94Fifty Smart Sensor Basketball Review
Credit: Credit: InfoMotion Sports

Playing basketball at a consistent and elevated level requires precision. Or, as one of my coaches used to tell us, "Practice doesn't make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect." A perfect shot requires a certain amount of backspin, a certain amount of arc and a quick release.

Those elements, in turn, require good form, the ball held above the forehead, elbow at the right angle, shooting wrist cocked but relaxed, using your off-hand to steady the ball, legs squared toward the basket and used, along with your core, as the source of the shot's power. And when that ball finally leaves your hand, ideally in about half a second after catching it, and at the top of your jump, it all just comes down to a flick of the wrist, the ball floating away on its journey, until it rips through that net.

Those mechanics have been taught by coaches and practiced at gymnasiums and in barns and in backyards and on playgrounds for more than a century, and the very best have committed them to muscle memory: Do it enough the right way, and you don't even have to think about it when game time comes. [9 Odd Ways Your Tech Devices May Injure You]

Now, those mechanics can also be learned through the magic of technology, thanks to the 94Fifty basketball, a creation of InfoMotion Sports. It is, quite simply, a regulation basketball with sensors inside. Those sensors measure your shot and your dribbling, and send the data to your smartphone over Bluetooth, where the data is instantly analyzed and provides feedback in real time.

It's no magic elixir. It won't get you onto the famed Rucker Park (New York) courts, or put your kid onto the AAU circuit just by owning it; practice is still required. But it sure makes perfect practice instantly attainable.

I ordered a ball through the company's Kickstarter campaign almost a year ago, and I've been using the ball constantly since November, when InfoMotion Sports finally started fulfilling the campaign — a waiting game exacerbated by the company's deal with the Apple Store right before the 2013 holiday season, which managed to consume every ball the company could make for a while.

My best basketball playing days may be in the past — my ankles and hips riddled with arthritis, my jump shot missing the "jump" part — but I still play, and I still look for any edge, knowing that my competition is on the same age path. After using the 94Fifty, I've seen a consistent improvement in shooting over that time, both in pickup games and organized league play. I would probably need to practice every day for a few months to see a more dramatic impact, but I don't necessarily have the free time of an adolescent anymore. Still, when my form is bad, which is still frequent enough, I know instantly what needs adjustment.

The ball is available at the Apple Store and on Amazon for $300. While that's about six times the price you would pay for a good-quality basketball, it also happens to be the equivalent of two or three pairs of basketball shoes, and less than the cost of a decent portable hoop. In other words, this isn't the gadget for the neighborhood shoot-around players; it's for young players (eight years through adulthood) that are serious about playing, and serious about improving.

InfoMotion Sports CEO Mike Crowley said many high-level college teams (household-name schools)  — along with high-school teams and several professional players, including Memphis Grizzlies guard Michael Conley, and the Atlanta Hawks team — are using the 94Fifty.

The 94Fifty comes with a ball and a Qi wireless charger, and the mobile apps (iOS and Android) are free. It also includes a custom-made bag to carry the ball in.

The ball

Let's start with the ball, a ruggedized indoor/outdoor ball that contains nine accelerometers inside, sitting on a circuit board that weighs less than 20 grams (0.7 ounces). Those sensors can detect force (a 360-degree view of it) and speed, ball rotation and ball arc. Naturally, the engineering work behind the 94Fifty required ensuring both that the sensors wouldn't impact the weight of the ball or its rotation, but also that the sensors weren't impacted by the force of the ball on a rim, backboard or the floor. In short, it had to feel like any normal ball.

By and large, it does. Crowley said the company will continually improve the ball, but I could certainly feel a difference, and many of the people I play with could, too. At times, while dribbling, I'll find a dead spot in the ball. That was largely a first-experience phenomenon, however. After shooting with it over and over, that little nuance mostly fades away; after all, this is a practice ball, and not really meant to be used during a real game. On the other hand, the grip is fantastic.

I was initially concerned about taking a $300 basketball out into the elements, but Crowley said the skin was made especially for outdoor play, and that much of the cost of creating the ball is in the material it's made of. Of course, playing on a rough surface is bound to wear the ball out more quickly than playing on an indoor finished hardwood floor, but even most modern playgrounds have a smooth clay finish that shouldn't put any undo wear on the ball. I'm a little obsessive, so I typically clean the ball after outdoor use. After three months of indoor and outdoor use, it still looks and feels as good as new.

The company tested the products for more than a year, even putting them through standard auto shake, heat and humidity tests in Detroit. Crowley said the goal was to make the electronics outlast the ball. The electronics are geared for about half a million really hard bounces, so the goal for the material was a million. "At 1 million bounces, we can't break them," Crowley emphasized. There is a one-year warranty on the skin.

The ball runs a lightweight operating system that dissects patterns in motion and can communicate anomalies in less than 100 milliseconds over Bluetooth.

