Mavs' new 'freeD' video tech could have big replay, analytics possibilities

Mark Cuban looks at the big screen, sees the future. (AP/Mark Duncan)
Mark Cuban looks at the big screen, sees the future. (AP/Mark Duncan)

Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks have long been at the forefront of technological advances in the NBA, and the billionaire owner consistently ranks among the league's loudest voices in pushing for game-operations advancements that make watching a game in the arena at least as fun as checking it out in HD from the comfort of your couch. Cuban's latest big-time investment seems aimed at adding another checkmark in both areas.

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Replay Technologies — a company in which Cuban has invested — has installed its signature freeD cameras at the American Airlines Center. The cameras capture "360-degree video coverage of key plays from all live game action within the arena [...] in 5K video resolution, the highest quality viewing experience for fans," according to a statement announcing the partnership.

The replays will be available on the arena's monstrous overhead scoreboard and, eventually, integrated into the Mavs' television broadcasts, allowing production teams to show viewers any angle of any play that takes place during the game.

Here's a preview of what it'll look like:

Pretty slick stuff, right?

If freeD looks and sounds familiar to you, you might be remembering its use during TNT's broadcast of the 2014 NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans:

... or its deployment during several football games held at the Dallas Cowboys' home stadium that were broadcast on NBC last year, or during New York Yankees games on the YES Network. (You might also be thinking of similar 360-degree camera-angle production flourishes featured in the past, like ESPN Axis.)

While the Mavs aren't the first American pro sports team to get involved with freeD, they are the first NBA team to do so, and — since everything's bigger in Texas, after all — Cuban super-sized his combo, popping for 26 cameras ("six of which allow for enhanced zoom capability") to make the American Airlines Center's new camera rig "the largest freeD system ever installed across all international sports properties."

Fans probably won't see the freeD images when they tune into FOX Sports Southwest just yet; now that the six-week installation of the cameras is complete, the Mavs and freeD have to test the system out to make sure everything works right. It's expected to be ready for broadcast use within the month, though, and it could have a wide-ranging impact once it's fully operational, according to Brad Townsend of the Dallas Morning News:

Cuban said the software also can, for example, take any byte and transform that into views — “For example, right at the jump ball, what does Tyson (Chandler) see? It literally recreates that perspective.

“If the ball goes out of bounds and you want to see who touches it, you’ll be able to spin the whole thing and look from any angle.

“The secret sauce is it converts (the high-resolution video) to actual data,” Cuban said. “And the double secret sauce is from that data, you can recreate any of the visuals. So from this, that is recreated into data. From using the software, you can look at it from any angle.” [...]

And, yes, because NBA replay officials in Secaucus, N.J. will have access to the Fox SW video feeds, they will be able to use the freeD technology to confirm or reverse calls.

Now, those extra camera angles and their potential for greater context when looking at a disputed play might not come into play frequently enough for freeD to be a major game-changer in terms of official reviews. But then again, y'know, they might. If the NBA decides not to uphold their protest, ask the Sacramento Kings if they'd be interested in have 360 degrees worth of angles to support their contention that Ryan Hollins tipped the lob pass that wound up becoming a game-winning alley-oop by Courtney Lee. It might be an extreme outlier, but maybe, just maybe, such additional looks could mean the difference between a win and a loss, and in an environment as competitive as today's Western Conference, that's a pretty flippin' big difference.

Beyond the replay implications, that "converts the video into data" comment likely perked up the ears of those who once longed for the information captured by STATS' SportVU optical tracking camera system, which the NBA had installed in all 29 league arenas prior to last season, and which now produces all sorts of granular (and publicly available) statistical information over which we can geek out. If SportVU generates about 1 million distinct raw data records per game using six cameras, how much more information could freeD capture with 26 dedicated cameras?

“It’ll blow away SportVU, just blow it away,” Cuban told Townsend.

As always, though, the challenge of capturing an insane amount of information on stuff like the position of all 10 players, the ball and the referees, how quickly they move, where they move, and other tracking data is sifting through the haystack to figure out what to do with it. This is where Cuban's investment in not only the cameras, but in the company that makes them, could pay dividends. From the freeD announcement:

Throughout the remainder of the NBA season, Replay will work with the Dallas Mavericks to develop a 3D teaching application that will allow coaches to see the court from above, all sides and even in-between players to analyze plays like never before.

"This technology will help the Dallas Mavericks continue their successful winning ways, by furthering the way we see the game," explains Replay CEO, Oren Yogev. "Through the sophisticated algorithms, we are excited to showcase the action in an innovative perspective."

And since Cuban's an investor in Replay, his team will be the only one to get access to this potential treasure trove of game-planning information.

Granted, there might be some concern about making decisions based off a limited data-set — while there'll be tons of insight into the Mavs' own players, Dallas' analytics crew's visibility into opponents will be limited only to what's captured during their visits to the AAC — but if Cuban's right about freeD's potential as the next big thing in in-arena game presentation, it probably won't be long before other NBA owners start plunking down their cash to get the cameras rigged up in their rafters. And when that happens, as Townsend notes, Cuban the investor will get a piece of the purchase price, a win that'll probably taste twice as sweet to him as money earned from owners in any other sport.

So, in the worst-case scenario, Cuban's got a cool new toy that will add fun new replays for his fans watching at home or in the AAC to enjoy. In the best-case scenario, he's got a competitive advantage and an inside track on a piece of game-presentation technology that'll provide a new revenue stream in the years to come. Seems like a pretty savvy business move all around. Someone really ought to give this guy a TV show about investing.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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