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Babak Rafati became a FIFA referee in 2008 after only two-and-a-half years and 34 matches in the Bundesliga. Rafati always preferred watching the referee to the team in a football match and decided to become a referee at 16. Today, he is a Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Category 3 referee. A passion-driven referee and a perfectionist, he felt very humiliated when he allowed a controversial goal to stand in a Bundesliga match this March. You might think it’s a small error but one goal can cost a match. There are countries where sport is a religion, while in some it’s a business. Whatever the case, sport is one arena where egos are the biggest, and no-body likes mistakes—especially when it involves scores.

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A referee cannot have camera vision. He is after all a human. That is the reason why the team managers and referees approached FIFA after the match, to once again appeal for technology aids on the field especially along the goal-line. This is something that stakeholders have been requesting FIFA for long. Excellent technologies like Hawk-Eye are commercially available for tracking a ball’s movement, but FIFA seems to be moving cautiously, because they feel technology once deployed cannot be ‘uninvented’ once everybody starts relying on it. A proper dose of tech can aid a game; an overdose can kill sportsmanship.

However, from the speed at which technology is being adopted world-wide to assist in various aspects of al-most all games, it is evident that FIFA cannot reject the use of goal-line technologies—it is just a question of time.

Hidden helpers
When you see a match on television, the only technology you would probably notice is the flat-screen display used to telecast ads, or replays when the clichéd Third Umpire is called.

Have you seen the sensors, cameras, data warehouses, vision-processing algorithms, simulation tools and training software, heart-beat monitors, goal-line checks, geographical positioning system (GPS) applications, post-game analysis software and the many other cutting-edge technologies embedded across the whole sports value-chain? You would not be able to see these silent helpers with the naked eye, but nonetheless they are there, ensuring that the match happens fair and straight without any hitch. They are barely visible and that is the way it should be because a silicon-studded stadium would be a scary sight.

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This month we decided to do a bit of backstage scouting, to show you some examples of technology at play in various sports so that you remember to say a quick thanks to this mighty helper next time you enjoy a game. Let’s say, the World Cup fever caught us too!

Cutting-edge training, even for the pros
In sports and music, you cannot stop learning. In fact, the way you train could make the difference between winning and losing a game. The last decade has seen an increasing use of technology in training.

“Adoption of scientific training methodologies has helped improve performance levels in almost all of sports today. All kinds of training tools are available today. For an experienced player, analysis tools may score far better since they already have developed skill-sets and the requisite experience in this domain. Personalised analysis will help the player to identify weak spots, develop better coordination and response, and also reduce sports-related injuries, which are a major occupational hazard at the professional level. Video analysis also plays a vital role in training. Certain software is used to make the videos easy-to-access and help drill-down to specific portions. There is a company called SportsMechanics, which specialises in this and has been the performance analyst of the ICC Indian cricket team for long,” explains Prakash Prabhu, country manager, Axis Communications, India. Axis Communications provides enabling technologies like remote accessibility, monitoring and capture that have been part of many innovative deployments in the realm of sports information and analysis.

 

All kinds of training tools are available today. For an experienced player, analysis tools may score far better since they already have developed skill-sets and the requisite experience in this domain

SportsMechanics is an excellent home-grown example. Started by Sub-ramanian Ramakrishnan ‘Ramky’, a coach-cum-innovator, SportsMechanics has clients including the cricket councils of India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. Ramky’s goal was to bring in scientific tools and coaching methodologies into the game and he pioneered video analysis solutions in the subcontinent as early as 2000 when he introduced Silicon Coach Motion Analysis Software. SportsMechanics’ tools for online, virtual training are also known to effectively achieve a good rapport among the coach and the student and are quite popular today.

 

Sensor networks could also be an umpire’s aid, but more promising is their application in performance assessment and training, especially of a team as a whole

Another very new technology called PitchVision developed by a UK-based company, has already found a place in schools and training centres, especially in South Africa and India. PitchVision is a portable equipment that can be installed on any decent cricket wicket. It captures and sends performance feedback instantly to a centralised laptop in real time as players train. Apart from measuring and monitoring dozens of game-related metrics, it automatically creates a complete overview of all the activity taking place, right from the delivery of the ball to the bat and up to the final destination after being hit. The data can be viewed on a laptop or phone, or stored online for later analysis.

