This Smart Basketball Isn’t So Easy to Make (or Charge)

January 12, 2016, 6:05 PM UTC
S. Higginbotham for Fortune.

When companies are trying to ride the latest hype curve and build some sort of new connected product, engineers often derisively say, “Just put a chip in it.” But as sporting good company Wilson discovered, putting a chip in it isn’t so simple.

At CES the company was showing off its newly launched connected basketball and its soon-to-be-launched connected football. Both balls looked just like their “dumb” counterparts, but have an app and contain Bluetooth chips and sensors. The balls measure passes and how often the ball goes through the net (basketball), and efficiency of the pass spiral (football). The basketball costs $200. The football’s price has not been determined.

While the price is astonishing—a regular Wilson basketball costs between $10 and $70, while a football might cost up to $80—the real interesting story is how Wilson’s engineers managed to build a connected basketball that you never have to charge.

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The engineers couldn’t figure out a way to introduce any type of charging without affecting the way the basketball bounced. Obviously, you can’t have a charging port, so at first the lab looked at wireless inductive charging (what Philips uses on its Sonicare toothbrushes).

The original thought was to place a single inductive charging nub on the ball, but that affected how it bounced. The next idea was to create a ring around the inside of the ball that would enable the inductive charge. That too, failed.

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Finally, the engineers realized that basketballs and wireless charging were not going to work, so they changed the business model. Instead of planning on power, they decided that the mess of sensors in the middle of the ball had to use as little juice as possible. Anytime the ball is at rest, the sensors and radio are asleep. When the ball leaves the player’s hand for a shot, its electronics are asleep. The ball is only awake and transmitting info when it needs to be.

MORE: The 6 Things CES Taught Us About the Internet of Things

Wilson estimates the ball can stay charged for about 100,000 shots. The company believes most players won’t ever get past that point (if they do, they get a free ball). For Wilson, putting a chip in the ball required more than electronics—it required a commitment to the product that might last years.

Update: This story was updated Jan. 13 to correct the number of passes the ball can support. It offers 100,000 not 200,000.

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