A sporting future

Many people love sport. While not everyone is a rabid sports fan most people enjoy at least one sporting event. For me, my weaknesses are the World Cup and Wimbledon. 

Why are we talking about sports in a blog about the future? It turns out sport is a really fun frame for us to think about how technology will change our lives. So buckle up, and let's take a look at the future of sport. 

We will explore how we will experience and enjoy sport in the future, how technology will continue to augment sport, and how technology is creating entirely new sports. Finally we will review the prospect of sport played between machines. Before long we may see machines playing sports against each other using humans as playing pieces on a field. To understand how, read on.

Experiencing/watching sport

With the mobile revolution now long upon us we are able to watch sport anytime, anywhere. High-speed networks and high-resolution screens put on-demand TV right in our pockets. We can stream sports events from all over the planet on a whim. Social media lets people talk about their favorite sports, their favorite teams, and to relive moments with others. All cool. So where does viewing sport go next? Let's start with the obvious stuff.

Virtual Reality

We are still watching sports on flat two-dimensional screens, whether those be giant TVs or on our watches. For this summer's Olympic Games, NBC experimented by making over 100 hours of content available to view in Virtual Reality. Check out their site for details. Watching sports in VR gives you the feeling of sitting exactly where the 360 degree camera is located at the event.

Augmented Reality

Microsoft wants to take your sports viewing experience even further. They envision highly social new ways to experience sport in the comfort of your living room. If you haven't seen it, be sure to check out the vision video they created in partnership with the NFL:

Microsoft shows us what the future of watching the NFL might be like if we all had a HoloLens in our home.

New volumetric scanning technology could take virtual and augmented reality watching of sports to a totally new level. Replay Technologies, acquired by Intel earlier this year, has already changed the way people experience that old TV sporting staple, the action replay.

Replay combines the feeds of thirty or more high-definition 4K cameras (placed strategically all around a stadium) inside a powerful computer to captures live action in full 3D. They essentially turning real life into a video game representation of such high quality that it looks totally life-like. Once you have captured the world in this way you can fly a virtual camera through a scene and place it pretty much anywhere you want to. 

If you haven't seen this technology yet, you can view the video here to see what I'm talking about. It's been around for a while. NBC sports used this technology for the 2012 Olympics to compare the acrobatic performances of gymnasts in sporting events. Check out that video here.

Now imagine where this goes next. You can now capture reality in three dimensions, and have complete freedom of movement to place a camera anywhere in the action and point it in any direction. Combine that capability with virtual reality technology and you have something very exciting. You could now place yourself anywhere in the action. Want to be stood on the goal line during a penalty shoot-out? No problem. Want to see through the eyes of your favorite player? Can do. Want to be the ball? Yep. Want to stand on the track as the racing cars thunder around and through you? That too. 

As volumetric capture technology improves and VR becomes broadly deployed we will all get to choose exactly how we each want to experience our favorite events.

Quantified sports with IOT

Intel, who are heavily focused on the future of sport, did some interesting work with ESPN at the Winter X Games. Extreme sports are cool, but unless you do them yourself it's not always easy to tell just how amazing an athlete's performance truly is. By putting sensors on everything from BMX bikes to snowboards, the X-Games was able to exactly quantify just how high, how far, or how gnarly every jump or stunt really was. Accurately measuring athletic achievement really enhances the viewing experience for extreme sports. Check out the video below to really get a feel for what I mean here:

Augmenting sport

Sensors are a great way for viewers to gain a better understanding of what is actually going on when a sport is being played. But they can also help players, coaches and referees gain better insight too. Wearable sensors enable coaches to understand how their players are performing under the pressure of competition. Players could get feedback on their performance and automated coaching on how to improve it. Referees could get the help they need to make better decisions.

Sensors have the ability to remove most, if not all, of the subjectivity from sport. In the process, they could reduce the blood pressure of avid fans that sometimes feel cheated by a ref that makes a bad call.

It started with chalk dust. Back in 1974 we got the very first electronic line judge. It used conductive tape to sense the landing of tennis balls on indoor tennis courts. The sensor assists the human line judge and determines if a ball was in or out. ("You cannot be serious" - John McEnroe). This same system was also used to call "foot faults" by linking a sensor on the base line to a microphone that listened for the sound of the ball being served by the player to determine if the player's foot went over the serve line before they struck the ball. The system didn't become widely deployed until the "Hawk-Eye" system came in, using video cameras instead of wires to sense violations. In 2012, the International Football Association approved the use of goal-line technology to determine if a ball rattling around inside a goal ever crossed the line or not. 

