll keep layering technology to improve it. We may get it to where 'Avatar' is today."
Universal stats. Tracking the players' every movement could open up a new world of statistics. "We could use it to analyze 'contested shots,' which is one of the most important stats," Hellmuth said. "The key to that stat is the shooting percentage of the player who is being contested. If Andrei Kirilenko is contesting the shots and the opponent is shooting 20 percent, then you can say he is the best defender; but if someone else is contesting and the opponents are shooting 48 percent, then he's not being effective."
The problem with these kinds of stats is that basketball is a subjective sport. Just as referees can have trouble judging the difference between a block or a charge, so, too, do coaches argue over how to define the gray areas of a basketball game. "All coaches have a different definition of the contested shot," he said.
Without the benefit of player tracking, Hellmuth attempted to keep track of contested shots four years ago. "It was a great stat, but the coaches found it of limited interest," he said. "The coaches won't agree on these stats or agree to share them. I need a consensus opinion of what a deflected ball is, what a contested shot is, what constitutes changing a player's shot. These are all things the coaches keep track of. I have to figure out how to surface this stuff."
Here's how this issue applies to fans. The basketball world is filled with all kinds of intriguing statistical minutiae to which you hear stat-crunchers like Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Rockets GM Daryl Morey referring. You know this information is out there, and sometimes you can find it online, other times you can't. And even when you can find these numbers, they raise more questions about their credibility, their relevance and what they really mean.
Different teams keep track of these numbers in different ways. The Rockets, for example, hire analysts to log every game in order to create their own database of statistical information.
Hellmuth appreciates the value the NBA could create by performing that type of analysis in a universal way that would be available to anyone who visited the NBA's web site. First he would need to develop a universal definition for each stat that would make it credible, so that coaches and teams would agree with his interpretation of a "contested shot" and, therefore, give credence to the NBA's numbers. Then he would need to hire a lot of people to compile the numbers by watching every moment of every game and compiling the data.
"I would have to spend money in the middle on loggers to do it," he said. "It's something I have to do, which is assess the value of doing it centrally."
Cuban questions whether motion capture can be used to compile statistics, but he is entirely behind the idea of a database maintained by the league. "This is big," said Cuban. "Right now, every stat-oriented team spends too much money charting games. If the league would capture straight-forward things like deflections, location of fouls, reason for a foul [and if it's inside the circle], the entire league will be smarter and at a lower cost to the teams."
"I would have to spend money in the middle on loggers to do it," Hellmuth said. "It's something I have to do, which is assess the value of doing it centrally."
Someday fans may have access to all of the ultimate insider's information that teams now study in secret. "You'd need to explain it to fans and bake it into their experience so fans can enjoy the game," Hellmuth said. "The one I love is pitch-speed in baseball, because that's something everybody understands when you watch a pitcher: If this guy is a fastball guy and he dips under 90 mph, that means bad things can happen and he's getting tired. Those are not the kinds of hard-and-true facts that are represented in the box score."
3-D Video. "Scoreboards aren't going to have 3-D anytime soon," Hellmuth said. "[It's] not going to happen because glasses are required to watch 3-D. You can't put on glasses and watch the game too, it just doesn't work."
Hellmuth does, however, envision practical uses for 3-D video away from the arena floor. "What I can see is 3-D expansion to venues in the environs of the arena, or a convention-center space or meeting space across the way for teams that are sold-out, like the Lakers or Raptors or Mavericks," he said.
Instead of attending the game in person, you would watch it on 3-D in a club. "You would watch it in 3-D from a single camera, like you were sitting in a courtside seat," Hellmuth said. "You can replicate the courtside experience."
On top of the 3-D screen would be a second screen showing the televised version of the game with the variety of cameras and statistical information. "So you're at a club or some kind of building or space associated with the team," Hellmuth said, "and you've got the Jack Nicholson seat in 3-D and you're wearing your glasses sitting [virtually] courtside with your friends. And above that 3-D screen, almost like the scoreboard above the court in the arena, you have the game as it's being broadcast, with all of your replays and stats and announcements, and that 'scoreboard' is living inside your 3-D shot. We're going to try to pull this off and demonstrate it during the playoffs this year."
Hellmuth oversaw the successful 3-D broadcast of Game 2 of the 2007 NBA Finals that was shown at QuickenLoans Arena in Cleveland to 14,000 fans. Eventually he hopes to transport this technology to other countries. He says the league has been working with HP on rear-screen sets that use multiple projectors to blend images while enabling viewers to sit nearby the screen.
