The wide world of sensor-embedded sports

29th November 2023
Harry Fowle

Rolf Horn, Applications Engineer at Digikey, takes a look at the technology revolution coming to the world of sports.

This article originally appeared in the Oct'23 magazine issue of Electronic Specifier Design – see ES's Magazine Archives for more featured publications.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred recently told ESPN that robot umpires are headed for the big leagues in 2024.

This electronic strike zone or Automated Ball-Strike System (ABS) includes a sensor behind the home plate and several Hawk-Eye optical tracking cameras triangulated on the location. The system uses the pitch arc along with the location and dimensions of the batter’s strike zone to determine whether any given pitch is a ball or strike. When a batter doesn’t swing, the system relays the correct call to the umpire’s earpiece in a matter of seconds.

The ABS will be used in all Minor League games in 2023 to allow for some experimentation. In half of AAA parks, all calls will be made automatically by the ABS. The other half will use the ABS challenge system, in which umpires call balls and strikes as always … but the batter, pitcher, or catcher can then challenge the call. In these cases, the robo-ump will make the final decision.

Technology building blocks of sports analytics Baseball robo-umps aren’t the only application for feedback in sports — and in fact, the sports analytics market could reach $4.5 billion by 2025. While product features and specs differ by manufacturer, certain technologies are integral to most analytics systems. Consider three examples:

  • IoT sensors are embedded in equipment or worn by players. They capture metrics including position, motion, acceleration, vibration, force, pressure, and impact.
  • Ultra-wideband (UWB) is a short-range wireless communication protocol. Because it operates through high-frequency radio waves, UWB can capture higher-precision spatial and directional data than Bluetooth, GPS, or Wi-Fi. Optical tracking systems use high-speed, synchronised cameras to capture video images from multiple angles at upwards of 300 frames per second.
  • Artificial intelligence (AI) software instantaneously processes data and then converts it into other formats, such as video-review systems, visuals for broadcasters, and mobile app media for fans.

Application spotlight: connected technologies at the FIFA World Cup

Official match balls at the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar featured a new tracking technology developed by Adidas, FIFA, and KINEXON. An Adidas Suspension System stabilises a 500Hz inertial movement unit (IMU) motion sensor inside the ball. The IMU collects time-precise data on the ball’s position at 500 times per second. Hawk-Eye cameras around the stadium track the position of the ball 500 times per second. Hawk-Eye’s semi-automated offside application SkeleTRACK tracks 29 points on individual players at up to 50 times per second.

When these technologies are combined, video match officials and video assistant referees (VAR) have the data they need to make fast, accurate, and consistent offside calls. The software also generates 3D images of the player, which are displayed on large screens inside the stadium. Other applications overlay the live game broadcast with current and historical performance data about individual players and teams. This was also the first year that social media content was captured in vertical format by mobile phones at the stadium, allowing content creators to share near-live clips of key moments in the game. Fans watching from home can tap into FIFA’s augmented reality (AR) app — turning their living rooms into 3D data centres.

Application spotlight: puck and player tracking with the NHL Edge

The NHL received the Alpha Award for Best Sports Innovation at the 2022 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. The league was recognised for its puck and player tracking technology, branded NHL Edge. The application (created by SportsMEDIA Technology or SMT) features a patented sensor-embedded puck referred to as Bright Star. When the puck receives an impact, like being dropped onto the ice or struck by a player, the sensor wakes up and emits infrared light, which is transmitted to multiple optical tracking cameras throughout the arena. OASIS, SMT’s platform processes and distributes the data to officials, coaches, broadcasters, and fans.

Analytics are entrenched in virtually every professional sport, but the driving force behind NHL Edge is fan engagement. Overall attendance has been on the decline, and attracting younger fans is critical to the league’s future. In-venue applications powered by 5G and Edge computing overlay digital information onto video from the game in real-time. Broadcasters and fans can see player numbers, stats, and historical performances in a matter of seconds. Spectators will soon be able to use augmented reality (AR) headsets to place themselves into the action on the ice. The potential to extend applications like these to other professional sports was no doubt a factor in winning the Alpha Award.

Don’t count the humans out quite yet

Advanced analytics help athletes train more efficiently, perform better, and play safer. Optical tracking and video review systems settle arguments and speed up play. Connected apps allow fans to engage with teams and players like never before. But letting the machines override human coaching instincts is another matter.

In game four of the 2022 National League Division Series (NLDS), Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts pulled starting pitcher Tyler Anderson at the bottom of the fifth inning. Sports Illustrated noted Anderson was pitching a masterclass game, allowing only two hits and zero runs out of 86 pitches. Anderson told the LA Times he could’ve pitched all night.

The number crunchers disagreed.

According to the analytics, bringing in a fresh pitcher in the sixth was the right move — and theoretically, this decision may have been made before the game even started. (Roberts was 45 minutes late to media sessions because he was tied up with the front office analytics team.) Ironically, the Dodgers won game six of the 2020 World Series when Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell was pulled while pitching one of the best games of his career. Rays head coach Kevin Cash admitted the decision was made using insights from their data analytics. Suffice it to say, analytics can be a valuable tool … but they aren’t the whole ball game.

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