A slam dunk for Israeli startup

The ACE IntelliGym Trainer is an innovative software-based system that dramatically improves real-time decision-making and execution. Thanks to an Israeli software system originally developed by the Israeli Air Force to train fighter pilots on the cognitive, brain level, American college …

The ACE IntelliGym Trainer is an innovative software-based system that dramatically improves real-time decision-making and execution. Thanks to an Israeli software system originally developed by the Israeli Air Force to train fighter pilots on the cognitive, brain level, American college basketball players and coaches could have a special weapon this season that could propel them to the Final Four faster than you can say… Jim Calhoun.

The ACE IntelliGym Trainer developed by Israeli startup Applied Cognitive Engineering Inc. (ACE) is an innovative software-based system that dramatically improves real-time decision-making and execution.

Featuring a computer-game façade, it trains the skills that control complex basketball related tasks including; decision making; pattern recognition; tactics adaptation and switching; peripheral vision; attention control; situational awareness; team work, and spatial orientation. According to its makers, it strengthens the brain, just like the weight room builds muscles. That’s why the system has been dubbed ‘The Brain Gym’.

American basketball coaches got their first look at the technological breakthrough when ACE presented the system at the National Association of Basketball Coaches Expo during the NCAA Final Four in San Antonio, Texas last March.

“The ACE Trainer is revolutionary and any coach that will look at it will recognize immediately what it can do for his players,” said Jim Calhoun, Head Coach of the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team who was one of the first American basketball coaches to review the system. “I wouldn’t be surprised if five years from now every college and pro team in the U.S. will have the ACE IntelliGym Trainer as an integral component of its training system,” he was quoted as saying on the company’s website.

According to ACE CEO Danny Dankner, the system, which has been tested on Israeli amateur and professional players, will hopefully be making inroads in the college basketball venue this season.

“Currently we have two commercial contracts in the U.S. – one with a high school and another with a professional player, but what we’re interested in is colleges, and we’re waiting to hear answers from a lot of them,” Dankner told ISRAEL21c. He added that the company was on the verge of signing contracts with top-level college division teams on the East Coast, and is hopeful that when the teams converge for practice next month that the IntelliGym Trainer will be in use.

The origins of the ACE IntelliGym Trainer, explained Dankner, date back to a system devised for Israeli fighter pilots by Technion professor Daniel Gopher. Following an in-depth analysis of the skills involved in a dominating performance by the fighter pilots, a team led by Gopher devised a system to directly train those skills on the cognitive, brain level.

The results, said Dankner, shocked even the most ardent believers in the system. Pilots that underwent cognitive training measurably improved their skills and performance by 30% – incredible numbers for most, but especially in the life and death world of a fighter pilot.

Gopher, an ardent basketball enthusiast, noticed that the skills required by a pilot in real time dogfights are very similar to those required of a basketball player. Both need to see the whole scene and bring into account all variables. They need to assess the situation, involving ‘opponents’ and ‘friendlies’, and anticipate movements, speed and quickness in an ever-changing picture. They need to hone to instinct-level their understanding of how to manipulate the ‘big picture’ merely by changing their own position.

“With Professor Gopher’s participation as our research supervisor,our technology has made a major leap forward from his original foundation,” Dankner said.

Ace was founded in late 2001 by Dankner and three friends who had studied with Gopher at the Technion and were familiar with training system. They decided to adapt the system for the basketball market and by mid-2003 had joined the Targetech technological incubator in Netanya, which provided them with the capital to refine the ACE system.

After more than two years of research and development, the system was tested on both Israeli high school and professional basketball teams for a 6-8 week period that including two 30-minute training sessions per player each week.

To test its true impact, it was applied in a real league situation. Statistics were kept of every aspects of performance before the application of the IntelliGym Trainer and after.

According to Dankner, coaches and researchers confirmed that, quantifiably, players involved with the testing improved their skills in various areas – on both offense and defense – by 22% to 28% and performance in the areas of decision-making, execution and recognition of game situations skyrocketed – especially during money-time situation. Most dramatically, an average team compiled a 7-2 record in games decided by 4 points or less.

Gilad Shoham was a coach on one of the youth teams, and became so enamored with the concept that he joined ACE’s staff.

“The concept was cute, though I thougkt it was a bit strange to apply it to basketball,” he told The Jerusalem Report. “But when I tried it, the players suddenly improved in parts of the game where nothing I did had worked. They saw what was happening on the court almost as well as I did.”

When Shoham subsequently became assistant coach at Hopoel Tel Aviv in Israel’s pro league, he tested the system on four players and said they became team leaders as a result.

According to Basketball Highway – a leading source leading source of information and services for basketball coaches worldwide – the ACE system was worth ’5 hoops’ in their review.

“If your team is competing at a high level, you are missing something if you don’t take a serious look at this program. Next year, and the year after you might find yourself beaten by a more focused and intelligent team late in games because it is our opinion that more teams will be adding this cognitive practice tool to their team practices, strength training, and athletic development sessions,” wrote the reviewer.

According to Dankner, there is so little that separates the top-level teams and players, coaches are searching for something that will put them over the top.

“Coaches and players are looking for every edge they can find to improve. They hit the weight room to get stronger, run miles to improve conditioning, practice skills from sunup to sundown and study game film to learn their opponent. Now they can improve basketball instincts – an area that most thought was inborn or learned only through court time,” said Dankner.

The ACE IntelliGym Trainer looks like a regular computer game (in fact there are no baskets or balls) but much more is actually going on. As the player manipulates simple movements on the screen, ‘shooting’ ammunition at moving targets, the system is busy analyzing skills and customizing a training program just for that individual player.

The computer will then administer to that player the tailor-fit training program, monitoring his or her progress at every stage and reacting to every improvement or setback. As the player progresses through the regimen, the system gently introduces one building-block after another when the individual player is ready for it while monitoring and quantifying the performance at all times.

Skill improvement includes every area of game intelligence, from simple recognition of movements all the way to assessments and manipulation of field situation with opposing players with varying skills, height, and athleticism.

After the initial learning curve is over, the player enters a maintenance routine, which will keep him sharp as long as the season goes on.

“Players can’t work on continuous decision making, shot selection, recognizing and anticipating opponent’s moves, game creativity and peripheral vision because those are cognitive, not physical skills,” explained. Dankner. “Traditionally, there was only one way to improve cognitive skills – court time. We provide the equivalent of hundreds of hours of on-court training in just a few hours in front of a computer screen.”

With six employees, some outside consultants and a U.S. office in Los Angeles, ACE is planning to become a force in American basketball. They’ve developed three different IntelliGym systems for every type of basketball team – from a $5000 package for a small college team to $85,000 for an NBA entry.

Then, Dankner says, he would like to branch out into other areas with the product.

“Our system is adaptable. It would require some modification, but our next step is to branch out and go for additional sports,” he said.

If the IntelliGym system proves to be a slam dunk for basketball coaches, then coaches in other sports should be lining up for a chance to use the IntelliGym.