From BALLN to GenMove: how following the data led to the World Cup 2022
With their football skills app, which uses AI and AR to help young footballers develop their abilities, the team at BALLN thought they were on to a winner. By late 2021, they had the support of Kevin de Bruyne, UEFA and an EPL club. Downloads were strong and reviews were positive.
“So we had a huge amount of confidence,” says CEO Andrew Hall a year later. “We thought we were on an absolute home run hit. But then what we saw was quite amazing. BALLN had eight skills in the Player Card rating system. We had six outdoor ones and two indoor ones. And we just saw all of this activity on the indoor games. We were like: what is going on here?”
The app reached #5 on the UK App Store’s Sports category. But after digging into the data, it became clear that the majority of the app was being ignored in favour of the indoor workouts. Andrew was puzzled. The Covid lockdowns were in the rear-view mirror but kids didn’t seem interested in garden- or park-based exercises. The BALLN team consulted with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other developers, who corroborated their findings: children were no longer playing outside.
“Kids' screen time, and its negative effects, is now a top three concern daily for parents,” says Andrew. “The WHO is clear that 80% of kids don’t meet the physical activity guidelines anymore, and that’s essentially because they are sitting at home. The result of this is their strength levels are different from previous generations and even their coordination is different.”
Solving a big problem
The evolution of BALLN, GenMove, is designed to reverse this trend – but doesn’t aim to take away the tech. Instead, the exercise app for kids uses AI and augmented reality (AR) to turn the player into the controller, with their movement affecting the in-game environment. From Bubble Pop to Space Blast (ie. Space Invaders), the app’s games get phones out of kids’ hands and gamify fitness.
“The really exciting thing about the app is you don’t know it’s exercise. It gets you into a flow state very quickly,” says Andrew. “There’s something really fascinating about looking at yourself on a screen interacting with these virtual objects – it’s super exciting and highly engaging.”
GenMove will be championed by FIFA and the WHO at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, using the event’s global reach to publicise the app alongside a huge campaign to get the planet’s kids moving. Over the four weeks of the competition, GenMove Season 1 will be available for free to every child with access to a smartphone or tablet.
GenMove is the result of a journey that began in 2016 and informed by crunching an immense volume of data. That year, Andrew and a small team of devs launched MyKicks, an app which used an early form of smartphone computer vision to measure, assess and give feedback on penalty kicks. The timing was perfect. The iPhone 6S had recently launched, providing new capabilities in camera tech and processing power.
Andrew, himself a former semi-elite level triathlete, was coming off more than a decade in venture capital. He’d spent time advising others on strategy, growth and financing, but it was time to practise what he’d preached.
“We got at the forefront of lightweight AI, working with a bunch of people that were developing those early frameworks,” he says. “In AI, the person that wins is the person with the dataset to train the machine learning and that’s where MyKicks was so valuable for us. We collected over a million penalty kicks and stored them in the cloud. So we had tens of millions of images that we could select to train in different environments.”
Two years later a much improved and stabilised version of the app was launched, just in time for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. By then, MyKicks had signed five-time world freestyle football champion Andrew Henderson as an ambassador, plus influencers Miniminter (10 million Youtube subscribers) and ChrisMD (5.7 million subscribers), whose support helped the app top the Sports category of the UK App Store that summer.
The first pivot
“We knew that penalty kicks weren't enough and it was never the plan to stop there. We always wanted to try and develop a more extensive measurement platform,” says Andrew.
It was time to build on the experiment, improve the technology and build on the usage and ML data they’d accrued. In 2019, the company entered the inaugural UEFA Innovation Hub, where MyKicks was one of three football startups chosen from a long-list of 110 companies. “And it was through UEFA that the concept of BALLN was really born,” says Andrew.
BALLN, would be bigger, better and slicker than its predecessor. The premise was to enable any football-mad kid with a smartphone to get out into their garden (however small) and improve their soccer skills. To create the more complex app, the team grew from six to 15.
Through UEFA, Andrew and the team began discussions with the WHO in August 2021. Shortly after, they announced Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne as an ambassador. Such partnerships brought legitimacy but also the potential to reach new audiences.
Combining AI and AR with the smartphone camera, the app measured footballing abilities, like dribbling and shooting, and rated users’ skills. This rating resulted in a ‘Player Card’, similar to those in the FIFA games, and a curated, personalised training plan that coached the user through in-app video lessons.
Downloads were steadily growing and the app’s user engagement figures were exciting, but some odd patterns were emerging. Andrew and the team realised that BALLN – though designed primarily for outdoor use – was mainly being played inside.
“75 percent of it wasn’t being used in the way it was intended,” says its founder. “Through April 2022, we had deep conversations with people from the WHO and world leading academics trying to decode why we are seeing this usage profile in our product. It’s not what we were expecting, but it was still very exciting.”
They started speaking with other developers and researchers who began to see a similar trend.
“People became very comfortable being indoors during the pandemic,” says Andrew. “We started talking to global academics on what was happening to kids and they told us playtime was already reducing before the pandemic. Now we’re through the pandemic, kids are 8% heavier and screen time is up dramatically.”
This opened the door to exploring how else to get young people moving indoors. But that wasn’t all – the WHO was also interested in addressing concerns around diminishing levels of hand-eye coordination. The result was GenMove – an app that turns the player into the controller, requiring them to squat, leap and complete jumping jacks, to pop balloons with their hands and feet or do flick-ups with an AR football.
On top of that, it bakes in tried and tested gamification techniques from platforms like Fortnite and Roblox to keep kids engaged and spur them on to unlock the next level.
“We basically have a movement game experience where we're trying to engage kids where they want to play, which is using the screen,” says Andrew. “So whether it's a form of Pac-Man, Space Invaders or Fruit Ninja, we've created movement games which are really exciting. We created fifty different ones very quickly by using our core technology and building out a gaming engine to create this really fun experience that gets kids hooked on exercise.”
Andrew is also drawing on the football relationships built from developing BALLN – from UEFA to Kevin De Buyne – to publicise the new app. “The great thing about our football influencers like De Bruyne and John Stones is that they all have kids and they’re starting to see this [fitness] problem themselves in real-time,” says Andrew.
GenMove goes global
Season 1 of GenMove was launched in Doha in time for the FIFA World Cup 2022. The app is set to be a key part of a global campaign from the WHO and FIFA entitled ‘Bring The Moves’, which will span the entirety of the tournament. On top of football themed fitness games, the campaign urges kids to use the GenMove app to unlock and participate in goal celebration challenges and upload their recordings throughout the World Cup.
With the ‘bring the moves’ call to action and significant promotion from FIFA and the WHO, GenMove can expect a significant audience using the app. This will give Andrew and his development team a significant dataset to identify how people react to controlling the games through their movement, what features are most popular and what improvements can be made. So what does the future hold for the GenMove team?
“We see adults having as much fun as seven-year-olds using the app,” says Andrew. “I think all of us love gamified exercise, which opens up offering slightly different approaches for different demographics. Ten minutes of GenMove is actually pretty hard exercise – it's a bit like a high intensity training (HIT) session. So, this really leads us into the adult market.”