How Much Technology can one ‘Play’ with?

There is a lot of electronics embedded in the stadia, media pits, players’ clothes, and even in bats and balls. These help in fitness and performance analysis, training, fair play, and spectator comfort and security. yet, there is a need to decide how much of technology to deploy in a game -- Janani gopalakrishnan Vikram

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

 [stextbox id=”info” caption=”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.[/stextbox]

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.

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.

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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.

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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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