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Steve Ballmer Aims to Reinvent Watching Sports on TV with Clippers CourtVision

When he was the CEO at Microsoft over a decade ago, Steve Ballmer dreamed of bringing interactivity to TV. He explored the possibilities of innovating everywhere from scripted entertainment to video games, but didn’t get far.

Now as CEO of pro basketball’s Los Angeles Clippers, his dream is finally becoming a reality Wednesday when his team takes to the court for the opening game of the NBA season.

After four years of development in partnership with an analytics firm, Second Spectrum, in which Ballmer is an investor, Clippers CourtVision will allow viewers to customize the game-watching experience with a range of visual bells and whistles far beyond the on-screen graphics on display in a typical televised sporting event.

CourtVision (see video here) offers viewers three different alternatives as a supplement to the traditional broadcast ranging from “mascot mode,” which inserts fun animations like a lightning bolt that appears to electrify the actual backboard after a player makes a shot, to “player mode,” which could appeal to hardcore fans by projecting over player’s heads the probabilities they can hit a shot based on where they are on the court. The calculations are based on player statistics that change on a near-real-time basis.

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Ballmer hopes the 1.0 version of CourtVision is the first of many iterations to a technology he hopes will have a transformative effect on sports broadcasting.

“You can’t compare it to email or word processors,” he said at a pre-game press conference at the Clippers’ Staples Center home in Los Angeles, hearkening back to some of the innovations he helped make popular while at Microsoft. “But when you think about it from an entertainment perspective, it’s right up there.”

Publicly available with today’s game, CourtVision can be accessed only on devices that use iOs or Android via the Fox Sports mobile app for subscribers of pay-TV services in the Los Angeles market that carry the Fox Sports Prime Ticket channel, the exclusive TV home of the Clippers.

While the app is currently available for mobile and PC, it can ported over to the big screen via screen-casting technologies like Apple TV. Ballmer is hopeful connected TV devices will eventually provide access to the app itself.

CourtVision is powered by a blend of artificial intelligence and augmented reality, two of the most buzzed-about tech trends today. Second Spectrum essentially created software that could be taught to understand the nuances of on-court action, to the point where the third version of CourtVision, “coach mode,” is capable of diagram the plays the athletes are executing seconds after they occur.

While the AI component of CourtVision allows it to understand the game of basketball, the AR component powers its ability to project the “coach mode” diagram to appear on TV screens as if it on the floor of the court just inches away from the players they are charting. While not altogether different than other AR elements used sparingly in other sports like the virtual first-down marker in NFL games, CourtVision constantly fills up the screen with many such images.

“What we want to do was require a machine to understand the game like a coach or a human did to augment the proper things,” said Rajiv Maheswaran, CEO and Co-Founder, Second Spectrum. His company is also exploring potential applications in other sports including soccer and hockey.

The features are expected to be just the first of many that will be added to CourtVision in the coming months to increase the interactivity and visual flair of games. Some Clippers season ticket holders, for instance, will already get the chance to take part in a beta experience that will allow them to watch the game for a menu of seven different camera angles, or to forego the play-by-play commentary to listen instead to live sound inside the arena.

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