After a memorable Ashes series, spectators are getting used to seeing technology playing an important role in deciding whether a wicket has fallen. And it is not just in cricket that referees and umpires can call upon technology to help them make the right judgements.

“Was there downward pressure on the ball?”, “You cannot be serious!?”, Frank Lampard’s famous “Ghost Goal” in the ill-fated 2010 World Cup. Sport has been littered with contentious decisions. As it has become big business and the stakes have got higher, governing bodies have turned to tech to help get the big decisions right.

And on the whole, technology has been coming up with the right answers. That is not to say it has been easy. To develop systems robust enough to be trusted with making multi-million pound judgments takes extensive research and development. The course of careers can be changed and the mood of whole nations affected for months by what these systems decide, so they had better be right!

Some UK companies are playing a leading part in this technological revolution in sport. They take many different approaches to their research including:

  • Trajectory simulation
  • Sound detection
  • Infra-red
  • Fast-frame cameras
  • Software
  • Algorithms

Combining various technologies involves painstaking iterative testing, and sports administrators have rightly set a very high bar before they bring a partner on board. Overcoming technical challenges such as accuracy, speed of decision and even players trying to game the system are all a key part of the process.

Bird’s eye view

Many sports fans will be familiar with the Basingstoke-based company Hawk-Eye. Having started their research back in 1999, their systems have steadily become part of some of our most iconic sporting events. It all started in 2001 when Channel 4 incorporated the technology in their coverage of the Ashes. A move that was to win BAFTA and Royal Television Society awards for innovation. Since then it has become part of many of the biggest events of the tennis and cricket calendars, Premier League Football and some Olympic events. Quite a journey!

Hawkeye is principally concerned with ball tracking. Its goal-line technology in Premier League Football for instance tracks the ball’s movement using seven fast-framed cameras located in fixed positions around a stadium. Software processes the information captured and detects if the ball has crossed the goal-line. It is accurate down to one millimetre and relays a signal to a watch worn by the referee within one second. This satisfies two of the principle objections that those in the game have held: accuracy and avoiding delays to the game.

(As an aside, Rugby – which embraced technology years earlier than football – still lives with both of these issues through its Television Match Official (TMO) system. Here tries are often referred to an off-field referee who will examine multiple camera angles to help rule if there have been any infringements. It helps for better informed decisions but it cannot always provide a definitive answer, and is sometimes criticised for breaking up the flow of the game.

A tennis ball in four dimensions

Hawk-Eye’s work in tennis is perhaps even more impressive than their goal-line technology. Using multiple camera’s that capture footage at 1,000 frames per second (fps) – regular broadcast cameras operate at more like 25fps – they track the position of the ball in two dimensions. The information is then triangulated to provide 3D positioning. Finally they introduce the element of time by showing the position of the ball in each frame to produce a trajectory and thus enter the fourth dimension.

Hawk-Eye state that prior to main draw competition the system is a state of continuous testing. Technical challenges they have to account for include:

  • Camera wobble due to wind
  • Bright sunlight
  • Shadow
  • Low light
  • And artificial floodlights

Nevertheless they have a proven mean-error rate of just 3.6 mm and on average the system overturns 30% of line calls, meaning there is a significant improvement in the accuracy of the game’s decisions. Interestingly, their high speed video footage shows that a tennis ball’s impact with the ground actually spans up to 10cm before lifting off again. Regular TV cameras simply can’t capture this information so a ball clipping the line may appear well out on them.

High Speed Footage of a Tennis Ball Bouncing from Pulse / Hawk-Eye on Vimeo.

In the ten years since Hawk-Eye received ITF accreditation, no other company has passed the stringent testing, showing how cutting edge the technology has to be.

The Decision Review System (DRS) in Cricket

DRS is probably the most comprehensive umpiring technology aide known to UK sports fans. It has been with us for a few years but has been continuously evolving. Back in 2011 the International Cricket Council reported that its use in the World Cup had led to an increase in correct decisions from 90.18% to 97.82%. Hawk-Eye are again involved, but this time technologies from other companies are utilised. In total, four technologies are used. Australian company BBG has developed an infra-red camera system called Hotspot that detects if a batsman has edged a ball and displays it visually as a bright white mark on a black and white image. Although apparently a useful tool in the armoury of umpires it has been dogged by problems ranging from cost – which is currently borne by TV companies rather than the International Cricket Board, technical errors, and the accusation that players have been able to dupe the system by applying silicon tape to their bats.

BBG is also responsible for Snicko, a sound based system that records sound as the ball passes the batsman. Umpires are expert in picking up audio and visual signals in making their decisions, but the margins are unbelievably fine. When a cricket ball is whizzing through at 90mph a faint noise can be heard whether it strikes bat, pad, or trouser leg. Snicko presents the sound alongside filtered sound waves in time with the video replay to determine exactly what was hit. As you can imagine a wide range of R&D is involved here including microphone integration (it is normally built into the stumps), ambient noise filtering, synchronisation and real time processing. This last point was one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome, with a working system having been around for a few years, but it taking too long to process and present the information. This has now been resolved through a dedicated hardware solution and is featuring in the 2015 Ashes.

Olympic records

If technology is seen as an aid to referees and umpires in all we have looked at so far, then it is going a whole lot further in the Olympics where it is virtually replacing some officials. In many of these events where timing is absolutely key, technology is simply more reliable and more accurate than human judgement and execution. Take athletic track events for example: at the London 2012 Games there was an electronic starting pistol plugged into a quantum timing system capable of timing races to one thousandth of a second. Moreover the system was integrated with the starting blocks where speakers delivered the sound of the pistol shot to competitors at exactly the same time and pressure pads could detect false starts. The finishing line was monitored by lasers which signalled back to the timing console when competitors crossed the line.

Quite a lot going on there we think you would agree. R&D is often as much about integrating new technologies together as about developing the individual lines of innovation. It was not just track events that relied upon technology so heavily. Touch pads were used in the pool to sense when swimmers dived in and finished the race, bikes in the velodrome were kitted out with radio transmitters in their tyres that sent unique identification codes to the start and finish lines. Even in Taekwondo, the fighters had wearable tech with sensors in their attire which were hooked up to an electronic scoring system.

More than a game

Professional sports and the Olympics may have their origins in recreation and games but they are multi-billion pound industries now. Technology is bound to play an ever-increasing role in helping officials make the right call, but to do so it must pass stringent testing to ensure reliable, accurate and quick decisions. Only extensive R&D can lead to this so if you are innovating in this field speak to ForrestBrown today to explore how you could recoup up to one third of your expenditure.

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