Technology Rumors

Nikuro is a VIP guest of the Wizards in the bubble. He’s a virtual VIP guest, to be specific, which is why no one in the arena batted an eye when the 21-year-old wandered onto the court in the middle of a game. To be clear: Nikuro isn’t a real person. He’s one of a growing number of computer-generated virtual influencers, almost-human-looking characters manufactured by venture capital-backed technology companies across the world to serve as brand ambassadors in the music, fashion and entertainment industries. Nikuro, who was created by Tokyo-based 1Sec Inc., is the first such character to be employed by an NBA team. “We just thought it was a really unique and great way to connect with a younger generation and a new audience for us,” said Jim Van Stone, president of business operations for Monumental Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Wizards.
Booker’s digging led her to Nikuro, whose Tokyo-based creator bills the character as Japan’s first male virtual influencer. He’s a basketball fan who splits his time between Tokyo and Los Angeles. He loves music, including Bruno Mars, Justin Bieber and Kendrick Lamar. “He may be fake, but he has a real personality,” 1Sec CEO Hirokuni Genie Miyaji told the Japan Times last year. Like Wizards rookie Rui Hachimura, Nikuro is half Japanese, which made him an especially good fit for the team. “I just felt like that ties in perfectly with the story we’re building here with Rui,” Booker said. “He doesn’t have the millions of followers that some of the other virtual influencers do, but his story line is resonating [in Japan].”

Fans won’t be allowed in the NBA bubble to cheer their favorite teams on. It is a bubble, after all. But knowing what a difference their support can make (home court advantage, anyone?) the NBA is proposing a few solutions: a tap-to-cheer app and video technology that will teleport their faces court-side from the comfort of their homes. “It’s obviously very different for the players and it’s different for the fans watching at home. I mean, in this sport — like a lot of others — there’s that home court advantage, that six-man. It’s the roar of the crowd, the boos of the crowd,” said NBA commissioner Adam Silver Wednesday on CNN with Wolf Blitzer. “We are trying to replicate that to a certain extent without piping in obvious crowd noise.”
Storyline: Orlando Bubble
On both the NBA and the WNBA app, there is now a tap to cheer option, which would allow fans to virtually cheer for their favorite teams. At the end of the game, the total cheers are tallied and shown on a scoreboard. At the end of the season, the fans from teams with top three total taps will be invited to participate in a virtual roundtable with that team’s players, the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream — which started their season last week — said.
Adam Silver: It’s been more than four months since we last played NBA basketball. Tonight we restart the season with 22 teams in Orlando and attempt to establish our new normal. And while spectators won’t be there in person, fans remain at the heart of our game. We’re introducing several elements to improve the live game viewing experience, including multiple, new camera angles, enhanced audio of players and coaches, a feature on our NBA app that allows for virtual crowd reactions, customized alternative streams on NBA League Pass with statistical overlays and influencers calling the action, and video boards surrounding the court featuring hundreds of fans watching from home.
Storyline: Orlando Bubble
With the COVID-19 outbreak resulting in the 2019-2020 professional basketball season being played without audience members, the NBA has partnered with Microsoft to give fans virtual courtside seats. The start of the 2019-2020 basketball season is just around the corner, but unfortunately, no fans are allowed to set foot in the stadium to watch the game because of the coronavirus risk such a gathering would pose. Instead, the NBA has partnered with Microsoft to create a digital courtside experience for fans using Microsoft Teams.
Storyline: Orlando Bubble
Once teams select those fans, they will need a webcam and a microphone. They will log onto Microsoft Teams through their computer or phone. And then they will use Microsoft Teams’ new feature, “Together Mode.” That will enable the fans to interact with each other digitally throughout the game while they watch the broadcast feed. With this feature, fans can high five each other, hold out signs or react to anything that happens on the court. The NBA’s video-boards will show those real-time reactions. “They better put some boos in there for us. If we’re not playing hard, we want to hear those boos,” Philadelphia 76ers forward Ben Simmons joked. “You can’t put this here and have the fans on the screen and not replicate Sixers fans. We’re one of a kind. They’ll do their best, but it’s nothing like playing at home at Wells Fargo.”
Storyline: Orlando Bubble
For Saturday’s scrimmages, the NBA featured pre-recorded segments of league officials posing as fans. Those segments aired before the game as well as periodically during the game. Once the season relaunch starts, though, the NBA will showcase about 300 “virtual fans” on 17-foot video boards throughout the game. That will include family members. “It can be a good thing. It reminds me of ‘Black Mirror,'” Gobert said. “I like the concept. It will be great for families to watch us and know that we can see them in the stands.”
