I Have Seen The Future Of Football, And It Is GPS

In the past decade or so, football has become increasingly (and sometimes absurdly) focused on utter minutiae. Is this player 6′ 4 1/2″ or 6′ 4 5/8″ tall? Did he run a 4.43 or 4.47 40? Did the receiver control the ball before he stepped out? Did the quarterback’s arm start to go forward before he was hit and the ball came loose? And where was the nose of the ball?!

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(Plus you know he’s just watching Family Guy in there.)

And yet at the same time, one of the most important aspects of a play is spotting the ball afterwards, and it’s left completely up to two men standing about 20 yards away. Moreover, the spots are rarely challenged or changed, even when it’s obvious to people with an overhead view (like, say, everyone in the announcer’s booth or watching on TV) that the spot was ludicrously wrong. Usually, all that happens is the play-by-play man deadpans, “lucky spot for the Bears on that one,” half the viewing audience gets upset, and what should be a 3rd and 1 is a gift first down that keeps the drive alive.

But according to NPR, Priya Narasimhan, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, is set to change that. Narasimhan is a Steelers fan, hooked when she moved to Pittsburgh seven years ago, and like all football fans, she grew increasingly enraged with the capricious nature of calls made on the field and the maddeningly “inconclusive” replays delivered by the handful of cameras around the field. But unlike most fans, Narasimhan is a computer engineering professor, and in case you hadn’t paid attention to computers in the last 10 years (considering the fact that you’re reading this, odds are pretty poor on that front), there are amazing advances in technology every day. So why not football? The NEW BRUNSWICK BUSINESS JOURNAL explains:

Narasimhan […] and her students are equipping gloves and a football with remote sensing technology to measure everything from grip and trajectory to speed and position.

[T]he technology would ultimately be able to tell without a doubt whether the ball was caught before it bounced off the ground.

It could also show such things as who actually has the ball in a pileup, whether a runner has crossed the goal line and whether a receiver has control of the ball before he goes out of bounds.

Yes, it is about time. The students are limited to using satellite data, so considering the measurements are being done from space, it’s no wonder that the closest they’ve been able to approximate location is by 30 feet (in other words, 90% of the length of the playing field). Further, the spiral of a pass severely affects the receiver’s communication with the satellite. Basically, we’re a ways off from this becoming reality. They’re also working on establishing base points within the stadium, however, and we’re talking about experiements inside of a classroom, so these problems are merely the birth pangs of a coming technological revolution for football.

Naturally, referees won’t go away forever; this technology is and will be far too expensive for all but the highest levels of sport, and there are just some things for which a pair of experienced eyes are much more appropriate for than high-tech sensors. Like if someone’s lined up offsides, for example, or if a play is mundane and obvious like 98% of them are. Still, it’s these last 2%, the minutiae we’re worried about, of course, and at the rate technology is advancing, they too will be as accurate as what the sport–and its most rabid fans, like Ms. Narasimhan–demand.