A Basketball coach, literally

Tested: 94Fifty Basketball

Tech : Apps By Photo by Henry Phillips
EDITOR’S NOTE, 1/21/14: According to Dave Krupinski, a PR agent representing 94Fifty, the ball no longer requires a chest pass between each shot.

Today’s game of basketball little resembles its original incarnation. Dr. James Naismith, the game’s creator, played with a soccer ball; players weren’t required to dribble. For a basket, he used a peach bucket, so that someone had to climb up and manually retrieve the ball after every score. It wasn’t until the 1950s that dribbling became a part of the game, and coach Tony Hinkle (memorialized by Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse) introduced an orange ball. This year, the basketball gets a new update in the form of the 94Fifty Smart Sensor Basketball($295), a Bluetooth-enabled ball that pairs with your mobile device to track shot speed, dribble force, control, spin, and acceleration. Posted to Kickstarter on March 5 of 2013, it crushed its $100,000 goal in a little over a month.

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On a misty November morning, we took the 94Fifty basketball to the Stuyvesant Town courts for a test run. It had been charging all night on the included induction pad, which supposes to revitalize its 8-hour battery life. It looked and felt like a real ball: official size and weight, grippy composite cover. Only the words “Smart Sensor Basketball” and the Bluetooth pictogram next to the pump hole gave an indication that it was anything other than what we had used back on our middle school team.

When we got to the court and turned on our iPhone’s Bluetooth, the app asked us to bounce the ball four times. We complied. On the fourth bounce, the app seamlessly paired with the ball. It asked us to create a profile — K.B. Gould, 5’7″ — and name the ball — Wilson, of course. Then it brought us to the Dashboard.

From the intuitive Dashboard, we accessed a side menu that let us choose one of four modes: Workout, which tested our ball handling and shooting, Head to Head, which launched a challenge between us and up to four other players in real time, Skill Training, which allowed us to work on consecutive dribbles, dribble power, shot speed, shot arc, or shot backspin, or Social Challenge, which used Twitter to share our results and talk trash with other 94Fifty owners.

We tested all the options. The ball knew that we shot at 38 degrees (too flat), and its black magic (inertial motion sensors) recognized the 143 rotations per minute of our jumpers (right on the money). During a workout, the app encouraged us by shouting “Pick it up” through our iPhone’s speakers, and after finishing up a backspin drill, it offered personalized advice: “Low. Backspin softens your shot and creates shooters’ rolls and increases accuracy. Your backspin is low and indicates that you do not shoot with your wrists.” For novice players, or even advanced players looking to gain an edge, this is the kind of information that helps take games to the next level.

After two hours of playing time, we checked the battery life: 75%. If that number holds until the battery dies, the 94Fifty lives up to its promise of eight hours on a full charge.

While we see the utility for aspiring athletes, we’re not sure the ball makes sense for the weekend warrior. For instance, while participating in Skill Training, the ball requires a chest pass between each shot — meaning that, for solo players, the ball has limited functionality. Additionally, it’s difficult to simultaneously manage the app while shooting: again, not a problem if you have a partner, but for solo players, it seems silly to put down and pick up your phone between each each 30 second drill.

Overall though, the 94Fifty’s combination of basketball and technology represents a welcome shift in sporting from brawn to brains. What’s next? Bluetooth-enabled soccer balls? Tennis racquets that measure head speed? Expect other sports to follow suit.

METHODOLOGY: We tested all of the 94Fifty’s functionalities over a two-hour period on the Stuyvesant Town courts in Manhattan.