Shane Wighton isn’t a sports guy. “I don’t even know who played in the Super Bowl,” he tells Inverse. But lack of interest didn’t stop Wighton from building the Internet’s latest sensation: a basketball hoop that makes it nearly impossible for the shooter to miss.
His hoop, seen on his YouTube channel StuffMadeHere, is the dream of every kid who desperately wanted to be LeBron but quickly realized that they were destined to be a benchwarmer. As long as your shot can hit the backboard, Wighton’s hoop will adjust itself to make for two points. It sounds like magic, a sequel to the 2002 Like Mike, in which a very special pair of Jordans allowed Lil' Bow Wow to suddenly dunk over adults.
But this is engineering.
For Wighton, an engineer in his day-to-day, the project offered a perfect chance to showcase what, exactly, an engineer can do: identify a problem, see through the noise, find a solution. “I’m learning a little bit,” he says of his process of making unlikely mechanical objects, “but I’m not really creating any value for humankind or myself. Hopefully, getting these ideas out there inspires people to become engineers because we need more engineers.”
The hoop is a teaching tool that shows instead of tells. Engineering math has an intimidating reputation—things like graph theory and the quadratic formula, which Wighton describes as “something people famously hate and can’t think of a time where they would ever use it. But it comes up all the time in engineering.”
The dream hoop and Google Maps both share a common ancestor: graph theory.
Graph theory plays a large role in the creation of the hoop, which Wighton explains in the back half of his video. Graph theory, which dates back to the 1700s, deals with the study of, you guessed it, graphs, which in mathematics determine the relationship between two objects. It’s often used to figure out how to get from A to B — its earliest forms saw mathematicians trying to map out a way around a city using seven bridges, and its most popular form is likely Google Maps.
But the path between a shooter’s hand and the hoop also works. The first step was to “figure out where the basketball was,” Wighton tells Inverse, which meant recording himself taking shots with a Microsoft Kinect, a now-discontinued motion capture device. That also meant teaching the computer what a basketball was, separating all the objects in his garage out until the basketball was discovered. “I had an enormous number of possible balls—in any given frame, there were potentially hundreds of balls. I’m trying to figure out, across time, what of these things is actually the ball? I was using graph theory to create all the things I thought could potentially be the same ball, frame to frame to fame.”
Wighton kept looking, even moving backward through the frames until he found the paths that could be represented by “a 3D parabolic trajectory,” which is used to measure the movement patterns of everything from planes to planets. Since the ball was the only thing moving, graph theory allowed him to filter out everything unnecessary.
That’s crucial because time is of the essence for Wighton’s hoop. A basketball, as any fan of buzzer-beaters will tell you, only flies through the air for a few milliseconds. The adjustments it makes has to be decisive and nearly instantaneous.
Luckily, Wighton is not the first person to try and figure out rapidly moving equations. “You can basically build on top of everyone who has come before you because there have been many people who have spent a lot of time figuring stuff out about graphs and improving them.” So even if nobody had figured out the dream basketball hoop yet, there was a lot of data from which to work.
Engineer, meet Sports Internet
The reaction to the video has introduced Wighton to a section of the Internet he’s never seen before: Sports Internet. After gaining popularity on Reddit, sports sites began aggregating Wighton’s content. That led basketball analytics experts to seek him out, which he had never heard of before. They were interested in his “facial recognition technology for training. I guess they track all sorts of metrics for players, and they would like to improve their tracking, focus on the right things.”
While Wighton has no real interest in a sudden career shift into sports, he’s open to the idea of someone else expanding on his work.
And that’s ultimately the goal of the hoop, which Wighton says is only the second generation of what will be a third. Smartass commentators have noted that they could intentionally airball a shot, missing the backboard completely, so Wighton wants to build a hoop that can move and essentially catch the basketball like an outfielder running down a fly.
While Wighton has no practical need for sports himself, he sees it as a way to show people how engineering can change the world. It doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating, even if you don’t know how something works—there’s a wide world of help and guidance available online that can offer suggestions. “One of my missions in life is to get there to be more engineers. These things seem like they’re impossibly hard, but they’re not once you know some of the facts of engineering. Hopefully, if they find it interesting, they pursue a degree in engineering because it’s really good for the world.”
His next projects involve tricking out golf clubs —”I think it’s possible to build a golf club that corrects your shot for you,” he tells Inverse.
“And I think it’s possible, a bit ridiculous but possible, for the right golf club, definitely not regulation, to break the longest drive record. With a little extra something. A little extra kick. He may or may not need a firearms license.”
He’s already working up the models.