How Does Computer Technology Improve Sports?

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Sports is the ultimate test of human athleticism, but that’s not to say computers can’t help. Technology can help overcome some of the human limitations in officiating and administering sports. In turn that makes it easier to fairly judge performance and be more certain that the better competitor will win.

Instant Replay

  • Instant replay is a great example of technology moving from television coverage of sports to becoming a part of the sport itself. Being able to review video footage allows officials to see exactly what happened, overcoming the problem of missing the fine details in the heat of the action. Opinions are split about where instant replay works well: it is accepted as part of the game in sports like NFL football or cricket which have natural breaks in play, but is more controversial in free-flowing games such as rugby, and is rarely used in combat sports where a delay could allow a fighter to recover. Instant replay can also make things more interesting: both football and cricket limit the number of times a coach or player can demand an instant replay, meaning they must decide whether to risk calling for a borderline review. Sometimes instant replay can be too effective: during the 2010 World Cup, organizing body FIFA banned instant replays appearing on screens in the stadium over concerns it would provoke crowd anger over a controversial referee decision!

Sensor Tools

  • Several sports use technology to review cases where the position of a player, ball or other equipment affects the progression or outcome of a game, and where the human eye may not be able to accurately detect that position in real time. Different sports use different techniques: tennis systems usually rely on laser beams along the court lines to see if the ball breaks the line, while cricket’s Hawk-Eye system measures sound to detect whether the ball hit the bat before being caught. While most systems detect actual positioning, Hawk-Eye is sometimes used to predict where a ball would have gone had it not hit the player’s leg, which determines whether the player unfairly blocked it from hitting the wicket.

Timing Systems

  • The days of a human clicking a stopwatch on and off to time a race are long gone, meaning variations in human reaction time no longer limit the reliability and accuracy of a race time. Most races (whether on vehicles, foot or in the water) use a combined system in which the starting “pistol” also starts the clock running, while the competitors breaking a virtual barrier such as a laser beam on a finish line stops the clock, though swimming uses a touch-pad at the end of each lane. In most race sports, if two competitors cross a line with the same time, they are separated using a visual reference, either a “photo finish” from a camera triggered by the same mechanism as stopped the clock, or by frame-by-frame analysis of video of the event. Although timing systems can measure to the nearest thousandth of a second to determine a winner, Olympic and world records are usually only kept to the nearest hundredth of a second, something that’s designed to eliminate the effects of tiny inaccuracies in making sure a particular course (such as a 50-meter pool lane) is a precise distance.

RFID Chips

  • For races longer than sprints, which thus allow a little more leeway in precision, RFID chips are a common way of timing individual participants. The chips exchange a wireless signal with sensors at the finish line and, in many longer races, at checkpoints along the way. This makes it possible for spectators and broadcasters to accurately track the relative positions of competitors during the race, even in events such as marathons that have dozens of racers. Races can use two different types of chips. Active chips, which include a tiny battery, can track the time a racer passes a particular line almost perfectly. Passive chips, which don’t have a power supply, can only be used with sensors built into a mat which may be several feet across, which can introduce a margin of error equivalent to a couple of strides.