Crowley began hinting as early as last summer about a major retail partner, and in the fall, before the ball started to ship, that it would likely be Apple. Apple added one particular touch: a cinch bag/backpack, made of durable nylon, shaped to fit the basketball. I've carried dozens of gym bags over the years, and some of the manufacturers have made special basketball-holding add-ons, but this bag is really the perfect size for a ball, a small towel, an extra T-shirt and socks, perhaps a wrap, and little pockets for your keys and a mobile phone. The only downside, space-wise, is that you can't fit a pair of sneakers in the bag. (Many players wear a distinct pair of shoes just for indoor play, and if they are wise, they put them on once indoors to prevent dirt buildup and the wear that external environments impose.)

The Qi wireless charger works as you would expect. I could get a decent week's worth of play (say five or six days, shooting or dribbling for about an hour) without worrying about recharging. Crowley said the ball has 8 hours of battery life with continuous use, and recharging takes only a couple of hours. The mobile app will tell you how much battery life the ball has left, but it doesn't provide any warning when it's dropping below, say, 20%, which would be a welcome addition. After 5 minutes of idle time, the ball's battery shuts down as a power-saving feature. (As with all things Bluetooth, using it will naturally drain your phone's battery a bit.)

The Smartphone app

I mentioned that there's a 94Fifty app for iOS and Android, but the iOS version is far superior at this point. (I used them both.) Crowley said there will soon be parity between the apps for both mobile operating systems. The new Android version is expected to be launched on Google Play during the week of Feb.  20.

Crowley said Android — the OS, not the 94Fifty app — is hampered by its Bluetooth funkiness. I've heard lots of app developers complain about this, but I saw it manifested in an inconsistent recognition of my actions (for example, not registering a shot), and an inability to communicate with the ball and a Bluetooth earpiece or speaker (more on why this can be important in a moment, but it's not 100% vital). Sometimes those functions didn't work perfectly on iOS either, but that was an exception; on Android, it happened almost half the time. I stopped using the Android version after a couple of weeks, and simply switched to iOS.

The app is divided, roughly speaking, into "skills training" and "workout" modes. The workout mode for shooting is focused on release time and accuracy, and you start at the most basic level (playground) and work your way up to prepstar, college and pro, with harder-to-achieve goals (more shots made, quicker release) at each progression. You shoot standing still in one drill, and on the move in the next, from 15 feet (4.6 meters) one time through, and 20 feet (6.1 m) the next; each drill consists of 10 shots. 

The ball cannot yet detect a made or missed shot, so you've got to keep track of that yourself and enter it at the end of the drill. Crowley said the company has figured out how to detect a make, but for now, the algorithm is only about 80 percent accurate, and the company is shooting for 99 percent accuracy. He will only say that this feature will arrive sometime this year.

After doing the workouts for a while, I began to focus more on skills training mode, because I immediately wanted to see where my shot arc and backspin were, not just release speed. For arc, backspin and release speed, the company has calibrated an optimal range for each after observing and measuring some of the best shooters in the game. For shot arc, that optimal range is between 42 and 48 degrees (45 is considered perfect). For backspin, it's ideally between 130 and 150 RPM, and for shot release, less than 0.7 seconds is very good. You can isolate each of these, and focus on dialing in the perfect number and committing it to muscle memory.

Finally, in the skills training mode, you can combine some of the skills. Say you've gotten to where your shot arc and backspin are each consistently in range, and you've dropped your release time to a reasonable number. Each one of those requires a different set of thinking and technique. But to get all three working at once is something else entirely. At this point, you can only combine shot arc and release speed. Crowley said the reason for this is the company wanted to keep the app simple enough so that players weren't overwhelmed. He said that in the future, you'll be able to customize your own skills training a bit more. Even after a few short days with the 94Fifty, I was ready to try out some combinations.

When I first started working with the ball back in November, it had to somehow register a pass-catch before a shot. In other words, it was really designed for teammates, friends, or a player and coach (or parent and child), where the coach tosses the ball to the player. In playing by yourself, you had to gently toss the ball in the air, catch it and take the shot, which was a little awkward. In the latest version of the software, you can just shoot. The ball uses a magnetometer and knows when it's gone past the rim. Now that only works for shot arc and backspin; to properly measure release time, you really need to be receiving a pass, so the self-pass method is required if you're playing alone. 

Some players are taught to self-pass during alone-time shooting, but traditionally, that has always involved tossing the ball out, with backspin and catching it off the bounce. Crowley said the company has this sort of action ready to go, and it will be part of the next firmware update scheduled for the end of February. (These come via in-app notification, and take place over Bluetooth; it's relatively painless and simple in my experience.) For now, it's a little awkward and distracting, and slightly unrealistic in replicating game situations. Remember: This is only for the shot release measurement, which is only one aspect of the 94Fifty system.

