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The NBA’s Virtual Reality Revolution

The NBA is now broadcasting in virtual reality, but this year’s foray into the technology is just the start.

Joel Brigham

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Virtual reality is not new. In the early 1800s, painters began experimenting with panoramic murals depicting some historic event or battle scene, and they were so huge and expansive as to encompass viewers’ entire fields of vision.

There was research supporting the brain’s ability to process three-dimensional images as far back as the 1830s, and in 1849 David Brewster would invent the lenticular stereoscope, which essentially was the precursor to the 3D View-Master and later the futuristic-looking VR rigs used for mounting smartphones.

It may have taken us over 200 years to get here, but over the course of the last 24 months, virtual reality has found its way into the hands of consumers in a way that extends way beyond those early stereoscope photos and View-Master slides. Today, thanks to the kind of technology made available by virtual reality companies like NextVR, viewers can strap on a headset and see moving pictures in all their 180-degree or 360-degree glory. The revolution has started, and the National Basketball Association is in on it.

Starting this season, the NBA and NextVR are teaming up to air one game per week in VR. These games occur on Tuesdays, and NextVR brings in their own equipment and production team to make the broadcast work. Even the halftime show is produced in virtual reality, giving fans the most completely immersive viewing experience they can have outside of a real NBA arena.

nextvr_steve_chris_2016“The NBA understands that there’s a new technology that exists that is going to provide a new form of entertainment to their fans, and I think we’re well past the point where people are asking the question of ‘if’ this is going to be transformative, it’s ‘when’ and ‘how’ do we best do it to deliver the best experience,” said David Cramer, Executive Vice President, Corporate Strategy, NextVR.

Anybody who actually has seen a game in virtual reality will admit wholeheartedly that the experience draws them in. With cameras set courtside and underneath the rim, viewers are given a much different perspective of the game than they would watching a traditional broadcast. It is a 180-degree experience rather than a full 360-degree experience, but that’s more than enough for a viewer to turn their head side to side and get a sense of the arena and of course all of the action taking place on the court.

The experience is, frankly, still in its infancy, and there are distinct limitations set on the types of consumers who currently are able to view these broadcasts. For starters, only those with NBA League Pass can access the games, and among those who do subscribe to the league’s premier broadcasting package, only those who own VR rigs and Samsung devices running the Android operating system have the software necessary to view the weekly game projected in virtual reality.

It could easily cost somewhere between $700-800 just to get a foot in the door, but for those who already own the Android devices and have a League Pass subscription, the Samsung VR rig is available for only $99. In fact, there are cardboard rigs available for only $10-15 for those who want to test drive the experience before diving into a major investment, and the NextVR app, which makes viewing these games possible, is free. In other words, the investment for those already invested is minimal.

moke_nextvr_2016_interiorOne early roadblock, however, is that Apple devices running iOS are not yet compatible with the NextVR broadcasts. Considering Apple has sold over a billion iPhone devices since their original release in June of 2007, it’s fair to say that a large portion of the intended audience is missing out. NextVR, naturally, is working to correct that.

“We’re really supportive of the efforts that all of the VR hardware platform companies, all of their efforts in that regard, to push their technologies further and to continue to innovate and drive better experiences,” Cramer said. “We’re working with all of the existing and potential VR hardware companies to optimize what they’re doing and to be available as quickly as possible on announced platforms… You’ve seen most of the largest consumer tech companies announcing their involvement and spending billions of dollars in this space and I think it makes sense to believe that you’ll see the same faces ultimately with meaningful positions in the market.”

In other words, it’s only a matter of time before iOS users are afforded the same opportunities for watching these games, and the sooner the better. This experience is too cool to die out the way 3D did a few years ago.

Thankfully, NextVR is offering some things that 3D broadcasts never did.

“When you add what we’ve put into the experience for the fans, the commentary we provide and the ability to do replays and to provide a personalized experience, it’s about more than just transporting someone to the event,” Cramer said. “It’s about giving the information and the context that they need, taking really the best parts that we can from the traditional broadcast experience and making those available to people in an entirely new medium.”

There will be a fair number of VR rigs under Christmas trees this month, which could expand viewership numbers (something that has not been released thus far). To do so would be fruitless considering the small number of people that own Android phones, VR rigs and NBA League Pass. Still, the NBA always seems happy to innovate, which explains why they are the first major professional sports league to show games in virtual reality. NextVR hopes to help them continue that spirit of modernization moving forward.

“We’re innovating every single day, at every point in our workflow and value chain,” Cramer said. “We’re having to create things, from the cameras and the configurations for our cameras and rigs all the way through to our app and our platform that we distribute for playback. It’s constant innovation.”

While there has not been any announcement yet as to whether or not portions of NBA All-Star Weekend will be broadcast in VR, Cramer did admit that NextVR is putting together a plan to try and get involved. A dunk contest in virtual reality, for example, would be revolutionary.

Engineers have come a long way from the lenticular stereoscope, but after two centuries of dabbling in immersive virtual reality, it’s starting to look as if we are finally realizing the technology’s true potential. The really amazing thing is that it’s only going to grow more enveloping and more ubiquitous in the months and years to come.

We may never watch sports the same way again.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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