The Internet of Things must move beyond mere novelty

By James Robinson , written on February 10, 2014

From The News Desk

A plain old basketball with all the features - nice bounce, right size, appropriate color, light enough to be passed from person-to-person and thrown through a hoop - costs about 20 bucks.

InfoMotion Sports Technologies' 94Fifty basketball, on retail since late last year and proudly on display at this year’s CES, goes for $295. It comes equipped with nine lightweight sensors and a bluetooth chip to relay data back to an iPhone app. Set it on a charger for a couple of hours and you can play with it for about eight.

It also tells you everything that is wrong with the so-called Internet of Things, where all manner of products, from your toaster to your refrigerator, tennis racket, and toilet will be hooked up to some sort of network. The sensors in the 94Fifty basketball tell you about the backspin on any given shot, the arc of the shot, and the force with which you bounce the ball but this reputedly ‘smart’ basketball doesn’t know much more. It can’t tell you if the ball went in the hoop or not and someone has to pass the ball to you first for it register that you’ve put up a shot. If you’re playing alone, you have to spin the ball in the air before shooting to trick the sensors into thinking you received a pass (which looks ridiculous.)

Welcome to the crossroads between sports and the oft-buzzed Internet of Things. While budding entrepreneurs may cram Internet-ready sensors into all sorts of products that doesn't mean consumers actually need or want them. For every new Nest, there’s going to be a dozen misses. It's a bit like manufacturers in the 70s and 80s sticking clocks in VCRs, TVs, radios, and loads of other consumer tech just because they could.

We’re starting to see numerous attempts to construct things in this vein. In May in Japan Sony is set to retail its tennis racket monitor, a miniscule nub which affixes itself to the end of the handle. SensoGlove makes a golf glove that displays grip pressure and lets you know when your hold upon the club is just right. The SwingSmart Golf Analyzer is a small tag that clips on to a club and can tell you everything about your swing, as well as providing a full 3-D recreation of each shot.

But there is a giant disconnect between innovators and consumers. How many people will spend $175 on a little doodacky to put on their tennis rackets? Do you get a regular golf glove for $8 or a smart one for $89? If you hit your golf ball into a lake, are you going to be feel rewarded spending $249 for the ability to replay the fated hit in all its doomed 3D glory?

The amateur sportsman could find him- or herself turned off by a ream of big data that quantifies their ineptness. The tools are big on the why it went wrong, but not on the how to fix. They can’t replicate the human element of a coach and sports usually have obvious outcomes: the shot missed, the ball went in the water and so on. Spending money to find out that you’re no good could end up an unattractive proposition.

The key for smart sports makers will be moving past the basic idea of the “quantified ball” and adding real value. For example, tackling the serious issue of concussions in football, a graduate student from Brigham Young University created a  foam that can be put inside a helmet and works with motion sensors to relay information to a sideline computer about the impact of each tackle on a player’s head. New York-based Uncharted Play has designed a soccer ball with an internal generator that creates three-hours of power with every 30 minutes of use. The company have handed them out in African villages with small handheld lights that plug into the ball to help children in houses without power finish their homework.

Not everything emerging from the Internet of Things will have real value like these. At the minimum, though, companies that are creating new IoT technologies will have to move well beyond novelty before they'll have a hit with consumers.

[Image courtesy of InfoMotion Sports Technologies]