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How the NBA is using augmented reality to transform the fan experience

Coming to a couch near you: Stephen Curry’s warm-up routine.

Pokemon Go Craze Hits New York City Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

We are hours from Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals, and in Bangkok, Thailand, a 15-year-old NBA fan is itching to watch Stephen Curry’s famed warm-up routine. The Chase Center is a 17-hour flight and thousands of American dollars away, but sitting in her living room, she picks up her phone, opens the NBA’s augmented reality app, and walks three feet to step into a portal that traverses 7, 900 miles.

The screen takes her courtside, just steps away from Curry as he begins the daily ritual that induces thousands of fans to line up early and enter the arena hours prior to Warriors games. She pans to her left, where Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser corrals a rebound and feeds Curry’s pocket.

The girl’s mother isn’t much of a sports fan, but there’s only one TV and the kids always win. During the game, she points her iPhone camera toward the TV, and optical trackers fix a blurb of every player’s interests over their heads. She finds out Kyrie Irving is a flat-earther and develops an immediate rooting interest in the Warriors. The girl’s brother, an analytics aficionado, has true shooting percentage, block rate, and turnover percentage hovering over players on his Android instead.

In transition, Andre Iguodala lobs the ball to Kevin Durant and he posterizes Jayson Tatum. On the bottom of the app, the best memes and reactions on NBA Twitter pop up, and a multi-angle replay will be available in minutes.

The clock dwindles to zero, Draymond Green whips the ball into the air, and the Warriors win their third straight championship. The family portals into the middle of the Chase Center arena, where fans, cameras, reporters, and staffers swarm and NBA employees construct a make-shift stage with the Larry O’Brein Trophy awaiting. The boy turns his phone to the right, where Bill Russell lingers, while his sister is staring up at the ceiling, where three championship banners hang in the rafters.

After the ceremony, they follow the Warriors into the locker room, where the champagne stains on the orbital lens of a 360 degree camera filter the view of millions of fans who are tuning in to bear witness to the spoils of victory.

Golden State Warriors v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

For a league with a large international fanbase that can never attend a live game, augmented reality could be the future. On July 10, the hope of bringing what Michael Allen, the NBA’s senior vice president of digital products and emerging technology, calls “the best seat in sports” to fans everywhere depends on a series of tiny cameras in Las Vegas.

The Z-Cam S1-Pro, retailing at $8,880, sits on a tripod behind a stanchion at UNLV’s Thomas and Mack Center as the Kings take on the Grizzlies. It could one day be as ubiquitous as the original Macintosh, or it could end up as a splinter experiment from a bygone era, like a computer screen open to Napster in an early 2000s movie. It all depends on whether the NBA’s tech wizards can make their portals — which already offered next-day immersions into sequences around the game throughout this year’s playoffs — stream near-live at everyone’s favorite testing ground, NBA Summer League.

Adam Mory, the league’s senior video coordinator of digital media operations, is stationed at a computer at the dead-end of a tunnel in the arena, surrounded by wiring reminiscent of the back of your parent’s TV set. Coleen Kane, the NBA’s director of emerging technologies, tests a beta version of the live app, overcomes the hell-scape of arena WiFi, and portals into a camera less than 25 feet away.

The new app, being released later that night, featured two live portals and 20 total portals — up from five — that each immerse viewers into a different experience around the game.

Things go off without a hitch, save a few notes on ideal camera placement. That means the Digital Products & Emerging Technology team will spend the summer poring over consumer data, determining what resonates with fans the most, and mapping out a plan to make the experience our hypothetical Thai family had a reality, perhaps by as soon as next season.

“We found that people who were engaged tended to come back and re-engage,” Allen told SB Nation. “Which is definitely a strong measure we’re looking at.”

Virtual reality, which is often mistaken for augmented reality, promises more immersion, but the isolation that follows is a drawback for a generation that is constantly distracted — err, has a penchant for multi-tasking. NBA fans are especially active online, but checking Basketball Twitter while immersed in virtual reality means taking your headset off and completely disengaging for a moment.

“The biggest advantage of AR — and we work very closely with Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore technology — is the accessibility,” Allen said.

The barrier of entry for AR is just a smartphone and a WiFi connection. It is built for the kind of short, bite-sized content the NBA has found millennials favor. It strikes a balance between immersion and isolation, preserving the core appeal of spectator sports: collective experience.

2018 NBA Finals - Game Four Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

If the NBA ever wants to broadcast live games through the portal, they’ll have to work on transitioning the experience from near-live to live. Right now, captured video is sent to New Jersey, where it is encoded before it’s viewable through the app. Then, there’s the whole issue of distribution rights. Disney and Turner didn’t fork over millions for the NBA to stream games on their own platform.

Setting aside live broadcasts, there’s still so much else to imagine. Just to name a few: timeout huddles, post-game locker room interviews, offseason training sessions. Consider the historical archives alone: “portalling” to the draft night of a Hall of Famer when he announces his retirement, standing in the middle of raucous championship parades and celebrations, panning down and finding a legend keeled over on the hardwood and crying from the euphoria of winning a championship. With AR, those immersive experiences can be possible.

“Providing fans greater access to our game anywhere, anytime has proven a successful model,” Allen said.

If it all goes right, “portalling” might just end up in the dictionary, all thanks to the NBA.