(Video courtesy AKQA)
(Video courtesy AKQA)

For years it’s been a given that basketball courts are made out of wood. While some have received odd paint jobs and garish logos that dominate the court, the surface always has remained the same.

We’ve seen innovations to track and analyze players with overhead cameras, but no one has thought about making the court itself “smart,” as in adding some intelligence, sensors and computing power.

That all changed this summer in Shanghai, where Nike leaned on three companies, AKQA, Rhizomatiks and WiSpark to create a basketball court that is entirely unique for its Nike Rise campaign. Following open auditions, a pool of players was narrowed to a lucky 30 who were given the chance to train with NBA star Kobe Bryant.

“We wanted to add something that was authentic to basketball — to help kids get better — but that was also an entertainment platform for the live audience we had around,” said AKQA executive creative director Duan Evans, who took a lead role on the “House of Mamba,” a nod to Byrant’s nickname.

Players on the court appeared to be running around on a giant television screen:

(Courtesy AKQA/Nike)

For a while, the idea for the court was literally that, 1,680 LCD screens strung together and covered in a thin layer of plastic. But getting the surface to feel and react like a traditional court took more work.

“It had to feel like a basketball court. If we had Kobe Bryant walking on it, there was no way we could have him stepping on a surface that wasn’t authentic to the game,” Evans said.

The finished product ended up as four layers. First, a layer of traditional hardwood, to help offer a natural bounce. Then the 19.7-by-19.7 inch LED screens, which were covered in plastic. Next came a layer of glass, just over an inch thick. The top layer of the court is an adhesive surface called Scotchcal luster overlaminate added to provide grip and a traditional feel. Shoes squeak just as on any basketball court.

The court also boasted motion-sensor capabilities:

(Video courtesy AKQA)
(Video courtesy AKQA)

Infrared cameras were placed in the ceiling. And a player doing drills would wear sensors on his arms/shoulders that emit light. The cameras could identify the player via the sensors, then communicate that information to Mac computers running software to control the court. As a player moved from side to side, a spotlight could track them.

On the left, the sensor worn by players. On the bottom right, the cameras placed in the ceiling. (AKQA/Nike)

Evans tells me the technology was flexible enough to allow for some improv too.

“The last night before the final show, Kobe said he wanted to create his own session where he went one on one with the kids and took them through drills, so we took the wood court mode and put some markings, almost like digital cones. We could create pretty quickly a new mode for the floor,” he said.

One feature of the court was a shooting drill. Spots on the court could be illuminated to tell a player where to shoot from. But the court isn’t yet capable of telling if a player makes or misses shots during the drill.

Nike isn’t revealing the costs of making the court, not to mention the electric bill to keep it running.

It’s reminiscent of an earlier Nike campaign in which it provided eye-catching glowing lines for soccer fields in Spain. For now the court looks cool, but seems closer to an entertaining stunt than the future of basketball courts.