Kinexon’s SafeZone tags are the latest tool the NBA and NFL are using to monitor social distancing and also to provide contact tracing in the event a player tests positive. It’s all part of the new reality as sports leagues are investing their money and resources into tools to allow them to return to action safely. The German-based company, has been working with more than 100 professional sports teams for years on performance tracking, but it decided to pivot once coronavirus struck.
Unlike their performance tracking devices, which provides valuable insights to teams through precise location and movement tracking, SafeZone is only measuring the proximity between people and the length of time interactions occur. As training is underway in the Orlando bubble, the NBA made these devices available to players, however it is only mandatory for league officials and members of the media. In its safety and protocols document obtained by CNBC, the NBA assures players the devices will not be used to access GPS location.
“They’ve done everything right as far as I’m concerned,” Rivers said of the NBA incorporating constant symptom checks and mandating masks at the resort. “When you think about that we’re running a village for the first time, the league is doing pretty well. … But as far as our health, we have an app every morning that we have to do, wearing bands, facemasks.”
The NBA has used the technology by partnering with Fusion Sport, which has usually worked with professional sports teams, colleges, military branches and private companies to compile and analyze data involving human performance and business trends. Fusion Sport has recently worked with organizations, including the NBA, to help analyze the data regarding every employee’s wellness, symptoms and test results. So when each player, coach, staff member and reporter fills out their symptom questionnaire, temperature and oxygen levels, they are not just logging the information so they can learn about their health status. The NBA and health officials will quickly learn, too. “Those are all getting fed to that Fusion Sport database and software,” Ryan said. “What we’ve done is written a big algorithm that takes in all of those inputs for every individual on campus for every given moment.”
Once someone checks into a location, health officials are given alerts so they can look up the person’s profile. If the Magic Band display shows green, that person can proceed through the checkpoint. If it turns a different color, a medical investigation begins. The reasons could include a person forgetting to fill out the symptom self-assessment, leaving a room despite nursing symptoms or breaking quarantine. Despite that technology, though, the NBA and Disney are not using these devices to contact trace or access a person’s location that are not part of the designated checkpoints. “The Magic Band isn’t holding any of your health data. That is not on the band at all,” Ryan said. “The band is a unique identifier that says a person is at this location at this time. There’s no memory on a Magic Band.”
Rix Sports Bar and Grill, tucked between the hallway to the practice courts inside the Coronado Springs resort and the hallway to players’ rooms, has become the unofficial hangout spot inside the bubble. “It is tough when you’re in your room 24/7 other than when you’re in practice,” Bucks guard George Hill said, when asked about Rix. “So, just to get out and sit in some regular chairs to kind of make it feel like it’s just [normal] life itself still, that’s what we’re trying to do.” By 7:30 every evening, the dark bar is buzzing with players, coaches and trainers. Starting Sunday, the place was open only to NBA players and personnel.
Storyline: Orlando Bubble
Milwaukee’s room even has a pinball machine, and Miami surprised players by adding photos of their families. “It’s really special,” Heat guard Goran Dragic said. “We know we’re going to be here for a long time and it was something unbelievable from [the organization] to do that for us. “Other teams, when they are walking past our room, they’re always looking into our room and say, ‘Whoa, look what they have.'”
Fishing has emerged as a favorite pastime for many of the players in between practices and meals. But if you care to fish, go early; the property has only 14 fishing poles available to borrow from a hut outside of the players’ hotel. On Tuesday night, an employee manning the rentals told ESPN that he had only one pole left because so many players had signed out the equipment overnight. The hotel is ordering more poles to accommodate players’ requests. On Thursday, teammates George, Montrezl Harrell and Reggie Jackson fished from the wooden bridge that passes over Lago Dorado in search of bass.
“It was just so apparent that this was, hopefully, a once-in-a-lifetime deal and something that’s going to be pretty historic,” Thybulle said Wednesday. “… It’s nice to have memories, something to remember it with. I figured this was a perfect time to create those memories and start documenting them.” The camera is the fun part of this. Thybulle shoots with a Canon Eos 5D Mark IV, which retails for $2,499, a video camera that can shoot video in 4K resolution.
Storyline: Orlando Bubble
Sports data provider Sportradar is exploring plans to go public, according to two people familiar with the matter. The shift to being publicly traded will probably happen through a blank-check company, a transaction where an already publicly traded company buys a private company as an alternative to the lengthy IPO process.
The program, known as KINEXON SafeZone, has already been used successfully in the German BBL in their recently-completed tournament. Where the focus for the BBL was on contact tracing data being stored in case of a positive COVID-19 test, however, the NBA is currently more interested in the proximity alarm features of the technology, sources say. Player and staff use of KINEXON technology is optional, per sources.