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ProVantage by Loughborough University is such a tool for golfers. It provides golf swing analysis and coaching. The solution uses a 16-camera Vicon motion analysis system, which automatically tracks strategically-placed reflective markers on the golfer’s body and club. The swing can be reviewed interactively from any angle and at any speed. Weight distribution—fundamental to golfing—isalso monitored using Kistler force platforms embedded on the floor. ProVantage also uses either Tekscan in-shoe sensors or an RSscan mat to provide a more detailed view of pressure distribution beneath each foot. Using such technologies, the solution monitors more than five essential focus areas of golfing including wrist movement and posture.

The Scottish rugby team’s coach has gone one step ahead and deployed remotely-operated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the form of a radio-controlled helicopter, fitted with high-definition video, high-resolution still cameras, thermal imaging cameras and emission sensors. Formulated by Cyberhawk Innovations, the solution, also called Cyberhawk, helps the coach assess important details using live and recorded relays.

The Cyberhawk can hover be-side players, giving their view of the pitch—which helps analyse the positions and patterns of the team. Thermal imaging is used to show the energy levels of players and where and how it gets expended the most. The Cyberhawk uses GPS satellite signals and can fly up to 60 metres in the air. There is a great focus on user control and customisation of the views.

Another research team in Europe recently experimented with a chip-fitted football and associated software that tracks and analyses its movement. Such information is also valuable in strategising and training.

Innumerable tools are available for various sports, including tennis, football, cycling and even those like javelin throw. Simple or complex, they all help at some level. Have you played any of those common tennis, cricket or football games on the computer? Even those are a starting point for training as they improve hand-eye coordination.

The third umpire’s best friend
In the game of cricket, when on-field umpires are confused, a third umpire’s opinion is sought. The third umpire sits off the field in a tech-fortified are where he can see replays and other information such as the trajectory of the ball, collisions, boundaries and so on, from various angles and at various speeds. Roles similar to the third umpire are permitted in other games too and they also rely on technology for making the critical decisions.

As of now, third umpires mostly rely on replays from various angles to make their decision but other promising technologies are available and have been tried in certain matches, though not yet in mainstream.

Hawk-Eye, for instance, is a complex computer system for predicting the trajectory of a ball. Usually, an umpire is able to see the ball until it hits the batsman’s leg, but is not sure where it would have gone thereafter. Hawk-eye could help project the path of the ball ‘through’ the batsman’s legs, and see whether it would have hit the stumps. This information would be helpful in making ‘leg before wicket’ decisions.

However, there is a lot of controversy involving the use of such predictions, and hence Hawk-Eye broadcasts are now confined to television replays and not used by umpires. The technology has also been tested successfully for tennis and snooker games and some associations have even accepted it as an umpire’s tool.

The Snickometer is a much older and time-tested tool that is very often used by umpires. It uses sound analysis to decide whether a ball has hit the bat or not. A very powerful microphone is fitted in one of the stump which keeps recording the ambient sounds. The sound of a leather ball striking a willow bat causes a certain sound which can be identified by the Snickometer during a replay.

A much newer technology, again for determining whether a ball has hit a bat or batsman’s leg pad, is the Hot Spot infrared imaging system. Two infrared cameras located on the opposite sides of the ground above the field of play continuously record an image. The infrared image shows a bright spot where the ball hits because the friction would have increased the temperature in that area. The technology can increase the effectiveness of replays, especially for umpiring purposes.

Similar technologies are used in various sports. In archery, for example, miniature Doppler radars are embedded in the bows to measure speed and other parameters that could help in training as well as scoring decisions.

Wireless sensor networks promise even more
Speaking of on-field technologies, we cannot ignore the potential of wireless sensor networks to revolutionise crick-et, football or any game for that matter.

