When adidas first showed off their Smart Ball concept back in May of 2013, it seemed as though a production version was some ways off. At that adidas event, press on hand were given a very short demo that involved a small patch of carpet and a projection on a screen relatively far away. Three kicks and some violent ricochets later (due mainly to reporters wearing button-down shirts, dress pants, and a pair of adidas cleats) there was enough there for a first impression and little else.
One year later and adidas have unveiled a production version, now called the micoach Smart Ball, and a polished iOS app to go with it. With its $300 MSRP, the new ball is certainly expensive (as is just about all high-end football gear nowadays), the question that must be asked is whether or not the new high-tech training tool is worth it.
Make no mistake about it, the adidas micoach Smart Ball is incredible. When the battery is charged and connected to an iOS device (with the companion app) via Bluetooth, the information that becomes available at your fingertips is unrivaled by anything else that is currently on the market.
Yes, the Smart Ball requires a charge to be anything more than a simple soccer ball but the designers at adidas made sure that it was as small of a problem as possible. To charge the ball, one simply needs to plug the dock (that comes in the same box) to any regular wall outlet. The ball features a marker at the bottom that acts as a wireless charging contact point and simply placing that bright green dot dead center in the dock will cause a pair of green LEDs to light up and begin pulsing, signalling the beginning of the charging process.
The battery only takes one hour to go from completely dead to fully charged and lasts for 2000 kicks, 165 standby hours, or some combination of the two. However, if you do the math, 165 hours is just under one week (6.875 days, to be exact). That means that if you decide to use the ball in a training session on Saturday, don't think that you can let it sit for a week in your car trunk without charging and hope to use it with the app seven days later.
With that said, once the ball is charged, initial setup is extremely easy. Make sure that Bluetooth on your iPhone or iPad is enabled, launch the app, and follow the prompts. A few seconds later, the ball and your iOS device are paired and ready to communicate with each other. After the initial pairing, connecting on the field is even easier. Just put the ball and iOS device in close proximity of each other and you're good to press the "Ready to Kick" button.
Line up your shot and strike the ball with power or to add bend to it and watch the back of the net ripple. As you move to retrieve your effort, the app begins retrieving the data from your last kick. You will see the ball's peak speed, its rotational speed, where on the ball you hit it, and the ball's flight trajectory in 3D. The app also has a training mode that can coach the player by telling them where to make contact, how hard to hit it, provide support videos, and give feedback after the fact. The Smart Ball app also aggregates the data to show you your progress over time and provides you with the ability to save your favorite kicks for the future. Leaderboards and sharing options allow you to turn it into a competition with your friends.
When using the ball, the player must have an iOS device on or around them at all times be it an iPhone in the player's hand or an iPad near the point at where you kick. This reviewer went for the former and it was admittedly strange to do everything with a phone in hand. You could feasibly wear an armband but getting access to the information after every kick would be a hassle.
App aside, the ball itself is solid. Despite the fact that it has a brain and battery suspended in the center of it, the micoach Smart Ball conforms to FIFA's standards and the weight is barely noticeable. The ball doesn't feel as light as the brazuca but the difference, especially in flight, is negligible at best. Like brazuca, the Smart Ball features thermally-bonded panels but instead of the World Cup centerpiece's six panels, the Smart Ball features a more traditional 32 panel design. The ball carries a subtle texture on it to help with its flight but it isn't that noticeable to the touch. In terms of adidas' other balls, its somewhere in between the way too smooth Teamgeist ball from 2006 and the great brazuca that will star in this summer's tournament. The micoach Smart Ball feels solid through contact and its flight is true, giving you confidence in the data that the app puts out.
Despite all of the positives, there are a few things that may make you think twice about the adidas Smart Ball. For starters, that price point is significant. The Smart Ball is double the cost of the brazuca ball and if you don't have an iOS device, that's another investment that you will have to make. Unfortunately, adidas does not have an Android solution for the smart ball yet and there are conflicting reports as to whether or not that will happen. When we asked the designers last May, we were told that there were no plans for an Android app but that the company would also reconsider if there was enough demand for it.
The ball is very good for dead ball situations and learning how to get the ball around/over the wall or simply hitting it with power (and getting significant knuckle on it). If you want to get better with a ball that's moving though, you're out of luck. The ball needs to be still before it's kicked in order to register your strike so that means that rolling balls and hits on the volley or half volley are out of the question, for now at least.
When all is said and done, the adidas micoach Smart Ball is a brilliant piece of technology. To get that kind of data in that kind of time was previously unheard of but now, it is in the palm of your hand. Even with the significant barriers to entry (especially for the huge percentage of the market without iOS devices), the Smart Ball is an incredible training tool. Showing players where and how to make contact is a very powerful teaching tool and those using the ball should be able to reap the benefits in no time at all.