There remains a possibility that KINEXON SafeZone is utilized further by the NBA for contact tracing data collection in Orlando, per sources, though no agreement has been reached at this point. Such a program would also be fully anonymous, and would allow for detailed tracing of recent contacts for any player or staff member who tests positive for COVID-19 within the bubble – potentially allowing play to continue without significant risk of a major outbreak within the campus.
Axios spoke with Oura CEO Harpreet Singh Rai to learn more about the product and why the NBA sought them out as a partner. How does this technology work? “Put simply, we help people understand and improve their health by focusing on better sleep. Consumers are given three scores: sleep, activity and readiness. And it’s that readiness score that’s really meant to tell users how they’re feeling. The most important data we collect is temperature, which we can capture on the finger, but you don’t see it on the wrist. That’s one of the key reasons why the NBA isn’t partnering with, say, Apple or Whoop.”
How will you handle privacy concerns? Harpreet Singh Rai: “We’re working with the NBA, NBPA, Excel Sports and CAA to make sure everyone feels comfortable. Think about it — we’re tracking sleep, so a coach could ostensibly see that a player only got two hours of sleep the night before a game and decide not to start him. To ensure that doesn’t happen, most of the data isn’t being shared. The league and union only see something called a Risk Score, which combines heart rate, heart rate variability, temperature and respiratory rate. If the Risk Score is high enough, a team doctor is alerted and can test the player.”
Jamal Crawford didn’t have a gym with interactive tools to help hone his basketball skills, but he wants his children – and others in the Seattle area – to have that advantage. Five years ago, the 19-year NBA veteran heard about Shoot 360, a gym concept employing technology to help improve basketball skills, from a friend while on a road trip. Crawford was tired and didn’t make the trip to check it out, but it stayed on his mind. “Fast-forward a few years, and I see everything they’ve been doing, and I see [former NBA player] Rodney Stuckey has one, so I took my son and nephew out there and didn’t tell him, and from the second I walked in, it was like basketball heaven,” he said.
Surprised to see another NBA veteran, Stuckey put Crawford’s boys through workouts. The interactive technology employed features both games and more traditional drills for shooting, ball-handling and passing, all while tracking players and giving them instant feedback. “I saw the looks on their faces and how excited they are; they enjoy working out, but it doesn’t look like that,” he said. “When we left, my son said he’d come to work out twice a day.”
“From my point of view, Shoot 360 can grow across the country, but from there, growing it internationally,” he said. “Basketball is a universal language. You can go to China, and I might not speak the language, but we know how to play together, and it ties people together.” While the three-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year has worked to diversify his investments and off-the-court dealings, Crawford foresees Shoot 360 as his most passionate project. “I have camps all the time, seeing kids get better; of all the things I’m invested in, basketball is the most near and dear thing to me,” he said. “I’ve had opportunities to do other things, but I’ve never said there’s something else. The main thing is the main thing, and that’s why it’s so important to me – improving and having a good time.
The NBA, which hopes to restart the season July 30, says it is offering players a ring whose maker claims it can track a user’s health data and might even predict if users are about to show symptoms of coronavirus infection. But there’s not much information yet on how well the device, which has embedded electronics, works. The $299 Oura ring is designed to monitor sleep, pulse, movement, heart activity and temperature, according to the company’s website.
Storyline: Coronavirus
Long says the potential to study large groups of people to see if there is useful data that can be collected is interesting. “But it does not replace any of the other things we should be doing, and the other steps that the NBA should be doing in terms of protecting their players, protecting their staff,” Long said. They should still be doing pools of testing and regular testing — all of those other things. Just don’t let it give us a false sense of security. Don’t stop wearing your mask because your Oura ring says you’re OK. You know, don’t skip testing because everybody’s Oura ring says they’re fine.”
NBA locations in Orlando will also feature secured perimeters, technological security deployments and a “fusion center” approach to threat intelligence. In addition, league security will ensure all venues and team hotel campuses are closed to non-credentialed individuals, and there will be secure checkpoints, credential control and roving security inside and outside the perimeter of every location that is visited.
The test is not mandatory and will be used on players, coaches and staff from NBA teams who voluntarily opt in to the study. There is buy-in from the NBPA. “Our players are excited to be a part of this study,” NBPA chief medical officer Joe Rogowski. “Not only does it offer the potential for players to have an alternative method of testing within the NBA Campus in Orlando, but more importantly it allows them to leverage their regular testing to make a larger contribution to public health in the fight against this virus.”