The National Basketball Association, whose regular season begins Oct. 17, this week became the first U.S. sports league to launch a mobile game that uses augmented reality (AR), the technology that overlays digital images on a real background seen through a smartphone camera. NBA AR challenges players to shoot as many virtual baskets as possible in 30 seconds by flicking their iPhones in the direction of a digital backboard, The Drum reported.
After opening the app, fans select their favorite NBA team to see its logo and colors decorating the virtual basketball court, and to receive updates on upcoming games. NBA AR also lets players record and share their scores and see how they rank on a global leaderboard.
The app relies on Apple’s ARKit platform to detect a nearby flat surface that is transformed into a hardwood basketball court. The accelerometer chip inside the iPhone (models 6 and later) detects when a player quickly snaps the device to shoot a basket toward a cartoon hoop. NBA AR is available for free on the App Store.
The NBA is among the professional sports leagues that are contending with changing consumer tastes in entertainment, especially among younger generations who have grown up with digital entertainment. Pokemon Go set the stage to popularize augmented reality gaming last year, and Apple introduced its ARKit early this year to encourage more creative development of the technology. To date, most of the downloads of ARKit-only apps has been for games.
Gameplay is limited in the NBA AR game, but the league has plans to add additional experiences throughout the season, The Drum reported. The NBA isn’t alone among sports organizations in adding AR to apps. Major League Baseball said that by the beginning of next season, its app will let fans to point their Apple devices at live games to receive Statcast data in AR, Sport Techie reported.
The introduction of NBA AR also shows how the sports league is pivoting toward AR apps and away from virtual reality (VR). Melissa Brenner, NBA’s senior vice president of digital media, expressed reservations about VR while speaking at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in March. Clunky and expensive VR equipment, the lack of content people are willing to pay for and the social isolation of strapping on a headset make VR less appealing than AR. Still, the NBA is offering VR experiences for select games, but the widespread availability of smartphones makes AR much more accessible for a mass audience.
Virtual basket-shooting isn’t entirely original, either. Belgian game development company Triangle Factory introduced a similar app this month that’s powered by ARKit, SportTechie reported. The Cleveland Cavaliers launched an augmented reality virtual pop-a-shot mobile app game for the start of the playoffs last season. But the NBA’s work with ARKit shows new possibilities for AR in sports.