Here's the really cool part, though: Implied in all of this is the notion that there is real-time feedback in the app. Take a shot, get a score, adjust, take another, and so on. If you're playing with someone else, they're getting the score from the app and letting you know. But I decided that with my Plantronics wraparound Voyager Bluetooth earpiece (I mention this one specifically because it actually holds on to your ear, which is conducive to this sort of activity, especially if you're trying to go at game-time speed) I could actually play and get the verbal feedback right in my ear with every shot. I got not only a score, but also adjustment tips from a coach's voice after each shot: "Bend those legs;" "point your elbow;" "flick your wrist." In most cases, I realized it truly did know what I'd done wrong.

Crowley said that very soon (early spring), the app will give the user a choice of current famous coaches, so you can listen to them instructing you on various weaknesses. Let's hope there's not a Bobby Knight version or, heaven forbid, Dick Vitale — although I wouldn't mind him telling me I'm a "PTP'er" (prime-time player).

Regardless of who's giving the feedback, the instant response is incredibly helpful. For example, I had particular trouble with backspin. Surprisingly, I had too much. I was incredulous. How could lots of backspin be too much? The smartphone coach kept telling me to use my legs more, and to use my wrist more. I was able to improve my numbers, but never quite within the ideal range. I called Crowley, who said almost immediately, "You're shooting with your shoulder." In fact, I'd broken my wrist playing basketball almost a year ago, and although I'd done plenty of rehab and strengthening exercises, clearly I'd compensated a bit by using my shoulder — it's a bigger muscle, and many players have a tendency to use it on their shot.

The problem with this, Crowley explained, is that while you can still be a good shooter, it's difficult to make adjustments in a game if your shot is off. The best shooters are wrist shooters, he told me. Sure enough, I was in the middle of a bad streak in league games where I just couldn't seem to find my range. Crowley pointed me to a couple of videos on the 94Fifty website that not only showed proper technique, but broke down how to garner the power from your legs so that you are truly just shooting with the flick of the wrist. There was also a video demonstrating some wrist-strengthening drills you can do with the basketball. So off I went to practice, starting closer in at the free-throw line so I could worry about form, and within days, my backspin was consistently in range. 

Although videos can certainly take up a fair amount of space on a smartphone, I wished I could have had access to them from the get-go, directly from the app. After all, Crowley's unlikely to answer the phone to help every customer.

While I've focused heavily on the shooting, the same ideas apply to dribbling. Here, you're dribbling with control and intensity, trying to dribble at game speed as you traverse some of the timed drills. I've used those drills pretty heavily, but they're not nearly as exciting to describe in depth here. Some of the drills can even get pretty complex, even allowing for some involving two basketballs being dribbled at once.

I mentioned that the two main modes for shooting and dribbling are skills training and workout. The app also includes the ability to go head-to-head with other players, and while I didn't spend too much time here, I did test it once: The company was demonstrating its technology at CES 2014 in Las Vegas, and I challenged Crowley head-to-head. And yes, I beat him.

You can also use the social tool to send out your score via Twitter, and challenge others to beat it. For some reason, Stephen Curry is still dodging me on this.

The future of 94Fifty

The technology being employed in the 94Fifty basketball is still quite new, but you can imagine the possibilities to come. Because the sensor technology in the ball is so important, it's hard to imagine it being in a basketball or golf ball, but you could envision it in something like a soccer ball. Crowley has talked in the past about the technology's application for anything that requires precision and muscle memory — for example, playing a musical instrument, or performing repetitive surgical procedures.

I mentioned earlier that it would be helpful to have an option in the app, or at least a link out to YouTube, for instructional videos. When I'm out practicing on the court, I want a quick reminder on technique, and the visual is sometimes vital to that. Some of the drills are explained in text, but it would also be good to see those in demonstration, while actually practicing. 

Crowley said a free video instruction service will be available in Q1 using videos from 94Fifty personnel. A premium service (with free trials) will be available that will feature videos from Division I college basketball head coaches (of big-time programs), all of which are served up based on the weaknesses the app identifies. The videos change as the player improves.

InfoMotion Sports also needs to improve the self-pass recognition. Sometimes, the app didn't record the pass at all, so I got no credit (or score) for my shot. Other times, the self-pass was mistaken for a shot, or a shot for a self-pass, and the subsequent score became a bad one, skewing my averages. Crowley said the company is aware of these issues, and the upcoming firmware release this month should improve the algorithm to be about 98 percent accurate.

The next release, he added, will also add some new capabilities, like free-throw games and off-the-dribble shot-release speed. Another feature coming this quarter is a video-overlay component that lets players take videos of themselves or others while shooting, and then overlay the shot result onto the video. This will first be used in the social competition function of the app, and will be applied elsewhere in future releases.

It also seems to me that smaller, younger kids might have a more difficult time benefiting from this product. I'm talking about the ones who play on shorter rims, or who struggle just to get the ball up to 10 feet. Some of the kids' practices I've seen — well, the skills included with the product would be too difficult. Some of the measurements and goals assume 15-foot or 20-foot shots with high arc, and your typical 7-year-old will be less likely to come close to those goals. Crowley said the company has seen kids as young as age 5 pass some of the skill levels, and that there are built-in elements for younger players, including backspin, which can translate to any shot, on any sized rim.

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