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Why the NBA is betting big on virtual reality

Imagine a world where you can see the game as an NBA player would in real time. We got a special taste at All-Star Weekend.

2018 NBA All-Star - Media Day & Practice Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Bradley Beal is standing at the free-throw line, lining up a shot. He’s done this a million times in his life, but this shot is different. Beal is seeing the basket through the lens of a tiny camera that is running through the goggles he has on his head.

His first shot is wide left. His next is wide right. By his third attempt, he has his line scoped out, but not the distance. His fourth is right on line with the rim. From there, it’s the same sweet form that landed Beal his first All-Star appearance.

For the moment, Beal is existing in virtual reality. The headset is made by Verizon and offers a glimpse into the world of 5G technology, which is still in the development stage. 5G is the future and it will be here sooner rather than later. The company says it will begin offering residential service in Sacramento by the latter half of the year.

Verizon says that 5G will be 100 times faster than 4G, which addresses one of the key issues in virtual reality technology: latency. That’s a measure of how quickly information is processed and presented back to you.

When a basketball is coming your way, or, say, a self-driving car, you want latency to be as minimal as possible. Verizon says its 5G network is capable of single-digit millisecond latency. The blink of an eye, by comparison, is 300-400 milliseconds.

“Crazy, crazy,” Beal says after he has rejoined actual reality. “When you first put them on, it’s a black screen. Then all of a sudden the camera turns on and it’s not your eyesight; it’s the cameraman. It’s kind of weird to experience, but the signal is so fast it’s like your eyes are actually working. I kind of felt like RoboCop.”

2018 NBA All-Star - Media Day & Practice Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

After Beal found the rhythm on his shot, Anthony Davis joined him in virtual reality. The two traded free throws for a while, before AD ventured behind the three-point arc. The duo happily launched shots, lost in their own virtual existence.

“I saw everything that I would see with my real eyes,” AD said. “Lot of crazy, crazy things going on in this world. Everything was showing up in real time, so that was pretty dope.”

I’m about to get a quick demonstration for myself, and I have a little trepidation about the experience, being a Luddite who is generally allergic to new tech.

So I ask Davis what it’s like to exist in your own world that’s actually controlled by someone else. “Virtual reality is like … reality,” he says laughing.

After a brief period of adjustment with the headset, I’m able to focus on the Verizon rep in front of me. We exchange high fives and the whole experience becomes exceptionally normal a lot faster than I imagined.

NBA All-Star Game 2018 - Commissioner Adam Silver Press Conference Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

All of this is important because the NBA’s relationship with technology is paramount to its growth as a league. Its embrace of social media has opened doors that other sports leagues slammed shut, providing an unlimited and instantaneous marketing machine at its fingertips.

Tech was the first thing Adam Silver mentioned in his annual state of the game press conference on Saturday night, and the league’s Tech Summit has become one of the hottest tickets of All-Star weekend. Earlier this week at the Recode conference, Silver was part of a forum for something called mixed reality, which is a hybrid between the real and virtual worlds.

That’s the world the NBA wants to inhabit eventually. Its most marketable commodity is the game experience, which is different live in arenas than it is on television. It is particularly different from the first few rows of seats than it is from the upper deck.

That presents a problem in that there’s only so many of those experiences to go around, and those are limited by the constraints of physical space.

“The challenge for this league is how can we then bring that experience to our well over a billion fans around the world who will never get a chance to see a game in person,” Silver said. “So technology and creating a more immersive experience for fans is something that we spend a lot of time on at the league office.”

This seems wise. The NBA is in the middle of a prosperous era with a lucrative television contract feeding into its galaxy of stars. Those broadcast rights have an expiration date attached, and there’s no telling where the market for live sporting events will be in 2025 when the current agreement expires, or even how we’ll consume the games.

Perhaps by then we won’t just be watching Bradley Beal. We’ll be experiencing the game through his eyes in real time, like we’re right there on the court with him.