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Professional sports should take on real technology

Posted: 07 Jan 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Applied Electrodynamics  sports  MEMS accelerometer  transmitter 

The magic of technological advancements has touched almost every aspect of our lives. Citing a few, smartphones, tablets, notebooks and wearables have transformed the way we work, communicate and consume media. However, technology seemed to have altogether ignored professional sports as a segment worth indulging.

As a case in point: "It's close to a first down. They're bringing out the chains to measure." Chains? Seriously? Are they cave athletes?

Integrating real tech in sports

Put a tiny transmitter in the center of the ball with a MEMS accelerometer. Place three or more receivers around the field. The time of flight of the transmitted signal from the ball to the receivers provides the information needed to calculate the position of the ball to an accuracy of about a millimeter at all times, that is, we can measure it's trajectory with millimeter accuracy. The accelerometer gives us the ball's orientation, so we can calculate the position of any point on its surface.

For American football, the continuous measurement of the ball's position and orientation clarifies first downs, touchdowns and field goals. We can also tell when and where the ball is deflected, either by being caught, being blocked, or hitting the ground. Knowing the time and position translates to information about fumbles and catches.

For soccer (a.k.a. football), goals and in/out of bounds can be known with no uncertainty, as well as the time and position of every kick, header, or hands. Same goes for hockey.

For baseball (a.k.a. American-rules cricket, sort of), knowing the trajectory of the ball eliminates any doubt of home runs. Crowd interference would be indicated by an abrupt change in the ball's trajectory. Strike zones would have to be defined by an umpire for each batter, which would allow the umpires some control of the game. They could even have a heads-up display to see the position of the ball as it passed over the plate and call balls and strikes appropriately and accurately, even consistently.

The timing information of when a ball is caught coordinated with camera-timing indicates when a runner touches base could give "tie goes to the runner" meaning.

By measuring the rotation and orientation of the ball, the accelerometer would provide a whole new swath of statistics. Not just pitch count and speed, but spin about any axis. Broadcasters could tell us what type of pitch and be right every time, and make useful comments about the quality of the splitter, breaking ball, fastball movement, the rare screwball, and, best of all, the nearly rotation-free knuckleball.

About 50 baseballs are used in a typical Major League Baseball game. Would a little transmitter and MEMS accelerometer cost too much? Not on the scale of MLB budgets, not even close. But if that's the excuse, there is an alternative. The ball's trajectory can be measured by tracking it with three or more cameras. Each camera has to be time locked to an accuracy of 50ms or so, and the position accuracy isn't as good (at best centimeter) and you wouldn't measure the ball's rotation.

Introducing ball trajectory technology would not eliminate controversy. The field boundaries are defined by chalk or paint with accuracy no better than a few inches (5-10cm) over the entire field. Pregame calibration would try to account for field markings and surface shape but would never be perfect. That is, technology would improve the controversy, too.

A couple of other points: It's against NFL rules to use computers, tablets, smartphones, etc. on the sidelines, so they print images and send them down to the field in binders. Why not let them use whatever tech they can get?

Finally, right up there with the first down chain, how about that telephone baseball managers use to call the bullpen? It's got a cord and everything. Couldn't they send a text message? Or put a post on Facebook: "Get the lefty up, you know the one with the thick glasses and 110mph fastball."

Or am I totally wrong?

What tech should go into your favorite sport?

Would replacing human error with tech error destroy the game?

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