Major League Baseball (MLB) just announced that it will start allowing players to use wearable sensors on the field. The Motus baseball sleeve and Zephyr bioharness are the first devices to be approved for use by baseball teams. The primary objective is to help prevent injuries, but the devices will also allow players and coaches to monitor performance. However, the data from these sensors is only accessible post-game and is limited to internal usage, in order to level the playing field and prevent any team or player from having an unfair advantage. While baseball teams have been using a number of wearable devices and sensors off the field and during warmups, this is the first time wearables have been allowed for use on the field.
The National Football League (NFL) has been ahead of many other leagues when it comes to deploying innovative technology, officially allowing Zebra location trackers to be used on field and during games, starting back in 2015. In soccer, FIFA is developing a standard for wearable technologies. Rugby has also been using wearable Global Positioning System (GPS) sensors on the field to track the location of players, and has been doing so for years. However, not all sports leagues are comfortable with wearable sensors during gameplay, with the National Basketball Association (NBA) recently calling out a player for having a wearable sensor on the court during a game.
The wearable technologies being used in sports include movement sensors, sleep and fatigue trackers, location sensors, fitness trackers, and even smart glasses and wearable cameras that allow for live streaming and first person view. Live video feeds from the field can be used for training players, as well as to enhance the fan experience. We are still in the early stages of adoption. There is virtually no limit to the use of wearables in sports, both in preparation for the game, where it wearables are already widely adopted, and also during game day when tracking player performance is most crucial. With MLB and the NFL green lighting these technologies for on-field use, we are entering a new era in sports. Non-team sports like golf and tennis are also experimenting with the use of wearables.
Sports data analytics is also entering a new period, where the focus moves from analyzing historical data to analyzing real-time data, helping teams and coaches make critical on-field decisions. This approach brings its own challenges with regard to oversight, regulation, and making sure all teams and players are on a level playing field. Think about motorsport racing such as Moto GP, Formula One, or NASCAR, where sensors are providing real-time statistics on every inch of the vehicle, with race engineers and team principals using the data to decide on pit stop strategies and other critical team decisions. Simply think of a scenario where the racing car or motorcycle is replaced with a human player, and that should give you some idea of how the system might work, enhancing the sport and the sports fan experience.
(Source: Zephyr Technologies)
We are also seeing new forms of sports emerge with robots at the center. The Drone Racing League (DRL) is a new professional sports league of drone racers, where drone pilots race drones through challenging courses built into stadiums, abandoned buildings, parks, and woodlands. DRL combines robotic drones and wearable headsets, where the pilots wear headsets that immerse them into a live camera feed from the drone. DRL is a curious mix of virtual reality (VR) and robotics, where the reality is as real as you can get, creating a unique experience that can be enjoyed by both pilots and fans.
(Source: Drone Racing League)
Similarly, a new racing championship for robotic cars has been announced called Roborace. Roborace will feature 10 autonomous cars with hardware provided by NVIDIA, which will be controlled by software that can be customized by different teams to give them the competitive edge. Roborace has partnered with Daniel Simon, the German designer who has worked at Bugatti and Volkswagen, and has created vehicle concepts for movies including Oblivion, Tron: Legacy, and Prometheus.
Roborace goes one step further than DRL, in that it takes the human out of the equation. Roborace will be a pure test of artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms, a competition of brains rather than brawn. The first Roboraces are expected to begin in 2017. We have also seen Yamaha’s Motobot, a robot that can ride a motorcycle like a human being. It is not hard to imagine Motobot being used to create a motorcycle racing league of robots. There is also an upcoming giant robot duel between American Megabot and Japan’s Suidobashi. Just like the entry of wearables into traditional sports like baseball and football, robots are disrupting established sports like motor racing. At some point, expect a robot car to race a human race driver, similar to AlphaGo playing against Go world champion Lee Sedol.
For some, the entry of wearables and robotics into sports might be heresy, with concerns about human skill being augmented or even replaced by technology. In my view, rather than fighting technology we should be embracing it, making traditional sports safer for the players and much more exciting to watch for the fans. This trend is also giving birth to new kinds of sports that turn spectatorship into an immersive first-person reality experience, with machine intelligence and robots leading us into an exciting new era of sports.