Wilson Just Made the Smartest Football of All Time
Backyard sports have long been the domain of spectres and ghouls. The basepaths of Wiffle ball are haunted by ghost runners, refusing to advance more than the minimum amount of bases. And then there’s the invisible offensive line, an unseen unit that never staves off a pass rush for more than five Mississippis.
Now, there’s a football with a stat-keeping phantom inside it. The Wilson X Connected Football tells you how far, how fast, and how efficiently you throw the ball. The football’s sorcery is actually driven by internal sensors.
“The sensor is in the very middle of the ball, suspended four ways, kind of like a spider web,” says Bob Thurman, vice president of Wilson Labs. “You can kick it, you can punt it, you can punch the hell out of it, and the sensor won’t budge.”
It’s actually two sensors. There’s a pair of offset accelerometers, which can effectively mimic a gyroscope. The setup measures the speed of each throw, the speed at which the ball spins, and the nutation angle of each toss—in other words, how tight that spiral is.
“If you watch slow motion of a football in flight, you’ll see that as the ball’s spinning, the nose of the ball is also drawing out a circle,” Thurman says. “The smaller that circle is, the better. We turned the nutation angle into a measurement called spiral efficiency.”
You don’t need to charge or recharge this ball. The sensor unit is powered by a watch-style battery that’s supposed to last for 200,000 tracked passes. After that, the ball ceases to become a “smart football,” but you can still use it as a dumb football.
To conserve energy, the sensor is in sleep mode most of the time. Once you’ve launched the app and an activity, the app prompts you to wake the ball up. This involves holding the ball vertically with both hands for two seconds, then flipping it vertically and holding it for two seconds. It takes some practice to work consistently, but the unique pattern activates the sensor and Bluetooth. It also helps prevent draining the battery by accident.
After each toss, the ball relays information over Bluetooth to an iOS app (an Android version is coming soon). It gives you an instant readout of your throw speed, distance, ball rotation in RPM, and spiral efficiency. The app also serves up head-to-head games you can play with the ball, leaderboards for competing against your friends, and new-school spins on traditional Thanksgiving-game rituals.
For example, there’s a two-minute drill that lets you compete against the clock and a digital version of the five-Mississippi pass rush. Your backyard antics are narrated by play-by-play man Gus Johnson, and it plays out like an augmented-reality video game. You select plays using a wrist-mounted iPhone holder included with the ball, listen to a beeping countdown clock, and try to get the pass off before the imaginary pocket collapses.
“I don’t want to call it ‘Madden for the backyard,’ but it’s built off similar ideas,” Thurman says. “There’s a simulated blitz. A sack timer, basically. You hear it ticking down, and you have to get rid of the ball.”
The app is also smart enough to prevent cheating. The ball knows whether it’s been caught or dropped. And if you’re playing one of the app-driven games and a receiver drops the ball, it registers as an incomplete pass. Thurman says it’s a surprisingly easy algorithmic task.
“When I catch the ball, I stop it from spinning,” he says. “If I miss it, it bounces around and keeps spinning. After a catch, there’s a smooth deceleration. It’s easy to pick up what a catch looks like from the data.”
The ball is legitimately fun, and it’s available in official NFL and youth sizes. But the wizardry will cost you: Both sizes cost twice as much as an official NFL football. At $200, they’re available for preorder today and slated to ship on September 8. That’s opening night for the NFL—and your augmented-reality backyard-football career.
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