LOS ANGELES — Steve Ballmer has launched plenty of products in high-stakes situations, but this takes it to a new level. His NBA team, the L.A. Clippers, is rolling out a new augmented reality viewing experience for basketball fans on opening night for the 2018-19 NBA season at Staples Center.
The new experience, Clippers CourtVision, uses computer vision, artificial intelligence and augmented reality to analyze the action on the court and translate it into on-screen annotations and animations, displayed on screen as the game unfolds. Viewers can see the probability that a player will make a shot, for example, or watch as the play is diagrammed in real time on the basketball court.
Ballmer and the company that developed the technology, Second Spectrum, believe it could be the first step toward a radically different viewing experience for professional sports in the future. Ballmer is an investor in Second Spectrum, and has championed the technology among his fellow NBA owners.
But the former Microsoft CEO has a lot more on his mind than technology tonight.
“The real product we’re launching is the 2018-2019 L.A. Clippers,” Ballmer told GeekWire this afternoon, after stopping to talk in the cavernous hallways beneath the stands at Staples Center. “And we’re launching CourtVision. It’s an exciting day. But it’s a tough week in some ways.”
Ballmer was a longtime friend and colleague of Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder and Portland Trail Blazers owner who passed away earlier this week. They both shared a passion for technology and business, but “basketball was also a key part of our bond,” he said.
“Paul’s really the guy who encouraged me to buy a team,” Ballmer said. “So I guess it’s got some extra meaning for me.”
Allen no doubt would have been watching the CourtVision launch closely.
The technology was developed by Second Spectrum, a 5-year-old startup led by artificial intelligence experts that became the “official optical tracking provider” of the NBA in 2016. The company’s software allows computers to watch live sports and track player/ball movement at a granular level. It then applies machine learning and AI to overlay a live NBA stream with data and graphics.
“We think everyone will watch sports this way,” said Second Spectrum CEO Rajiv Maheswaran in a preview of the experience for reporters. “There will be a day when you look back and say, I can’t imagine we all used to watch the same thing at the same time. That seems silly.”
In “Coach Mode,” fans can watch plays drawn out on the screen as they develop. In “Player Mode,” they can see real-time advanced statistics, such as the probability of player making a given shot. In “Mascot Mode,” the system generates fun animations when a big dunk or 3-pointer happens.
The new viewing experience is available starting today to FOX Sports Prime Ticket subscribers in the Los Angeles area via the FOX Sports app.
At launch, the augmented reality experience happens on a two-minute delay to complete the computer processing, which compares to a delay of about 30 seconds in the traditional TV broadcast. Ultimately, Second Spectrum plans to narrow that gap to single-digits, Maheswaran said.
The Clippers are also beta testing a separate CourtVision app that lets fans switch between seven camera angles throughout the arena and pick different audio feeds, such as the broadcast commentary or in-arena sound. In addition, the new platform provides a way to watch condensed game recaps and highlights, and view computer-generated video stories.
This is something Ballmer has been thinking about since he bought the Clippers for $2 billion in 2014, a record price at the time. He talked about the idea the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit in 2016.
Clippers CourtVision is part of a new trend to enhance the live sports viewing experience. This is not a totally new idea — an age-old example is the virtual yellow line indicating the first-down during a football broadcast. But technology has improved over the years and more fans are watching sports on their smartphones or laptops, making it easier to add new interactive or overlay elements to a traditional broadcast. Last year, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said that live sports should look more like video games.
Amazon is doing something similar with its Thursday Night Football live streams, using Twitch to add widgets that show standings and statistics, along with ways to make projections and compete against other viewers.
Augmented reality is also being used for other sports-related innovations. At Apple’s big press event last month, the tech giant showed off HomeCourt, a new iPhone app that uses AR to track basketball shots and measure kinematics, trajectory, release times, and number of shots made. HomeCourt is backed by investors such as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Atlanta Hawks point guard Jeremy Lin, and Philadelphia 76ers GM Sam Hinkie.
Magic Leap has announced its own partnership with the NBA, but it requires specialized headgear.
Last year, MLB rolled out a feature for its At Bat app that lets fans point their device at live action and see stats above the actual players.
But Clippers CourtVision is one of the more advanced and ambitious uses of augmented reality in the sports world. There is no doubt that the technology is cool and innovative; whether fans prefer to watch live sports with the added information and data remains to be seen.
Speaking with reporters Wednesday night before the Clippers took on the Denver Nuggets, Ballmer made it clear that the first version of the technology is just the start.
“I think we have something exciting, something that people can really use, something that would be much appreciated, and something where we already see the prospect of enhancement and change that will be super valuable,” he said. “I’m super excited about what we’ve got, and I’m also super excited about what’s coming.”
Editor’s note: GeekWire is working with Steve Ballmer and his USAFacts initiative on a project to be announced later this year.