NBA

Google Glass hits the basketball court

March 26, 2014: 4:39 PM ET

The San Francisco tech startup CrowdOptic is working with several NBA teams to use eye-level footage from people on the court to take the game to a new level.

By Elise Craig

The Indiana Pacers playing the Miami Heat in December 2013.

The Indiana Pacers playing the Miami Heat in December 2013.

FORTUNE -- Tonight when Roy Hibbert and the Indiana Pacers take on their biggest rivals, LeBron James and the Miami Heat, fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse will get a whole new view of the action -- from shots taken by Google Glass cams around the arena.

The Pacers have partnered with San Francisco-based CrowdOptic, a startup focused on enhancing the experience for spectators at live events, to pull footage from devices worn by people like P.A. announcer Michael Grady, who sits at center court right, where players come in and out of the game; team mascot Boomer; the team DJ; ball boys; members of the Pacemates dance team; select fans; and even the dog trainer that will throw out Frisbees during the half-time show. When Pacers staff climb up to the catwalk in the rafters of the stadium to throw down prizes via parachute, they too will give spectators a birds-eye view.

As TVs get bigger, thinner, and more technologically advanced, sports teams need to find new ways to enhance the live experience -- and make sure fans don't skip the arena for better views from their couches. For owners like the Pacers' Herb Simon, it's more important than ever; a year ago the team invested in a massive new 50-ft. by 21-ft. scoreboard, so large it nearly reaches from free throw line to free throw line.

"Herb Simon urged us from the get-go to be on the cutting edge of technology," Pacers Sports & Entertainment COO Rick Fuson says. "We had seen Google Glass in operation in a very quick use in Sacramento. We got ahold of them right away."

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In January, the Sacramento Kings were the first NBA team to adopt the technology, even outfitting Kings players with the devices as they warmed up before a home game against the Pacers. Though Indiana plans to use CrowdOptic's technology through the playoffs, it's highly unlikely that players will wear them. With the Pacers leading the Eastern Conference, the team doesn't want to take any chances -- but it has let teammates George Hill, C.J. Watson, Solomon Hill, and Lavoy Allen play around with the tech during pick-up games.

The team's standings also make the partnership a huge get for CrowdOptic, which had initially worked with Stanford's basketball and football teams, as well as the Sonoma Raceway. While the Kings have been quick to implement new technology -- from NFC to in-seat wireless charging, the digital currency Bitcoin and drone-cams from 3D Robotics -- the team is ranked third from the bottom in the Western Conference. "The Kings are hugely tech savvy," says CrowdOptic CEO Jon Fisher. "That's to be expected. But the Kings aren't in contention. It's a very different thing when the Pacers adopt the technology."

Left to right: Indiana Pacers players C.J. Watson, George Hill, and Lavoy Allen test Google Glass in practice.

Left to right: Indiana Pacers players C.J. Watson, George Hill, and Lavoy Allen test Google Glass in practice.

Tonight, 11 pairs of Google Glass will be in play, each outfitted with CrowdOptic software. The company's algorithm weeds out inferior views by frame rate and feeds the best footage to a launch platform in the AV room. From there, teams can pick the best shots to send to the Jumbotron -- or just let CrowdOptic's technology figure it out. The footage can also be used by the local affiliates broadcasting the game.

CrowdOptic's solution lets teams broadcast different feeds from around the arena, but can also let Glass wearers pick up "inherited views" -- video feeds from team employees wearing Glass courtside. A spectator wearing Glass up near the rafters could look at that person on the floor and see what they see. "You can be in the luxury box or the nosebleeds and see a view that represents best view of the action, because it's all coming from courtside," Fisher says. Going forward, Pacers envision a time where fans can download a dedicated app while at a game that will allow them to pick their own views -- regardless of what they're showing on the scoreboard.

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Last year, the team added free Wi-Fi to make sure they had enough bandwidth to handle video. As more and more consumers start to adopt wearables, Fisher believes that all arenas will have to upgrade their Wi-Fi. "It's not just texting and trading images, it's actually hardcore video," he says. "To do that for 1,000 Glasses, there's no stadium in the world that can handle that kind of Wi-Fi traffic."

CrowdOptic is selling yearly licenses for its system, charging $25,000 per team per year, and expects to announce partnerships with another half-dozen NBA teams before the end of the season.

Originally, Fisher founded CrowdOptic thinking that their form factor would be cell phones. The company would create dedicated apps for events, then figure out where fans were focusing -- what parts of, say, a tennis match did they focus on? What ads did they see? The company's work gave it a way to enhance the crowd experience and provide useful data that could help inform ad and sponsorship pricing -- imagine pricing per view -- as well as what parts of the action a crowd wanted to see at a given time. Since its apps could tell where the majority of attention was focused, security would be able to detect an interruption in real time, directing their attention to certain parts of the stadium to check for an event like a fistfight, for example.

But since the company needed to create new apps for every event, it ended up with a lot of non-repeatable use cases. When Google announced Glass, it was pretty clear that the device was a far better fit than a smartphone. "We really have moved on," Fisher says. "We think this company was born for Glass."

So far, its first adopters are pretty happy. The Kings are continuing to experiment with the technology and plan to use it next season. "We are able to provide fans with a unique point of view never before seen at a U.S. pro sports event," Kings president Chris Granger says. "From Rudy Gay dunking to our mascot Slamson roller-blading across the court, it enhances the fans experience in a way that was unfathomable just a few years ago."

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