Basketball fans who miss the atmosphere of NBA events won’t be able to be in stands soon, but they can enjoy the next best thing – the virtual experience. Microsoft has recently announced that they are partnering with the NBA to allow basketball fans to attend games virtually. This will be done through a new AI feature in Microsoft Teams, Together Mode. The feature uses artificial intelligence to “cut out” the user’s face and shoulders and place them together with other users in a shared space.
According to Jared Spataro, head of Microsoft 365, basketball fans will feel like they’re sitting next to each other at the game – except, of course, that they’ll be in the safety of their own homes. They’ll experience the energy of the game, which they’ve definitely missed. Players, meanwhile, will see fans cheering on them from 17-foot tall LED screens installed around the basketball arenas. Since the screens are broadcasting in real time and those are real fans in the virtual stands, it won’t be as if they’re seeing stock footage.
Though virtual, this is a meaningful interaction between basketball teams and their fans. As the COVID-19 pandemic lingers on, attending sports events remains a high-risk activity, so stands won’t open anytime soon. The partnership between Microsoft and the NBA allows fans to once again experience the energy of basketball, taking full advantage of AI.
This exciting new feature is part of the partnership that Microsoft and the NBA established earlier this year. For several years, Microsoft will be the official AI, cloud, and laptop provider of the NBA, and the league will use Microsoft Azure to broadcast basketball games with personalized content.
Basketball games will resume on July 30, after being put on hold in March. Using AI to add more energy to the empty stands isn’t new, however. In Japan, Spot and Pepper robots will do dance routines and cheer on baseball games. In the US, Fox Sports uses CGI fans and fake crowd noises to animate the atmosphere at Major League Baseball matches. Of course, Together Mode is different in that the experience will feel much more genuine: real people will be cheering on real players, and they’ll see both NBA stars and other fans. As for the players, they will definitely feel more motivated seeing 300 real fans than generic CGI images.
According to Sara Zuckert, Head of Next Gen Telecast, NBA: “We are excited to partner with Microsoft to virtually incorporate NBA fans into our season restart. This unique live game experience will allow fans to maintain a sense of community as they watch their favorite teams and players “
Apart from the collaboration with Microsoft on Together Mode, the NBA also said that they would be offering fans in-venue and digital enhancements that will create a more immersive watching experience as the season resumes in digital-only format.