As sensors and analytics get ever-more sophisticated, we could soon find ways to objectively measure if a player has committed a foul in soccer. Algorithms could analyze and determine if the player went for the ball, and if they were successful in doing so. The referee, even with the help of their assistants, still can't always see what's happening on a soccer pitch. Sensors and analytics could even be trained to look for diving and faking, removing that scourge from the beautiful game once and for all.

As well as changing the way we experience, enjoy and measure sports, technology is also creating entirely new sports, and new sporting mashups that span the physical and virtual worlds.


Real-time virtual racing

As well as being good for accurately measuring the action in sports, sensors can be used to enable viewers to participate virtually in an event. Live, in real time.

Formula E, the all-electric category of motor-racing, fully instrument all their cars. Every car is bristling with sensors. Formula E know exactly where every car is on the track during every race, in real time. Alejandro Agag, CEO of Formula E, was sat next to me while we were speaking on a panel at CES a couple of years ago. He told me he has plans to ultimately enable video game players to join live races, and go head-to-head with real drivers, from the comfort of their living rooms. If and when Formula E (and other sporting events) make this real-time data stream available through an API to game developers, it will enable the creation of a range of games where players can compete virtually in live events.

Formula E has already started to move in this direction by embracing the gaming community. They partnered with the creators of the Forza Motorsport series of games to host video game competitions that pit some of the world's best gamers against real Formula E drivers. The real drivers are still playing video games alongside the gamers. The next step is real racers racing real cars virtually against gamers racing on consoles.

Beyond that, there may be another blend between physical and virtual we might look forward to: remotely driven or robotically driven cars. With motor racing deaths a sad constant in this dangerous high speed sport, might we see drivers racing remotely? And how long will it be before we see human drivers racing up against cars driven by artificial intelligence?

Drone racing

Technology is giving us new types of sport as people find new things to race, and new ways to compete with each other. Drone racing has emerged as a popular new activity. Cameras connected to goggles worn by the racer give them a first person view of what the drone is 'seeing'. The video below captures a little of what goes on.

Robot battles

For a number of years, the BBC has been producing a show called Robot Wars. With over 160 episodes made since 1998, Robot Wars pits robot designers against each other as their creations battle it out in the ring with hammers, chainsaws, buzz saws and spikes. The winner is the robot that crushes, bashes, slashes or burns its opponent to destruction. The robots also need to avoid hazards on the battlefield in the form of pits, fire, spikes and catapults. It's like a gladiatorial battle, with robots. 

As artificial intelligence improves, expect these robots to no longer need remote control by their designers to triumph on the battlefield. Hugh Jackman's movie, Real Steel is probably not that far away after all.

Machine vs machine sport

In the examples above, sport is being often being played between humans using machines as a proxy: remotely controlled drones, robots, and perhaps even race cars. But let's flip that around: what about when machines compete against each other, using humans as playing pieces?

For years, analytics has been used to help teams scout for new players. Software reviews the sporting records and capabilities of thousands of up-and-coming players and figures out the optimal mix of talent for a team. Hollywood made a movie, Moneyball, back in 2011 that was all about how analytics were used to improve the fortunes of the Oakland A's baseball team.

The real future of analytics in sports is in real-time predictive and prescriptive analytics: software that analyzes a game as it is being played, correlates it against data it has on thousands of previous games, and makes both predictions and suggestions on what the coach of a team should do next. Consider (American) football. By spotting weaknesses in the opposing team's defensive strategy, the weakness of a particular player, or choosing the statistically most likely response to a play based on previous history, coaches might get a serious edge over their competition. 

Will future coaches be coached by computers whispering plays into their ears?

Will future coaches be coached by computers whispering plays into their ears?

As wearables, AI, analytics, and voice capabilities get better and better over the next few years, we are looking at a time when coaches will themselves have a coach. An artificial intelligence coach that constantly runs possible scenarios, weighs the odds, and guides the coach on plays. This AI coach will be able to converse with the human coach and they will be able to collaborate on decisions.

If this provides competitive advantage (and it will) then before we know it every coach of every major team will have the same technology whispering advice into their ears throughout each game. As the accuracy of predictions improves and coaches learn to trust their "in-ear coach", an interesting question emerges. Who is really playing the game now...the humans, or the machine? 

Think about that for a moment. What you now have is two powerful computers playing a game with each other using human playing pieces on their game board (which in this case a football pitch). In Robot Wars and drone racing humans safely compete with dispensable robots. In this scenario were are at the opposite end of the scale with computers (safely) competing using humans that get hurt as they play.

Before too long it won't just be football players that are being controlled by computers. Soon, almost every one of us will be managed by algorithms. But we will save that particular topic until my next post.

What do you think about this post? What are you excited about when you think about where sports might go in the future? I'd love to hear from you.