With the soccer World Cup ready to kick off in Russia this month, here’s a look at how technology is getting in the game.
It’s estimated more than a million Australian children and young people are overweight or obese. This statistic prompted the New South Wales Government to offer families $100 vouchers to pay for children’s sports lessons. Kids can get off their couches, play sport and stay healthy. Or sit around using technology and get overweight.
Unfortunately for everyone (except the technology companies), these days more kids seem to be into technology than sport. For the average 8 to 12-year-old, technology is cool, fun, easy to use, not to mention addictive and everyone you know is into it. You don’t get hot and sweaty listening to music on your iPhone. And why get your parents to drive you 10 km to the sports field when you can hang out with friends online or play FIFA 2018 on the computer?
But what if sport and technology were not an either/or choice? What if technology could be used not just to help kids play better, but also to get them into sport?
This June it’s the soccer World Cup, the world’s biggest international sporting spectacle outside of the Olympics. Over three million people watched the last tournament in Brazil, according to official FIFA figures. More than a billion tuned in just for the final.
For schools, sports organisations and families, it’s a great chance to get kids watching soccer, loving it, cheering for their favourite teams and players, and then hopefully at some point in the future maybe even playing the game. For sports technology companies, it’s a chance to encourage this – and make a bit of money in the process.
News from the ball
Adidas have designed a version of their official World Cup ball that contains a near field communication (NFC) chip. The company isn’t letting on too much about it in advance of the tournament, but from what little they are saying, it seems the ball is for the spectator rather than the player.
Adidas Football’s Global PR Manager Stuart Gower (they don’t call it soccer in Germany) said the NFC chip generates a specific ID number, which enables consumers to scan their ball with a smartphone or other NFC enabled device. This, Gower added, unlocks exclusive content that only ball owners can access, and of course whoever else they decide to share it with.
According to Gower, the content includes a certificate of authenticity unique to each ball, which pops up as soon as the user taps the ball. This tells users how many times their ball has been tapped, the authentication ID of the chip and date of digitation.
Ball owners can access an interactive world map to see in real time where the ball is being tapped the most and total number of taps globally from ball owners.
They can also play skill and social content challenges during the run up to the World Cup finals, some of which provide the opportunity to win World Cup tickets. Then, of course, there are the product videos.
Imagine the scene. Lionel Messi lines up the free kick, he shoots, he scores, and Argentina are through to the World Cup final. All over the world, kids watching with their Adidas smart balls get a ping on their phones. Click here to buy your very own Lionel Messi replica Argentina shirt. Just $99.99.
Should someone actually want to try and emulate a Lionel Messi free kick, but really don’t feel able to put down their phone or tablet long enough to even take the run up, there are other smart soccer balls around that interact with people when they’re actually playing the game.
Professor Gareth Stratton, head of Swansea University’s Research Centre in Applied Sports, Technology, Exercise and Medicine, thinks that smart soccer balls might one day, when the technology improves, be useful for training elite juniors or even professional players.
“In theory, such a sensor in the ball would provide extra information about how it moves in the air, when it’s between players, when it’s being kicked – the rotation, speed, velocity,” he said.
Think of how the very best passers of a soccer ball can hit pinpoint passes, through crowded areas, either straight to an unmarked team mate, or into a specific space at the precise moment the team mate arrives in it.
A sensor in the ball might provide data on exactly how they do this. How much spin the player puts on the pass, the angle and speed of the pass. Gareth Stratton also thinks smart balls could be used to measure impact forces and head trauma.
One concern is that a sensor, however tiny, might affect the way a ball moves. Stratton thinks that printed sensors would solve this problem, although he isn’t aware of one for a football yet.
The ball that rates your kick
The Inside Coach smart ball contains motion detection technology, an accelerometer and a gyro sensor, which detect and record force, impact, spin, position and trajectory each time the ball is kicked.
“It can also count the number of passes or the time a player spends on the ball,” said software engineer Nic San Juan, who designed the ball. To accurately assess spin or speed of a pass or shot, however, the ball must be kicked from a stationary position.
The sensors pass the information on, via Wi-Fi, to the app in real time, so players can see how they’re doing. The app also generates coaching cues that tell players how they might improve.
It is still at the pre-order stage and Nic San Juan hopes it will be ready in time for the World Cup. Another smart ball, designed by US-based Dribble Up has been out for a few months. This ball doesn’t contain sensors or electronics, instead users scan a QR code-like optical marker on the ball with their smartphone camera. The phone then connects to the Dribble Up training app on iPhone and Android and the app uses the smartphone camera to follow the ball in real time.
Dribble Up CEO, Erik Forkosh, a software and electronics engineer, said that the app measures a player’s movements, analysing thousands of data points. It then uses that information to grade players’ footwork, create training feedback and skill drills, during which a player’s performance is graded for speed, control, consistency and pattern.
“Lots of kids can’t afford their own personal coach, so they watch online training videos and then rush outside to practice,” Forkosh said. This, he believes, is difficult, boring and (from a skill development perspective) ineffective.
Grassroots sport’s traditional engagement model requires Mohammed to go to the Mountain, or at least to the soccer pitch, sports hall or multi-use games area. However, modern kids, who have spent their lives around technology, might reasonably expect their world to come to them simply because so much of it does, through their TV, computer and handheld devices.
Anything that doesn’t show up on their screens, just doesn’t exist, at least not in their reality. However, in 2015, global trends consultancy, the Future Foundation, reported that today’s kids love technology not just because they are technophiles, couch potatoes or addicts, but because it gives them more freedom. Freedom to interact with who or what they want; where and how they choose. These are freedoms that have been eroded, in an increasingly regulated and fearful outside world.