Who will fans blame when the call doesn’t go their way?
In this article...
- Learn how “robot referees” are disrupting the sports world with tech
- Professional sports are using robots to take human error out of refereeing
Every year and in every sport, digital technology’s role in officiating live gameplay expands. Innovations like MLB’s Statcast and the NBA’s SportVU systems have leveraged data to collect a wealth of information about all aspects of games, offering detailed feedback to help coaches and players improve performance and grant fans greater access. But applying the same technology to help referees make better calls has been much more controversial, in part because the stakes are so high. The decision on a tough call can be the difference between a win or a loss.
Officiating is, of course, subjective, and therefore susceptible to human error. Arenas and stadiums are equipped with dozens of cameras to use during replays. But the limits of what the cameras can see, and the inefficiency of using replays to make calls during games, support the argument for more specialized equipment that enables real-time analytics.
Some leagues have been quicker than others to embrace these so-called “robot referees.” But in the last two years alone, versions of these systems have taken hold in almost every major professional sport, ushering in an era of major change.
- Tennis paves the way for machine officiating
Quick, efficient line-calling technology has been in use in major tennis tournaments for over ten years. British firm Hawk-Eye has also developed a system for use in cricket, badminton and several other sports. Hawk-Eye uses six or seven cameras mounted around the stadium to record the ball’s trajectory and assemble a 3D image that lets officials know in seconds if a ball landed inside or outside the line.
- Automating calls improves baseball umpires’ accuracy
In recent years, Major League Baseball has been a trailblazer in widespread adoption of IT infrastructure for player tracking and fully wired stadiums. Debates about using these innovations to assist umpires in making calls during gameplay are tipping in favor of tech, particularly behind home plate. Automating the strike zone in real time would standardize the definition of balls and strikes across all umpires and could eliminate “pitch framing,” when catchers position their gloves to make balls appear more like strikes. MLB hasn’t announced if they’ll implement these technologies anytime soon, but sophisticated replay technology is currently used to review and rate the accuracy of an umpire’s performance after the game.
- The Internet of Things sees where soccer refs cannot
The sheer size of a soccer field and distances between players mean that the referees often lack the best angle for making a close call during fast plays. After years of debate, FIFA implemented GoalControl technology during the 2014 World Cup to help referees determine whether a ball had crossed the goal line. Fourteen cameras and sensors mounted around the stadium combine their data into a 3D read and send visual and vibration signals to the referee’s watch within seconds. GoalControl’s technology can also apply to other aspects of play, such as the prevention of erroneous offside calls. Others have called for the adoption of automatic devices that help referees judge whether a player is “diving” or was actually fouled. The adoption of shin guards developed by British firm Small Fry that are equipped with accelerometers and magnetic sensors could help speed up the game by reducing the number of dives in a given match.
- The Tour de France takes tracking devices on the road
In 2015, Dimension Data turned the bicycles of all 198 cyclists in the Tour de France into data collection points by outfitting them with GPS devices that could calculate race positions and precise rider data—even in the mountains of the French countryside. The old days of officials with radios and stopwatches posted along the tour’s route are long gone. Now constant latitude, longitude and velocity readings of every rider give officials a complete picture of the competition, even if a cyclist disappears into a tunnel or a remote area where data coverage is spotty. Most importantly, there’s no ambiguity about race rankings, despite the chaos of dense group formation at the finish line.
- Data tracking in basketball unpacks rapid-fire plays
The lightning-fast movement of play makes basketball a natural candidate for tech-assisted refereeing. All NBA arenas are now equipped with SportVU, which uses six cameras to record the positions of all 10 players and the ball twenty-five times per second. But the greatest impact for officiating has come from the transparency the technology enables. Two years ago, the league implemented the controversial “Last Two Minute Report” to document decisive calls, including relevant non-calls, in games within five points at the two-minute mark. It’s not used to overturn bad calls after the fact, to the chagrin of many, but NBA executives say taking a closer look at high-stakes mistakes will ultimately lead to better officiating.
While stadiums are equipped with increasingly robust Wi-Fi for fans to use during games, these referee-assisting technologies are primarily cloud-based, which empowers near real-time processing. Powerful HD cameras mounted around stadiums take dozens of images per second, while radar systems originally developed for ballistic missile tracking collect as many as 20,000 coordinates per second, sometimes with the aid of other sensors. The raw data and pixels are compressed into a single file and sent to a remote processing center via the cloud, where dozens of computers run algorithms and generate statistics and graphic renderings that are shared back to officials—and to fans’ devices—instantaneously. The sensitivity and sophistication of these technologies means less room for human error, detecting things that a referee’s eye simply cannot, no matter how much training he or she has.
“The challenge of ‘robot referees’ is to be as efficient & invisible: just like a real referee.”
One major criticism of referee-assisting systems is that dependence on replay technology slows down the speed of play. The last few years have brought amazing progress in both speed and refinement of device programming, but the challenge for the companies developing these technologies in the near term is to make it as efficient and invisible as possible: just like the ideal referee.
At least for now, the technologies are not meant to replace, but rather assist referees in making the calls that change the outcomes of games more accurate. So the so-called human element of officiating doesn’t disappear, but technology will hopefully result in fairer officiating and rightful game outcomes.
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