Featured Rise of the Machines: How Technology is Transforming Sport

Published on January 25th, 2023 📆 | 8509 Views ⚑

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Rise of the Machines: How Technology is Transforming Sport


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Looking to the future, Irwin says his new skeleton-tracking system could result in more decisions by video assistant referee; handballs in soccer, for example. β€œWe’re tracking where the ball hits the hand, the distance between the player and the ball, and the speed of the ball. And we can we provide this information to the referee. We won’t make the decision for them but we can give them more information so they can make a better-informed decision.

This raises the question of whether human referees and officials will eventually become extinct. Irwin thinks not, citing tennis as an example. He explains how Hawk-Eye enabled professional tennis to be staged soon after the global Covid pandemic since it precluded the need for multiple officials on the court’s edge, checking every line call. Even then, the chair umpire was still essential as a supervisor of the machines.

β€œThe more we can automate and objectify things the better,” Irwin adds. β€œBut I think it’s good to have that human aspect, and we’ve got the technology to support them.”

And, lest we forget, technology is not 100 per cent reliable either. In Gaelic football’s 2022 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship semi-final between Derry and Galway, Hawk-Eye was suspended at half-time after wrongly ruling that a point-scoring kick from Derry’s Shane Walsh had missed the target. The referee initially called it correctly. Then he changed his mind after the Hawk-Eye verdict. Finally, following a further video review, the point was reinstated.

Even when sports officiating is totally faultless, there is still another human element that technology cannot control. As Irwin says: β€œI’m a soccer fan myself. And fans don’t always want the right decisions. They just want the decisions that are right for their team.”

Holding the line

At the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, some extremely advanced computerised sports officiating was employed. In the centre of each match ball, a sensor – known as an inertial measurement unit sensor – sent data to video operators 500 times a second, allowing precise detection of kick points.

In addition, 12 cameras mounted beneath the roof of each tournament stadium tracked both the soccer ball and 29 data points on the limbs and extremities of each individual player 50 times a second, pinpointing their exact positions
on the pitch. β€œBy combining the limb- and ball-tracking data, the new technology provides an automated offside alert to the video match officials,” FIFA explained. β€œThis process happens within a few seconds and means that offside decisions can be made faster and more accurately.”

Once a decision had been confirmed by the referee, the data points generated a replay animation of the relevant player and the ball, which was then broadcast on TV and on the giant screens inside the stadium. FIFA hope the new technology will eventually be adopted by all professional soccer leagues worldwide.

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