Monday 27th May 2019

HomeCourt AI App Tracks Jump Shots From an iPhone

HomeCourt AI App Tracks Jump Shots From an iPhone

HomeCourt AI App Tracks Jump Shots From an iPhone
HomeCourt tracks jump shots automatically through AI. (Courtesy of HomeCourt)

An AI technology that has caught the attention of and received investment dollars from NBA A-listers like Steve Nash, Mark Cuban, Sam Hinkie, and Jeremy Lin was born in a Bay Area pickup game. David Lee’s wife and daughter had come by to watch him play—just as his jumper went cold.

“I could not make a shot in front of them,” Lee, a software engineering entrepreneur who had recently left his job at Apple, recalled with a laugh. “That made me mad.”

Lee began ruminating about tracking technology that would provide a simple solution to cataloging a player’s shooting. He created a company called Nex Team, assembling a group of engineers with experience at Apple, Facebook, and Google. Together, they built HomeCourt, a new AI and computer-vision shot-tracking app that uses an iPhone’s camera to automatically record makes and misses, and to track shot location on the court.

HomeCourt adds social tools and global leaderboards as well, but the app’s innovative technology is its ability to make a camera recognize not only the basket and ball, but the layout of the court. That enables spray charts of shots to be created. The app also clips replays of each shot, allowing the user to review them in slow motion.

“There’s some advanced math there, but basically when there are lines on the court, we look for patterns in the court lines that help us extract a court model,” said Lee, Nex Team’s CEO.

HomeCourt app example screens.
Example app screens. (Courtesy of HomeCourt)

A beta version debuted in February around an appearance at the M.I.T. Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and the app is now already used in more than 50 countries. NBA teams like the Boston Celtics, elite college programs like Duke, Stanford, and Florida, and high school and youth players have used HomeCourt. This democratization of the tech excites the team, not only for the variety of hoops at which users shoot—from pro arenas in the United States to outdoor courts in Iceland—but also for its ability to help players who don’t have access to refined coaching and training infrastructure.

“We’re taking technology that is used by the elite athlete, NBA players, and it’s literally the same product you would be using as a 12-year-old or 13-year-old,” said Alex Wu, HomeCourt’s VP of marketing and partnerships. “A lot of kids don’t have access to the best AAU teams or really state-of-the-art facilities or stuff like that. We’re not saying we’re going to catch these kids up immediately, but it certainly evens the playing field—not only in the United States but certainly internationally.”

Wu grew up in Palo Alto playing in a Sunday church hoops league with the Hawks’ Lin. Wu recounted conversations with Lin, who is passionate about bridging that gap to help young players in remote or poor areas.

“Are kids’ ceilings going to be a little bit higher,” Wu said, “or are they going to get there faster?”

Lee and several of his colleagues are second-time entrepreneurs. (Wu arrived via Facebook and Uber, among other stops.) Their first product, EditGrid, was an online spreadsheet they released two months before the launch of Google Sheets. Apple acquired EditGrid in 2008, and they went to work there for nearly a decade. Lee was the senior manager who led the creation of iWork for iCloud—Apple’s suite of online apps that includes a word processor, spreadsheet, and slideshow creation tool.

Lee said the core team of Apple engineers who led the creation of HomeCourt have tried infusing the app with “utility and joy,” two of the guiding principles that govern development at the Silicon Valley giant. The idea being both to provide a service and create a memory.

“Coming from Apple, those are the elements we always look for,” Lee said. “Those are the moments where we’re creating happiness and not just doing something that has utility and is useful—but brings joy.”

The Apple ethos doesn’t end there. HomeCourt’s expertise is in optimizing complex software on less sophisticated devices. The idea is to make everything as user-friendly as possible. Other tracking products typically require multiple cameras to triangulate location or use tracking sensors. This one only needs an iOS device: an iPhone 6s, a 2016 iPad Pro, or newer versions.

“There’s two things that we think a lot about: how to create the least amount of friction possible—that’s very Apple, I guess, but we really think about that a lot, almost to an extreme,” Wu said, before adding: “And then, two, how do we create magic, which means how do we make sure that happens in real time?”

For now, some of the limitations of the app include low light and the absence of a net. In the future, Lee said the technology will evolve to a point where the app can track multiple shooters or a game environment, but his team intentionally started simple.

“We believe that when we can get your phone to understand your action, understand your movement, understand your shots, we are making the phone a little bit more human,” Lee said.

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