Picture this: It’s Saturday, and you’re watching your favorite football team compete against their biggest rival. Your team is 4th and inches away from making a first down. It’s the fourth quarter, you need a field goal to win the game, and this down will give you an excellent chance to get within range. As you anxiously watch the play, and the pileup that ensues, you can’t believe the horrible spot. As a result, your team just barely missed the mark, according to the referee. You’re sure that they made it with room to spare, however. The announcers agree. Frustration doesn’t even begin to describe how you are feeling right now. You say a few choice words to the referees and throw something at the TV, but really, there’s not much you can do.
Now, imagine this: What if there was a way to know exactly where that ball landed without having to rely on humans to decide? In fact, Dr. Priya Narasimhan, a computer engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and her students are developing sensors that could give us a more precise answer in such a situation. These sensors would reside inside of a football and measure its position, trajectory, and speed. The team is also developing gloves that can measure grip. With these sensors, we’d know once and for all where a ball was positioned during a play, or whether or not it was caught before it bounced off the ground. This technology could also show such things as what player actually has the ball in a pileup, whether a runner has crossed the goal line, and if a receiver has control of the ball before he goes out of bounds.
Dr. Narasimhan teaches a course in "embedded real-time systems," which describes the touch sensors, GPS receivers, and accelerometers this project is using. But the sensor-laden football project isn’t part of the course. Instead, it’s a personal effort from Dr. Narasimhan, who became an avid Steelers fan after she moved to Pittsburgh seven years ago. "When I moved here, I loved the people and their energy, and then I fell in love with football and I just started watching the Steelers and now, you can't get me out of the home on Sundays."
Sometimes thought of as an expansion of instant replay, Dr. Narasimhan isn’t looking to replace human referees with this technology. As she puts it, “they make these calls based on years of experience, and no technology can replace that.”
Thus far, Dr. Narasimhan and her students have focused their efforts around gloves with touch sensors that can transmit that information wirelessly to a computer, and a football equipped with a global positioning receiver and accelerometer that can track the location, speed, and trajectory of the ball. Although not currently in development, it’s possible the same type of sensors could be added to shoes to measure stride and running patterns or added to shoulder pads to calculate blocking positions and force as well.
The current version of the glove utilizes 15 touch sensors on the fingers and palm. With the information the glove can provide, a quarterback could train himself to throw or handle the ball differently and monitor his progress.
Although still very much in development stage, it’s interesting to think about where this type of technology could lead us. The applications don’t have to stop at football, either. We’d love to hear your creative thoughts on other ways to use this technology.