The NBA gets high-tech with VR, drones and futuristic dreams

This past weekend, something kind of incredible happened; basketball aficionados from across the globe were able to don high-tech goggles to live-stream stereoscopic virtual reality of a highly paid athlete receiving a bounce pass from a custom-designed drone to perform a highly technical slam dunk.

This is the NBA in 2017.

New technologies have always played a major role in how sports organizations attract new audiences and build closer ties between players and fans. This past weekend, the NBA’s tech initiatives were on full display in New Orleans at the sight of the NBA All-Star game.

The new technologies powering efforts on the floor were awesome and plentiful but when I arrived I was interested about the combination of using new tech to enable crazy experiences on the court while also drawing on technologies that allow viewers at home to get closer than ever to the action.

This all centered around a dunk. The NBA Slam Dunk Contest defending-champ, 21-year-old Orlando Magic player Aaron Gordon, was set to perform one of the craziest dunks yet, a high-flying drone-assisted shot that relied on the most intimate of communications between man and machine.

The dunking skill was all Gordon’s but the drone wits came from Intel.

The setup for this dunk was all in the family. Gordon’s mom was long-time Intel employee who suggested the collaboration, and after reaching out to the company, her son began plotting for a way to make his technologically-assisted dunk a reality.

Gordon ultimately didn’t walk away from the contest a winner, but the dunk proved to be a great opportunity for Intel to show off some of its new boundary-pushing technologies.

The drone stunt may gather the most headlines from this event, but the sports tech initiatives happening over at Intel expand far beyond this dunk. Intel has a number of very cool initiatives underway, aligned beneath its newly-formed dedicated Sports division.

For fans watching the game from home, what has been one of the coolest evolutions in sports instant-replay tech is the company’s 360 Replay technology, which captures what’s happening in the arena or on the field and stitches a 3D model of the action, creating immersive views that allow fans to gain deeper insights into what was happening on the court in the moments leading up to when Steph Curry drilled a three-pointer.

Joining 360 Replay in the company’s Sports division is Voke VR, a virtual reality live-streaming company that Intel purchased for an undisclosed sum in November of last year. The company had raised about $12.5 million before the acquisition, including, most notably some investment from the Sacramento Kings.

Voke is making major efforts to get content from sports organizations on their platform, including most notably the NFL, but when it comes to virtual reality content from the NBA, the exclusive VR live-streaming rights belong to NextVR.

NextVR is a lot more than just a company that produces cool sporting event and concert content with nifty cameras, over the past several years they’ve built a platform for live-streaming events in VR that has scaled to the point where it can support big events like the NBA All-Star Game.

NextVR signed a deal with the NBA in October of last year to stream one NBA game per week for the remainder of the 2016-2017 season. As the company looks towards increasing its programming load, it’s also looking for new ways to draw viewers in. At the Slam Dunk Contest, NextVR was able to experiment with some new camera positions to get viewers even better perspectives into the action.


I first tried NextVR back in 2015 at a Manchester United soccer match, since then, the company has considerably expanded its reach in the VR space and increased the quality of its broadcasts in terms of quality and production. The startup shored up an $80 million Series B last year with participation from Time Warner Investments and others.

Viewers can check out the experiences on their Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream apps, where users can download highlight reels, check out analysis or stream games through NBA League Pass, which will soon be offering virtual reality games à la carte for viewers to purchase individually. Download some of the All-Star content here.

By and large, the NBA is increasing to highlight and support new technologies emerging. Before All-Star weekend, the league hosted the 18th annual NBA Technology Summit, where dozens of Silicon Valley leaders from companies like Snap, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter all descended to discuss how tech think about sports entertainment and what more it could be doing.

The NBA All-Star Game may be the go-to place for crowd-pleasing gimmicks, but for tech companies in Silicon Valley it’s also an opportunity to experiment with new technologies that may define the future of entertainment.