The sensors, science, connected devices and wearables that are changing the game.
The US National Football League (NFL) has the highest attendance of any professional sports league in the world by some distance. This Sunday, the Super Bowl will likely smash national TV ratings, while also drawing in an international audience of millions.
In short, American football is kind of a big deal. And, as with any high-profile sport, this means a lot of investment into improving the game in every way imaginable. From equipment to injury prevention, coaching to spectatorship, American football has seen plenty of changes over the years.
It’s standard now to have Wi-Fi-enabled stadiums, fan apps, rugged tablets and digital playbooks for coaches and players. But there’s a lot more to come from the marriage of American football and technology.
Now, entering the internet of things (IoT) age, the amount of information coming out of a game has dramatically increased. Everything is getting sensored and ‘smarter’ and Super Bowl sci-fi is becoming a reality.
Bringing a whole new level to sports analysis, Zebra Technologies teamed up with the NFL to create radio frequency identification (RFID) tags for players’ shoulder pads. The devices transmit to receivers which are planted around the stadium and can send real-time data around the world in a matter of seconds.
The RFID tags track players’ stats such as speed, acceleration, distance run and distance from other players. The data from these sensors is available to the players themselves the day after games, and can be used to help NFL teams with strategy and health monitoring.
In response to the growing concern around head injuries, X2 Biosystems created two patches to evaluate concussions. Rather than relying on helmet sensors, the patches are instead worn behind the ear and within the upper gum shield, with sensors recording head impacts and filing the data into complementary apps.
UCLA coach Jim Mora was an early investor in X2 Biosystems. Having raised more than £14m in funding, the company’s technology transgresses many sports, with Rugby Union side Saracens a notable proponent of the sensors in the past.
MC10’s BioStamp sensor is another small, wearable patch that monitors head impacts. The BioStamp is marketed as a general medtech device, though it was incorporated into Reebok’s award-winning Checklight skullcap in 2014.
The device is part of a complete end-to-end system that uses data analytics and machine learning to provide suitable feedback. Through partnering with Belgian pharma company UCB, BioStamp was used in a recent three-year study on Parkinson’s patients, with the results revealed last month.
Standing for ‘impact assessment system’, the Linx IAS has already been released into high school football. Behind it is BlackBox Biometrics, a company that was originally interested in traumatic brain injuries among US troops.
The sensor fits onto a headband and rests against the skull, measuring impacts. Similar to other sensors, it is hooked up to an app that reports on significant blows, allowing coaches and parents to share information with medical professionals.
Developed by Q30 Innovations and Dr David Smith of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, the Q-Collar was inspired by an anatomical quirk found in woodpeckers. The birds avoid brain damage by pressing their tongue against their jugular veins. This increases blood pressure in the brain, reducing the ‘sloshing’ effect – a root cause of traumatic brain injury.
Worn around an athlete’s neck, the Q-Collar is engineered to similarly increase pressure on the jugular, keeping more blood in the skull and creating an internal ‘airbag’.
The Q-Collar is not in use in the NFL, but has been tested in high school football and hockey.
When you get into a car accident, crumple zones built into the vehicle’s front end absorb the impact, ensuring that the severity of the force is lessened. Vicis’ Zero1 helmet works on a similar principle. Engineered to protect players from concussive injuries, the helmet has a soft outer shell and an inner layer made up of collapsible columns, designed to mitigate collisions.
Designed by a defensive lineman and a rugby player at Dartmouth College, Mobile Virtual Players (MVPs) are designed to act as moving, robotic dummies for players to practise tackling without getting hurt.
MVPs are remote-controlled and designed to right themselves as soon as they’re tackled. This technology eliminates the need for live tackling during practice, reducing the risk of injury or concussion for players.
Last year, MVPs were beta-tested on a number of football and rugby teams and are expected to roll out commercially this year.
Invented by experienced American football coach Tom Creguer, HighandTight exploits technology and statistics to train athletes to reduce fumbles that take place on the field.
The company’s patented technology takes an IoT approach to training and safety, using a sensored football that releases a sound if the ball isn’t held properly and tight to the body. The device is used in training by teams such as the Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens and Northwood University.
XOS Digital and Catapult
Prior to January’s Senior Bowl – where two teams of the best college football players are pitted against one another – the participating players used technology developed by Catapult and XOS Digital to help improve their game.
Using a device called the Catapult OptimEye S5, real-time data tracking of players’ performance could help scouts find the best for the NFL. In addition to the players’ sensors, the partnership utilises IoT tech to allow communication with sensors built into footballs trialled by the NFL, which measure data such as spin rate and velocity.
The Super Bowl attracts massive crowds that create logistical, safety and traffic challenges. Last year’s event in San Francisco brought in more than 1m visitors.
Vidsys is working with the City of Houston’s Public Safety Video Initiative on a daily basis to provide situational awareness, collaborate and share video footage, and support incident management during Super Bowl 51.
— vidsys (@vidsys) February 1, 2017
Vidsys’ technology allows the City of Houston to share video and other important data with security teams around the city, including the police and fire departments, emergency services and other public safety agencies, as well as major venues.
In a 2014 TED Talk, former NFL punter Chris Kluwe spoke about the unique potential of VR in the NFL. At least part of his prognostications have already become reality, bringing fans nearly onto the field.
— NextVR (@nextvr) November 28, 2016
NextVR signed a deal with the NFL in November 2016. The company has already created a 10-minute highlights package of footage from three league games. That may be just the start.
NextVR has some experience with live sports, broadcasting a weekly NBA game in real time. It is certainly plausible that, in future, Thursday night football could be a distinctly more virtual affair.
Rather than just benefiting fans in the stands, VR headsets have a place on the training pitch for NFL athletes as well.
Born out of Stanford University in 2015, Strivr was first introduced to the NFL through the Dallas Cowboys, whose players used the technology to watch pre-recorded plays in 360 degrees to help them prepare for upcoming games.
The company’s latest funding round of $5m was announced in December 2016, at which time it revealed collaborations with another six NFL teams to use its VR technology.
Believe it or not, AR is finding its way into American football. Microsoft and the NFL are collaborating on a concept whereby football fans can view football games as 3D holograms, watching and analysing the action from all angles.
Last year, Microsoft revealed how HoloLens, its holographic headset, could show users a 3D rendering of a stadium, with detailed information such as attendance and weather.
VR and AR are only in their infancy and Microsoft’s HoloLens is still in development, but this technology could soon be transforming the living-room spectator experience.
Using sensory technology, the Fan Jersey made by Wearable Experiments connects fans directly to their favourite team by allowing them to feel what their team feels.
Unveiled last year for Super Bowl 50, the technology reacts to adrenaline and excitement and allows the fans who wear the jerseys to feel that adrenaline through haptic vibrations in the fabric. Fans can simply choose which team they want to follow, put on the jersey and feel the rush of the team as they make touchdowns, interceptions and field goals.
Be the Player
This weekend’s Super Bowl will be broadcast by Fox Sports. To capture all the action, the network has promised more than 70 cameras focused on NRG Stadium, and more Super Motion and 4K cameras than ever before.
Sunday will also see the debut of Fox’s Be the Player, using technology from Intel.
Be the Player offers a POV perspective from any player on the field, without the need for player-worn cameras. The system uses Intel 360 Replay technology and computing power, transforming footage from an array of cameras circling the stadium into a synthesised player’s view.
Fox Sports SVP Michael Davies likens this experience to a ‘virtual camera’ being placed at the player’s eyeline, similar to the limitless camera views offered by video games.
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