Futuristic view of the beautiful game - Embedded.com

Futuristic view of the beautiful game

LONDON — The decision by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which sets the laws for Association Football, not to sanction any more experiments in the use of technology to help on-pitch officials is seen as a blow to making the game more tech savy.

However, while this decision was seen as just hitting the “Is the ball over the line?” question, a recent report sees technology having a much wider influence in the coming decades. And a census of 3,072 football fans in the U.K. found that 82 percent think more technology would improve their enjoyment of the game.

The Orange Future of Football report 2008 charts expert opinion to reveal the central role advances in communications technology could have on the game, benefiting players, referees, managers, and fans alike and considers how football could look in 2020.

The report did not predict the latest backward step by the IFAB but it did acknowledge that football governing bodies have tended to remain traditional, and suggested they will come under increasing pressure to change their stance on a range of issues that involve fans, players and clubs.

There are some areas where technology is already having a major influence. As systems designed to provide performance affecting information such as ProZone (www.prozonesports.com) evolve, intelligent cameras will make decisions on which players are not putting in sufficient effort on the pitch – and will advise their substitution.

ProZone has several technologies that enable the capture of performance affecting information. Data is captured from either standard video sources or via a set of installed cameras offering enhanced analysis. Computer data built up over a player's career can be incorporated to reach an informed decision. For example, if a player tends to tire midway through the game but comes up with last-minute goals and assists, they may be allowed stay on the pitch.

The cameras could also use gait analysis to understand which players are getting angry by noticing differences in the way they walk, and alert the manager or captain that they might get sent off.

A supercomputer built to pick teams based on data from ProZone, and other systems such as Datatrax or Opta Index could match players best suited to coping with the opposition. While such a system would never solely be used to pick the team, it could provide an effective back-up. “In South African rugby union, some clubs are basing players' contracts on how they perform objectively, using ProZone data,” said Barry McNeill, business and development manager of ProZone. Managers of the future will not simply trust their instincts, but could rely on technology and artificial intelligence to make decisions. “With cameras, you can extract an awful lot of information, for example gait analysis, from quite average CCTV footage,” says Graham Fisher, Head of Orange Research & Development. “There are intelligent CCTV cameras that spot unusual behavior.”

And the pitch of the future will be alive with technology to help referees make the right decisions and to keep spectators informed, including robot linesmen designed to spot an offside and light-emitting pitches. The exact point of throw in's could be worked out by radio frequency identification (RFID) chips in the balls or by the camera technology. Spotlight systems similar to giant laser pointers could mark out the exact place where free kicks need to be taken, or a circle marking out 10 yards (9.15 m) from the kick.

This information could also be transmitted via light on an intelligent pitch embedded with light emitting diodes (LEDs) able to communicate with impact sensors in balls and boots. Before the game each player would register their boots as home or away; this would mean the pitch will recognize which team's player had kicked the ball in an offside decision.

If players were offside the pitch would light up in the line where they were, giving the exact spot for the free kick to be taken. Tiny shock-measuring chips embedded in socks and shinpads connected to the RFID chip will be able to detect impact, sending a signal to the referee's watch to tell him whether there was contact and expose players who intentionally dive.

While nanotechnology could be built in to kits to help with injuries, there are potential electronics opportunities as well. “There are all sorts of light-emitting and color-changing fabrics available,” says Fisher. “Advertising messages could certainly be uploaded to shirts.” Players' shirts will scroll through advertisers, thus maximizing advertising revenue. Light sensors incorporated into kits could adjust the hue of the shirt to maximize visibility for spectators.

Developments for fans could include holographic viewing in which 3D TV and computer-generated characters will be used. New technology will allow miniature monitors at every seat, the introduction of in-seat delivery services of food, drink or merchandise. However vibrating seats designed to get the crowd on their feet might just be a step too far for the regulatory authorities.

The Orange report sees team managers of the future having a host of technology and artificial intelligence aids at their fingertips to help make tactical decisions. Robotic linesmen and referees, spotlight systems and intelligent pitches will look to eradicate human error made by officials.

The pitch will increasingly be a 'live' arena, as sophisticated on-field communication allows players to connect with one another and become 'active nodes'.

