Thursday, September 29, 2011

Technology and Sports Officials

I have written elsewhere about the changes in sports broadcasting that interactive technologies will bring in the near future.

Advancing user of sensors, microchips and smart materials and networking them may mean big changes for professional sports. Along with training assistance and broadcasting innovation, sports refereeing will likely undergo some interesting changes soon owing to these and other technological advancements. The use of increasingly small and wired components could one day allow some judgment calls in sporting contests to be automatically determined and allow the still-necessary human referees to concentrate on other aspects of the game that require their judgment. It is unlikely that we can or should eliminate human referees, but the use of technology could be a useful tool in allowing them to focus more closely on certain aspects while automating some other rule monitoring.

When most people think of technology and sports referees, they first think of video replay technology. Video technology is a crude precursor to what can be done with current information technology and professional sports refereeing. Video, because of the delays it requires is seen by many as simply inadequate. It has become clear that this is too cumbersome and slows down the game unacceptably for fans and players and everyone except television advertisers who love the extended duration of undivided attention that these delays mean.

Technological application in sports refereeing will be more commonplace primarily due to the great reduction in the size of technological devices today, especially microprocessors. Most of the personal computers of the past decades had a processor about the size of a wallet-sized photo. But of course they have gotten much smaller in recent years. Specialized chips can today be reduced to the size of a grain of rice--or smaller. It is inevitable that these ever smaller, ever cheaper devices will be implanted in sporting equipment, uniforms, the field or playing court and the ball itself.

Implanting a microchip in a baseball for example, could allow sensors, the computers which monitor them and the officiating crew which monitors these in turn, to determine whether a ball was, for example, out of bounds. Or if the home plate in a baseball stadium was wired, whether the ball was inside, outside or right in the middle of the strike zone. It could tell whether a ball was foul or whether it was a home-run, based on which side of the foul/fair pole it passed. (I'm continually amazed at how difficult a call this is for umpires to make).

Perhaps more sophisticated but certainly technologically feasible is tracking the exact moment a fielded and thrown ball suddenly stopped its trajectory and whether the additional pressure of the base-runners foot was applied to first base before or after the sudden stop of the ball's momentum was recorded. Modern GPS and tracking technology will allow sensors to determine the speed and movement of a ball and the exact instant when it stops. This could be compared instantaneously with pressure sensors on the first base bag to determine whether the ball stopped (i.e. arrived in the first baseman's glove) before the runner's foot touched the base.

Similarly, a chip embedded into a (American) football together with sensors embedded along the length of the goal line would allow referees (or their sideline monitors) to determine quickly whether a ball carrier at the bottom of a goal-line pileup actually crossed the line. This might alternatively be done using precision GPS technology. In either case, this would relieve the field referees from disassembling the mountain of 300 lb men in the scrum to find out where the ball is or whether it crossed the goal line during the squirming that takes place even after the sound of the referee’s whistle.

New materials being developed called "smart materials" could be used in uniforms and shoes. These are cloth or other synthetics that can contain sensors without feeling or wearing any differently than normal cotton clothing. For example I can imagine shoes having microchips (as thin as a postage stamp) to record whether a player's foot or both feet were in or out of bounds. It could also likely be used for 3-second calls in the NBA given that the lane could be wired enough to sense whether the same player is standing in front of the basket for more than 3 seconds.

Sensors would be helpful to referees on the field and GPS technology. Tennis lines, basketball lines, the lane, 3-point line, football out of bounds. Sensors are so small and inexpensive these days that they could easily be used to line a field or court along the out of bounds lines or in the case of football, the goal line. In cooperation with sensors embedded in the balls or equipment, they could be used to quickly identify and generate a visible or audible signal for out of bounds or other infractions. As noted above they could identify scoring in a goal-line pileup but they could also be used to spot tennis balls that are served long or otherwise on the line. Currently tennis officials use some form of camera monitoring to see on which side of the line a ball landed. But increasingly we see an aversion to the need for a human to visually review a videotape. Sensor technology would presumably emit an 'in' or 'out' call immediately.

The technology for many of these advances is already available. The only impediment to seeing them put to use and to relieving modern referees from the burden of catching every player's movement on every play is acceptance of these innovations. Agreement would ultimately have to come from sports league owners but opinions of general managers, coaches, players and fans would also have to be considered. It wouldn't surprise me if some of these applications of technology came in piece-meal with media sponsorship of certain components.

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