The NBA made some noise during its All-Star festivities this past weekend when it became the first major sport to embrace virtual reality. But across the street from the main event happening at Madison Square Garden, there was an ancillary event that offered fans a whole different type of immersion: a playable life-size half court made of LED screens created by Nike's Jordan brand for its 30th anniversary.
It was an NBA holodeck, and I had to try it.
The specs were mind-bending. The four massive glowing walls created a 1,200-square-foot room comprised of 10 million LEDs spread across almost 1,000 screens. (Wired has even more detail if you're interested.) The experience was programmed to let fans recreate one of Michael Jordan’s two most iconic moments: his go-ahead shot to beat Georgetown in the 1982 NCAA finals or his game-winner against the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals. AKQA, the company behind the experience, displayed a mix of CGI and costumed extras (filmed in a real arena) on the LED screens in order to mimic the period of each moment.
I was born a Utah Jazz fan
I was born a Utah Jazz fan in New York, which means I still have fever dreams of that shot Jordan sank in 1998 (and, of course, the push-off). So when I stepped on the court I decided to "relive" that moment — this way, if I missed, I could take some solace that the Jazz didn't get beat on a blown foul call (in the virtual world, at least). Ephemeral embarrassment seemed like a fair tradeoff to achieve virtual vengeance.
The LED walls filled my entire vision, and the screens beneath my feet lit up with glowing green directions that mapped out the steps for me — but by this point I was already flustered. The clock counted down, and before I knew it I had air-balled the shot by a good 5 feet.
Behind the screens a team of editors created a personalized highlight video of everyone's attempt.
As impressive as the technology was, it was everything else that really made the experience immersive. There was a live announcer, a real crowd cheering and booing behind me, and three towering real-life athletes in my face on the court in front of me. Without those things, I'm not sure the experience would have held up so well. Despite the lengths taken to make it seem realistic, the crowd on the screens was too obviously faked. And while the sheer size of the LED walls impressed on a visceral level, it's not like you could have honestly mistook it for the real thing.
Without those human touches, the experience probably would have felt more like a gimmick. But on a weekend where the NBA worked heavily with Samsung to create a virtual reality experience, the LED court built by AKQA was a glimpse at true immersion. Whatever this kind of experience evolves into — whether it's higher-resolution screens or actual holograms — could blow away the goggle-bound experience of virtual reality. And while I was told there’s no plan to bring it to other events just yet, it’s easy to see this how this could be a big part of the future of fandom.
- The reverse side of the LED walls was equally impressive.
- Each LED panel was pieced together in quadrants.
- The green spots on the floor showed fans where to take each shot from.
- The scale of the LED court was impressive, but there was no mistaking the experience for the real thing.
- Having real athletes move around the court with you elevated the experience to a different level.
- The court took on an Assasin's Creed aesthetic in between shots.
- Having a live announcer was the cherry on top of the experience. Over 10,000 fans were estimated to have come to the Jordan experience across from Madison Square Garden.
- Not only could you get a video of your LED court attempt, but there was also a (shorter than regulation) dunk court with a 32-camera array that captured your dunk, Matrix-style.
- This rim was lowered to under nine feet high, just low enough for even the least athletic fans to dunk on.
- 32 Canon Rebel DSLRs worked in tandem to capture fans dunking.