Managers and referees will link directly to the teams while the match is in progress. “This will mean that players can actively contact their managers via mobile devices located on their bodies,” said Richard Crane, principal researcher at France Telecom Research & Development. Team captains could report on tiring players and relay information to managers to pre-empt injuries.

Going further the Orange reports predicts that robots could even replace referees, using artificial intelligence to make judgments such as whether or not to play the advantage or what level of punishment to give unruly players.

Global positioning systems (GPS) like the upcoming European Galileo system could enable real time connectivity and eradicate human error. Making the wrong the decision about offsides and the ball going out of play will cease to exist because officials will receive accurate, instantaneous feedback about a player or the ball's exact position on the field,” added Crane.

But will fans turn against all this? “We could have scenarios in the future where no one goes to watch sport live, preferring instead to watch it on television,” says Roy Jones, professor of sports technology at Loughborough University, England. Orange's Fisher believes that we may even see computer-generated characters appear on televised footage to create the impression of full stadiums.

Not surprisingly mobile operator Orange is interested in how fans will use their mobile phones. A digital version of the game could be saved on the handset for fans to load on to their PC or games console. They could then use the data to play a particular character and see if they could change how the match turned out.

“It's easy to put accelerometers in things. They have been put in phones, they can be put in boots. You could easily work out how hard the ball was kicked, the angle it was going at, and then, using 3D technology, transfer the incident to a game,” said Fisher. “Through a mobile device one can begin to see how the 21st century fan will enjoy the ultimate after-experience on-the-go and with friends.” At its annual general meeting last week in Gleneagles, Scotland, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) decided to put on ice goal-line technology and to stop tests in this area until further notice. IFAB is currently made up of eight members, four representing the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) – the sports governing body – and four others from the English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish football associations.

Instead the IFAB have gone for an experiment involving two additional assistant referees who will mainly focus on fouls in the penalty area.

The goal-line technology that they have dismissed for now is based around two different approaches. One relies on an intelligent ball and sensors on the goal developed by a consortium including Adidas (Herzogenaurach, Germany) and Cairos Technologies (Karlsbad, Germany) with technology developed at Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits (Munich, Germany).

The other focuses on cameras based around the goal with work being done a number of organizations including Hawk-Eye Innovations Ltd. (Winchester, England) and a project funded by the Italian football association.

The Adidas proposal was tested at the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan in December 2007 with the intelligent technology implemented in a ball (pictured) which uses a magnetic field to provide real-time feedback to a central computer, which tracks the location of the ball on the field and sends the data directly to the referee.

A previous system used radio transmissions to correspond with a central computer and a microchip suspended in the ball to determine its location on the field. By using a magnetic field and more stabilized and robust components within the ball, the new system is more precise and is not influenced by in-game factors, adverse weather or nearby technical systems.

The Italian project uses four high-resolution cameras, which record 200 frames a second which were installed 20 m above the corner flags for a test at Stadio Friuli for Reggina's game at Udinese.

In February 2007 Hawk-Eye Innovations gained the approval of the IFAB to develop a goal-line system for football based on cameras around the goal. The company boasts the only technology to have been officially sanctioned by tennis' governing body, the International Tennis Federation. The FA Premier League stipulated that a goal-line system must be accurate to 5mm and Hawk-Eye says its has meet this requirement while the IFAB had stipulated that an 'instant' system must be implemented and Hawk-Eye's set-up will provide an answer is less than two seconds.

A ball travelling at 60 mph will move one metre per video frame on standard broadcast cameras, which operate at 25 frames per second, so Hawk-Eye utilizes cameras that can operate at up to 500 frames per second. Every image is processed by a bank of computers in real time. This data is then sent to a central computer, which combines all the information to determine whether or not the ball has crossed the line. This information can be communicated to an official's watch or an ear piece.

Hawk-Eye recently showed its system to IFAB members at Reading's Madjeski Stadium and managing director Paul Hawkins, was encouraged to press ahead with his research and the about-turn by IFAB has angered him. “This decision is completely out of the blue. A year ago they laid down four specific criteria and now they change their minds. My company has invested an awful lot of money and now we will get no return on our investment,” said Hawkins.

  • This story appeared in the EE Times Europe print edition covering March 17 – April 6, 2008. European residents who wish to receive regular copies of EE Times Europe, subscribe here.

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