"We're thinking of 3-D in particular for China and other strong NBA fan bases like Turkey and Greece and Mexico, in order to bring the NBA experience to those fans," Hellmuth said. "It really is a transforming experience to have a seat at an NBA game near courtside. We can put them in that seat 3-D. If you watch in high-definition when LeBron is accelerating up court and making people look silly, he doesn't look as fast as he really is. But if you see him in person or in 3-D, you can see how explosive he really is, how he goes zero-to-60 as fast as anybody I've ever seen. And the same goes with NFL players. It's really remarkable."
Cuban anticipates a growth in 3-D among private viewers. "It will be seen far more often in homes for the NBA," he said. "Expect to see a bunch of games broadcast this coming season."
The death of the dry-erase board. Coaches still diagram plays in the huddle on a white board with an erasable marker. But the technology exists for them to use live video on the bench during games.
"This is a matter for the competition committee," Hellmuth said. "In other sports, as well, they don't allow video on the sideline. In the NFL, [players and coaches] have to look at the Polaroids. We have looked at it and discussed it, and it's something that needs to be discussed by the competition committee. But obviously this is something better than the dry-erase board. I use one of those when I coach my kids in grade school."
So why not institute sideline video for coaching staffs? "We were concerned it might set off an arms war courtside, so that the team with the best video wins, and for the wealthier teams that relay video courtside it gives them the advantage," Hellmuth said.
Every team already makes use of video in its locker rooms at halftime and before and after games. They log into a browser-based application maintained online by the NBA that provides video replays of any kind of play, as logged by NBA analysts. "A coach can log in and say, 'Give me all of Dirk [Nowitzki]'s shots with two minutes or less in the game when the [difference in] score is five or fewer points,'" Hellmuth said. "You can enter that and get every play."
The league has made the database available to broadcasters like HBO (which scoured it for highlights used in its recent documentary about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird) and sponsors like Nike, which was seeking highlights for 10 of its athletes. EA Sports uses it to model players for its video games.
A similar database is used to log every call made by referees to discern and correct habitual weaknesses in judgment (though easier said than done).
Live video on the sideline could be an addictive tool for coaches who would be trying to show a player proof that he wasn't blocking out or failing to rotate with urgency. But Cuban doubts its practical application in game situations.
"When I bought the Mavs [in 2000], we had still cameras installed at the top of the arena so our coaches could look at defenses and our spacing at any time," he said. "They didn't really use them because there really isn't enough time. We already use up all of halftime [studying] video cuts, but having better in-game capture of stats would be a bigger help. I think teams would even be willing to pay for an additional stat person at games."
Interactive media. All types of possibilities exist for cell phones to turn into interactive handheld televisions, in addition to all of their other uses. But Hellmuth, who believes the huge high-def screens in arenas are more than capable to handling such communal tasks, sees the league taking greater advantage of social networking through phones.
"I don't believe that pushing highlights to fans with video and stats on their phones is what it's all about," he said. "The idea is to push a message along the lines of, 'Who do you think the top scorer for the Knicks will be in the second quarter?' It's easy social gaming. Ten people in your section picked David Lee, and if you win you're go to win this redeemable coupon. Something like that where fans can interact on mobile device at the game. Connecting audiences via social networking and mobile apps is where this thing is going. All the numbers seem to say that.
Hellmuth said the NBA is currently working on enhancing its social networking, but they have yet to develop applications that link fans to arenas in the manner the league has hoped for.
While Cuban sees the value for fans in those networking apps, he doesn't think they necessarily work to the NBA's advantage. "We aren't going to push in-game social networking," he said. "Anything that has a fan at the game looking at a screen of any size in their hand means they can't clap and aren't participating in the game. I strongly believe that participation is of far greater value to the entertainment quotient than any handheld application."
He is, however, investing in what he calls "big-screen HDTV real estate" in the home.
"Via interactive TV, you won't need anything more than your remote control and we will be able to connect Mavs fans, integrate e-commerce of all kinds, and of course offer stats," Cuban said. "While multi-tasking is easy and popular, it really doesn't make sense to require a Mavs fan watching a game to make sure they have a phone or PC available to order tickets or merchandise while they are watching the game. I would rather program the blue button on the remote and create 'Blue Button Specials.' Press it and you can get deals on tickets or merchandise during a game. Or press the green button and get a chance to participate in competitions as simple as pick who gets fouled next, or will he hit the free throw while the player is on the line. I think interactive TV still has a long way to go, but we want to get ahead of the curve and it will have a far greater impact on the business of sports than people expect."
NBA Truth & Rumors