Basketball season is under way. Time to sweep the hardwoods, lace up your sneakers, charge the ball, and fire up your smartphone.
That was my thought process when I started playing with 94Fifty, a $295 basketball made by a company called InfoMotion Sports. Even friends who saw the 94Fifty ball sitting on its inductive charger couldn’t help but crack jokes.
“Charging your basketball, are you?” my colleague Ina Fried said.
The indoor/outdoor ball looks and feels like a regular basketball. It meets regulation weight and size. But, inside, it’s filled with nine different sensors, including accelerometers and a gyroscope, as well as a Bluetooth chip.
This is so the ball can sense and send your data — mostly, your ball-handling skills and your shot arc — to a mobile app. The mobile app then gives you instant feedback, so you can tweak your mechanics as you work on your game.
InfoMotion says the ball is meant for regular consumers, and for coaches and teams, but after playing with this ball, I’m convinced that it’s something that might appeal more to the latter group.
94Fifty falls into a small but growing category of sports products that are leveraging the powers of technology to deliver better data. I’ve spoken to a company making basketballs that beep when your shot release is technically sound, and there’s another making a wristband and net sensor that track shot accuracy.
This tech goes beyond basketballs, too. There are now soccer balls with sensors; football helmets that are supposed to help detect concussions; and a digital golf glove that measures grip pressure.
A little bit about my relationship with basketball: I played for a couple years in college, though it was by no means an illustrious career. Still, I love the game. So, over the past week, I’ve taken the 94Fifty to a local gym a few times, and played with it for about an hour each session.
My first thought: Holy smokes, this is an expensive basketball. For $295 dollars you can buy … a lot of basketballs. When I was a kid, the appeal of basketball was that it was an inexpensive sport to take up.
My second reaction was disappointment that this high-tech ball doesn’t give you a broad snapshot of how you’re doing in a game of pickup or one-on-one. So you can’t just play for 20 or 30 minutes and then grab your smartphone and have the app tell you something useful. It’s very drills-focused. It also doesn’t track how many shots you’ve made.
But the ball does what the company says it will do. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of it, because I didn’t have other tracking mechanisms in place, nor did I have a top-tier coach with me to tell me if the app seemed legit.
However, I felt like 94Fifty was pretty accurate when it gauged my shot arc (which I sometimes exaggerated, for testing purposes) or my dribble speed.
The ball initially takes a few hours to fully charge, and should last for about eight hours of play. To get connected to the 94Fifty mobile app — which is only available for iOS, though an Android app is in the works — you have to activate Bluetooth on your iPhone and then bounce the ball four times.
Right now, the ball only registers that you’re shooting after you’ve received a chest pass. If you don’t have anyone to chest-pass to you, you have to spin the ball in the air to simulate a chest pass. This is fine when you’re shooting free throws, but can feel a little awkward when you’re coming off the move to fire up a 20-footer.
In the app, there are four sections devoted to skills: Workout, Head to Head, Skill Training, and Social Challenge. The other parts include your Dashboard and Ball Settings. You’re supposed to name the ball. I named mine “Coach K.”
The Workout and Skill Training parts were my preferred practice tools. In Workout, there are more than a dozen drills, ranging in difficulty from “Playground” to “College Star” to “Pro.” You can’t progress to the next level in the app without meeting the established goal. These were not exactly easy. One example: Attain 70 percent shot accuracy and an average shot speed of 0.75 seconds while shooting 15-footers.
Since the ball doesn’t track your shot accuracy, it’s up to you to manually enter in how many shots you’ve made — which means that you could, theoretically, cheat on that part. But if you’re still not releasing the ball quickly off the “pass,” you won’t make it to the next level.
Skills Training is similar to Workout, except it’s less about moving up to the Pros and more about focusing on individual skill sets you’d like to work on.
In Head to Head, you take turns practicing and tracking your skills with up to four other people on the court with you. The “Social Challenge” section of the app sounds a lot more interactive than it really is: You simply share your score to Twitter when you’ve completed a 94Fifty drill.
Overall, my 94Fifty experience was positive, and I liked some of the feedback I got from the app — like when it told me I had too much arc on my shot and needed to bring down my release point. The app also offers audio feedback.
But being tied to a mobile app also kind of bummed me out. Throughout my “training session,” I kept going over to the sideline to check the app and select a new skill set. I can’t remember ever having checked my phone or tablet this much during a sport before. In fact, the iPod was relatively new and the iPhone didn’t exist when I played on a team. (Now I feel old.)
This is why I can see the whole system being more beneficial to coaches and teams, who have staffers around who can help relay information while players practice mostly uninterrupted.
If you have a lot of extra cash lying around, and you love basketball as much as I do, you’ll have some fun with the 94Fifty ball. But you also don’t need to spend that much to get your game on.
Also: You still need to practice. High-tech sports equipment isn’t going to change that.