Gigabytes on the gridiron: The NFL warms up to tech

Keep an eye out for hoodies on the sidelines: The NFL is getting a high-tech makeover that could quite literally change the way we see the game.

It’s not just happening at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, the 49ers’ new home that’s loaded with super-fast networking hardware to provide everything from personalized directions to mobile food orders to the latest game stats.

Here are a few things the NFL is working on:

• Tablet computers are finally being introduced on the field. Sunday night saw the debut of Microsoft Surface tablets used by coaches to review plays. The tablets replace a decades-old system that used black-and-white Polaroid pictures showing player formations and movements. While a big step up from that, the touchscreen tablets will be stripped down and used for only reviewing still photos — no video or Internet connections will be allowed.

• This season, the NFL is using radio-frequency identification tags in players’ shoulder pads to track each player’s movements. The system, installed in 17 stadiums by Illinois-based Zebra Technologies, will allow broadcasters and fans to see players’ acceleration, speed and distance traveled, all in real-time. That could quantify who’s the fastest player, who’s getting tired, and who should be matched up against who. The analytics could be a bonanza for TV analysts and die-hard fans. Zebra is planning on taking sensors to the next level next year, with Bluetooth devices to monitor the heart rate, lung capacity and temperature of players.

“Zebra’s tracking technology will help teams to evolve training, scouting and evaluation through increased knowledge of player performance, as well as provide ways for our teams and partners to enhance the fan experience,” Vishal Shah, the NFL’s vice president of media strategy, said in a statement.

• Also on tap for the 2015 season are helmet sensors to measure head trauma and improve player safety, as concussions are becoming a growing problem for the league.  Two companies are working on the head accelerometers, which would monitor frequency, location and intensity of impacts. While the data would not diagnose a concussion, it could be used to show the most dangerous types of tackles and lead to new rules or styles of play.

“I personally believe that there is valuable information to be gained for a player to learn how to perhaps modify his behavior, to track the way in which he’s leading with his head possibly or positioning his body on a certain play type that could help protect him,” Kevin Guskiewicz, a North Carolina researcher who’s on the NFL safety committee, told USA Today.

 

At top: A Microsoft Surface on the sidelines Sunday in Canton, Ohio. (AP/Microsoft photo)

 
 

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