Many prototypes of wireless sensor networks, especially body sensor networks for sports purposes, have been demonstrated in the recent past. A wireless sensor network comprises a large number of wireless nodes that can communicate with each other and with a central host, transmitting data in real time. Some advanced sensors could even have a certain level of on-board processing capability to crunch bulky data into a single relevant figure and transmit only that to the host. The transmitted details could be about a player’s position, a ball or bat’s position, a player’s heartbeat, energy level and so on. The information from various sensors would be collated and interpreted by the host computer for performance or game analysis.

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Sensor networks could also be an umpire’s aid, but more promising is their application in performance assessment and training, especially of a team as a whole.

A close parallel can be drawn from the European rugby teams’ experiments with radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. The teams are experimenting with the use of RFID tags to transmit the exact coordinates of the ball and players at an astounding 2000 times per second. The information can be used to calculate movement, speed, accuracy, and even force of impact.

Incidentally, as far back as 2009, Apple patented a “network of sensors that deliver real-time velocity, impact, rotation and other data from sporting event participants to the Web.” Let us see what application they came up with.

Wearable electronics
Nowadays, athletes are sporting a lot of electronics on their body, in their attire, accessories, etc, and not for frivolous reasons. Wearable electronics aids sportsmen mainly in fitness and performance analysis.

For some time now, Australian players are known to wear clothing that measures their heartbeat while training. Many such advanced suits for sports persons are now easily available in foreign markets.

 

Keep watching me

Since players’ positions, speed, movement, etc are very critical to the success of most sports, GPS or location-based applications are becoming very popular in the sports arena.

The players would have to wear a thin band embedded with a chip, or simply have the chip stitched into their shirt, so that the coach can analyse their movements and positions in real-time using the relevant software applications. While in team sports this could help develop strategies and improve the game, in athletics it could help in performance analysis. If used wisely in games like cycling or motor-racing, it could even be life-saving as such location-information could help anticipate and prevent accidents.

Last month, a company called UnderArmour launched a sports garment with an integrated electronics system. The garment contains a removable sensor pack near the breastbone and can give an athlete or coach instant feedback on breathing rate, heart rate, temperature and movements. The sensor pack contains a tri-axial accelerometer developed in conjunction with a Maryland company called Zephyr. The system measures acceleration and change of direction, which can be used to understand a player’s performance. The data can be transmitted to wireless devices such as laptops and mobile phones. The company has now started launching these exclusively for selected teams, and by next year it will be available on store shelves.

In February, another company called SporTracker released an iPhone application that tracks a player’s movement, speed, calories burnt, heartbeat and other critical fitness parameters using a thin arm-band. The information is gathered using built-in iPhone GPS and various sensors and transmitted in real time to a smartphone. The data could also be relayed to friends using Twitter or Facebook.

 

Rapid prototyping to build skating boots
Speaking of wearable technology, here is an example of how a complementary technology is helping sportsmen design their own garments and accessories. Two experienced ice-skaters have recently developed a system that uses rapid prototyping to quickly design and develop boots. The system can be used to make custom-built shoes based on weather conditions, track conditions, their sporting style and so on.

Recently, some labs have also developed wearable devices for swimmers to self-assess their performance without the assistance of a coach. These devices usually consist of two bi-axial accelerometers positioned perpendicular to one another, and when worn on the lower back of the swimmer, can keep recording critical performance parameters for several hours. Lap times and stroke counts can be derived from the accelerometer data. Researchers are also trying to place sensors on the hands to monitor the propulsive forces.

The Sports and Biomedical Engineering Research group at Griffith University has come up with a motion-analysis tool for runners. The team has developed a tri-axial accelerometer based system using dual-axis ADXL202 accelerometers, a Hitachi microprocessor and other readily-available components. An on-board 10-bit analogue-to-digital converter manages sample rates of up to 250 Hz per channel and the data is encoded and transmitted using Bluetooth. Up to seven modules can be networked and synchronised. The client software acquires and analyses the data from various nodes worn on relevant limbs, to quantify aspects of elite running performance including ground contact time, impact attenuation, trunk stability and sprint start technique. In the near future, they propose to incorporate gyroscopes into the device to provide information about the orientation of the body under dynamic conditions.

