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4 minute read

Silicon Valley Reinvents The Ball

Can an app-connected ball bring back physical play for a generation hooked on video games?

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Admittedly, it sounds like some parody straight out of Silicon Valley. There’s a startup called PlayImpossible, and it has invented a ball. But not just any ball! The ball is connected to an app, naturally, because kids these days are all addicted to their smartphones, so how else do you get them to play ball besides by putting the experience into an app?

But doggonit—isn’t it an idea that sounds just crazy enough to work?

Founded by Brian Monnin, a serial entrepreneur most recently at Intel; Kevin Langdon, a technology specialist in health care wearables; and Gadi Amit, CEO of NewDealDesign (NDD)—the same firm behind the Fitbit—PlayImpossible is developing what it calls an "active gaming system." It’s a line of sporting equipment that connects to software to promote what’s otherwise good old-fashioned play. "Truly in the pure sense of the word play. Without ulterior motives, programming balls, learning coding, being NFL prospects," says Amit. "Just go back to pure fun. And the thing today is, kids see the digital domain as part of their fun."

PlayImpossible's first product, due in 2017 for an undisclosed price, is called the Gameball.

The Gameball is a fairly normal five-inch ball, constructed much like a small volleyball. There are no lights, speakers, or motors to speak of. "That’s the magic of it," says Amit. "If you think about it, the history of the ball goes back maybe 10,000 years. It’s an object that’s central to our sports and leisure activity. That’s really unique. There aren't objects like that. The biggest task for me as a designer was how not to defile the simplicity of that ball."

So NDD made the technology end invisible. Inside the ball lives a sensor suite and a Bluetooth chip, and with this hardware, the ball can measure speed, altitude, and spin, all of which is sent back to the Gameball app. As of now, the app has about 10 games, though PlayImpossible plans to both add more and open up the API to the Gameball itself, so anyone could build an app for the hardware.

The games are designed for groups of just a few kids playing in relatively close proximity, like hot potato. Since the ball has no feedback mechanisms of its own, sounds and scores play through a nearby tablet or phone. Crucially, however, you don’t really need to check the screen during play. For the most part, the digital end serves like an automated score keeper, giving stats on who bounced the ball the highest, or managed to generate the most spin—all while letting kids get immersed in the analog world of play. There’s even a free-play mode that will record stats without any rules, with the understanding that a child playing with a ball will be perfectly inventive in her own right.

"We resisted the urge to make it too educational, or too competitive, and the notion is really to reintroduce play in a very enticing physical and digital way," says Amit. "We feel this is the right interaction, the digital domain is there, but it’s not imposing."

The ball also attempts to bridge the physical-digital divide in its UI. While you can set up game modes on the phone, you can also spin and tap the ball itself to set up a game. Even how often and quickly the ball charges was a consideration: Gameball is one of the few gadgets to use a supercapacitor for energy storage, allowing it to charge for 1.5 to 2 hours of play in just 15 seconds. A wand—which looks a lot like a ball pump—charges the ball up to 100 times from its AA power source. "We just wanted it to be as natural as getting a sip of water," says Monnin of this brief break between games. "It’s a small thing you need to do to keep playing and enjoying yourself."

While the Gameball isn’t available for pre-order just yet, you can invest in the company itself on Indiegogo. Play Possible has raised about $1 million from investors to date, but it’s also one of the earliest campaigns under new crowdfunding regulations that allow you to not just purchase a product, but to invest in a company’s futures with potential for real return. Given that investments start at as little as $100, PlayImpossible isn’t really viewing the Indiegogo campaign as a major source of revenue. But the company does appreciate that a fan who has real stake in the company might be the best fan they could ask for.

"We want to introduce a new consumer brand, and we need advocates—bullhorns advocates," says Monnin. "We’re thrilled with getting extra runway—$70,000 with 80 investors I didn’t have to fly around the country to go meet—but more importantly, it’s an introduction to someone who is like-minded. So we expect them to be great ambassadors for us, along with our mutual goal for fun and profit."

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