"It's just as good as getting a personal instructor," says basketball coach Julio Agosto, speaking on the Xbox Kinect's new dribbling game, NBA Baller Beats. Agosto, an Emerald City Academy Basketball coach and father to b-ball Internet phenom, Jashaun Agosto, tells TechCrunch that Kinect's digital eye is able to recognize and reward enough advanced dribbling skills that the new NBA game could replace human instruction at his basketball camp (at least the dribbling portion). This latest Microsoft development brings one more job closer to the chopping block of skills that can be done cheaper and more conveniently by a computer: sports and fitness coaches.
Baller Beats plays a lot like Rock Band but with a basketball; gamers are rewarded for dribbling to a (rockin') beat, with the familiar vertical scroll of colorful, raised buttons indicating when users should bounce the ball, and in what direction around the body.
Evolving from its Rock Band inspiration, Baller Beats is the first title to recognize objects, allowing wanna-be athletes to hone their muscle memory with the very tools used in real-life gameplay. "Even a pro player can get a good workout," gushes Agosto. Since this system is made for the home, players can practice to their heart's content anytime they want.
Interestingly, Agosto argues that much of his dribbling coaching is cookie-cutter. Among the most important tasks he performs is training burgeoning young b-ballers to keep their eyes on their opponent, simply by asking them to read how many fingers he's holding up as they dribble. Baller Beats performs the same functional incidentally, since gamers are forced to watch the screen as they play.
Advanced skills, such as dribbling through one's legs, is equally monotonous, requiring a coach to passively monitor players as they perform hundreds of the same movement with pitch-perfect form. Observing an athlete's form is essentially the same as spotting the correct outline of the human shapethe exact function that Kinect's dummy digital eye uses to recognize movement. Agosto says the same is true for teaching proper shooting technique, for instance, by ensuring his students keep their elbows pointed downward.
In other words, it's not that Kinect is some Skynet-like genius, but that many of the tasks that "experts" routinely perform are no more sophisticated than the assembly-line construction that robots replaced decades ago. Back then, robots replaced jobs that used our limbs; now they're replacing our eyes.
The encroachment on sports and fitness training is just another notch on the wall for our robot competitors. Last year, the New York Times found armies of lawyers being replaced by computer software, which can just as easily dig through legal documents for keywords. In Florida, automatic learning software is replacing teachers, who have been reciting similar lectures for years.
Computers may not be able to replace high-level thinking yet. But, in the meantime, what other seemingly sophisticated jobs are we doing that could be next on the automated chopping block?