A team of researchers in the Netherlands is working on a prototype Haptic Sports Garment which can sense the player’s every move and also analyse the data to inform the wearer of areas that need improvement. By measuring vibrations in key muscle groups, the garment will provide guidance to improve posture and even help maintain optimal speeds.

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Wearable electronics is found to be especially useful for sportsmen recuperating from injuries, as it helps to track their improvement and even guides their movement using techniques like muscle emulation, video analysis, real-time suggestions and so on.

Spectator comfort and safety
Technology also plays a huge role in stadium design for good playing conditions as well as for assuring spectator comfort and safety.

Light-emitting diode (LED) based lighting systems with automatic control and monitoring, energy management systems, perimeter security tools and so on are widely used nowadays. The nature-inspired design of the Beijing National Stadium is one beautiful example.

 

Staying in touch with fans

Team managers, coaches, players, match organisers, everybody is now on the social Web. They are making excellent use of social-networking tools to stay in touch with the public. Although Twitter, Facebook or USTREAM are obvious options, other applications like Venuing and Twackle are also being used to enhance the rapport between teams and fans.

According to some industry watchers, the social networking fever has another side to it. It is also helping players to earn some small change. Chad OchoCinco Experience, for example, is an iPhone application that provides a behind-the-scenes look into the life of the popular footballer Chad Ochocinco. Such applications enable athletes to earn money from both point-of-sale and ad revenue. Similarly, websites like fanwave.tv—a social network for fans—apparently pay athletes and coaches according to their engagement, which is measured by the number of ‘tweets’ they post.

Based on the design of a bird’s nest, the stadium has several metres of unwrapped steel mesh that allows natural ventilation of the stadium. The temperature inside the stadium is regulated with the help of underground pipes that act as a geothermal heat pump system through which ground-source energy is collected. In winter the system absorbs the heat from the soil and helps heat the stadium, while in summer the coldness of the soil is used to reduce the temperature. The stadium is known for its sustainable design.

Last year, the New Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey showcased a host of technologies designed in association with Cisco Connected Sports and Verizon to customise the look and feel of the venue according to the game. This is achieved using more than 2200 high-definition (HD) video displays an scoreboards located across the venue, and delivering custom digital video and wireless content to sports fans.

In India too, ticketing, crowd control and security solutions are being widely deployed in stadia. “There are quite a few technology solutions available for crowd control, surveillance, ticket counterfeiting detection, unauthorised entry detection, etc. Today, stadium security is important as there will be thousands of spectators and players whose security and convenience is of paramount importance,” adds Prabhu.

Technology is also used for preparing the ground, checking the weather conditions and so on.

Enjoy the game, even at home
A discussion on technology in sports will be incomplete without a mention of the leading-edge broadcasting solutions being used by various television channels.

Apart from high-definition and three-dimensional broadcasts that are being pioneered by some channels, many direct-to-home service providers are also offering the facility of viewing the match from various angles. We have already discussed tools like Hawk-Eye and Hot Spot which are used to increase the efficacy of replays.

Nowadays, television is not the only medium to watch matches. With high-speed Internet connections and various Web video channels, you can watch the matches even on your computer. Companies such as SportsMechanics have advanced solutions that help the match organisers to relay their matches effectively on the Internet. This enables even small matches to be relayed live.

Need to strike a balance
It is evident that a real lot of technology is available for sports. In fact, it is everywhere on the training ground. Yet, in a match, only certain technology is allowed, depending on the discretion of the organisers. All the discussed applications seem to have a positive effect on the game, so why should organisers be wary of allowing too much technology use by players?

One very recent example is the effect of the recent Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) ban on radios. Radios on cycles have been used by athletes since 1990 for communicating with the coach. However, the UCI now feels that the use of radios has almost destroyed the cyclists’ ability to think by themselves, and is increasing the reliance on the coach’s instructions. That does not sound like a fair game, does it? Hence UCI decided to ban radios, but is faced with severe opposition from the cyclists who are refusing to drop their radio kits.

The fact is that too much of technology can kill a game’s spirit and make it too mechanical; and when the organisers realise that the spirit is gone, it might be too late to ban the technology.


The author is a technically-qualified freelance writer, editor and hands-on mom based in Bengaluru

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