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La Liga scores on high-tech

As world football slowly accepts goal-line technology, LaLiga in Spain is scoring all the high-tech goals, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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A year ago, when the Spanish football league unveiled virtual reality technology for fans to enjoy LaLiga matches through VR headsets, this was the poor relation of the high-tech initiatives that are changing the game in Spain.

This year, VR is suddenly one of the highlights, as LaLiga gets to grips with the potential of 360 degree cameras and a user experience that moves through changing rooms, arrival of fans and players, and the exit to the pitch.

With the help of multiple cameras and Samsung Gear VR headsets, LaLiga is now offering recaps of the 2018-19 season in 3D virtual reality that provide fans sitting at home with the experience of being a spectator in the stadium. For those who don’t have the tech,the VR experience is being provided at LaLiga Corners, experiential spaces being set up across Spain.

LaLiga has worked with chip giants Intel to roll out Replay360, a technology that allows viewers to recreate 3D replays of any move, from any angle. No less than 38 cameras are installed throughout a stadium to allow spectators to “fly” over the action or position themselves from a player’s point of view. So far, six LaLiga stadiums have been fitted with the technology, including Barcelona’s Camp Nou and Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu.

VR and 3D replays are like the green shoots that appear above a complex maze of roots hidden underground. They represent the most visible face of a technology revolution that has been sweeping LaLiga for the past two years.

During a recent showcase at the RCD Espanyol de Barcelona stadium, on the sidelines of Mobile World Congress, it unveiled the artificial intelligence technology that is guiding the video assistant referee (VAR), among other.

“More than ever before, a football match is a unique experience thanks to recent technological advances which have improved the standing of Spanish clubs, the professionalism of its technical bodies, as well as the fan experience,” said Joris Evers, LaLiga chief communications officer. 

“VAR has become the protagonist of each football match, enabling more even-handed referee decisions, adding prestige to our league, and more drama and new experiences for our fans.”

VAR is now being used worldwide, following heavy resistance from the old guard at football’s controlling body, FIFA. With much of that generation ousted or banned from participating, the game has finally been able to bring in technology to improve the experience for all. At the very least, it helps referees avoid obvious errors regarding goals, penalties, and red cards. 

LaLiga has taken it a step further. With technology provider EVS and the official producer of the competition, Mediapro, it has introduced a multi-angle review tool called Xeebra, which offers referees more accurate technology for making decisions. Built-in artificial intelligence calibrates the playing field so that graphic overlays can support decision making.

The referees love the technology. During the first 19 match days of this season, refs used the VAR system to review 2,280 incidents. The good news is that their initial decisions were mostly proved correct. However, refs modified their final decisions on 59 occasions. That is nearly five dozen incidents that could have changed the outcome of games had the ref not had some virtual assistance.

Even scheduling of matches is now benefiting from new technology.

“At a time when there is much talk about artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, we are also starting to use these technologies, for example, to optimise scheduling of our matches,” said Evers. 

A new cloud-based tool called Calendar Selector applies machine learning and algorithms to suggest optimal match schedules, based on past patterns of attendance, viewership, traffic and about 70 other variables. The built-in AI is already predicting crowd size to within 1% of the actual attendance. It works hand in hand with “Sunlight” software, which predicts natural light conditions at every minute for each match. 

“It indicates areas of sun and shade in the stadium, revealing how the sun will affect the television image, fans and players, and also help with match scheduling. To achieve this, LaLiga uses 3D reconstructions of stadiums.”

The match and player analysis service, Mediacoach, which was reported in this column a year ago, has also evolved dramatically. An advanced application to provide clubs and coaches with tools aimed at improving the performance of teams and players, it includes 10 years of data and history, and generates heat maps of current play with only an 18 second delay.

“This democratic sharing of data in LaLiga is unique,” said Evers. And now it has also been made available to the media to improve audio-visual broadcasting.

“This year’s technology includes the intelligent detection of the ball’s position on the pitch. The movement of the ball is used to locate precisely, and in real time, where the action of the game is. Ambient microphones distributed around the stadium are automatically activated to give more realism to the sound of the broadcast and bring the action closer to viewers.”

AI has also been roped in to serve fans better. With a little help from Bixby, Samsung’s artificial intelligence platform, LaLiga has introduced an intelligent virtual assistant to offer information through voice and text on multiple devices. It will eventually be available on all major chatbots, offering information like schedules, results, player statistics and videos of outstanding plays.

The combination of all these technologies and innovations means that football lovers are increasingly able to achieve a level of involvement with a game that was previously only available in video games like Electronic Arts’ Fifa 19.

“In the past they tried to make video games like live broadcast,” said Evers. “Now they’re trying to make live broadcast more like video games.”

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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ME and Africa Consumer tech spending to hit $149bn

Reaching $130bn this year, consumer spending on technology in the Middle East and Africa is expected to grow just 4% a year.

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Consumer spending on technology in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) is forecast to total $130.8 billion this year, a year-on-year increase of 4.1%. According to the latest Worldwide Semiannual Connected Consumer Spending Guide from International Data Corporation (IDC), consumer purchases of traditional and emerging technologies will remain strong over the 2019–2023 forecast period, increasing at a five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.5% to reach $149.4 billion in 2023.

86.3% of all consumer technology spending in 2019 will be on traditional technologies such as mobile phones, personal computing devices, and mobile telecom services. Mobile telecom services (voice and data) will account for 68.7% of this amount, followed by mobile phones which will account for 26.6%. Spending growth for traditional technologies will be relatively slow, with a CAGR of 2.4% for the 2019–2023 forecast period.

“Faster connectivity, combined with declining data service costs from telecom service providers and the need for end users to use telecom services for an increasing number of devices, will ensure that consumer spending on traditional technologies will continue to grow,” says Fouad Charakla, IDC’s senior research manager for client devices in the Middle East, Turkey, and Africa.

Emerging technologies, including AR/VR headsets, drones, on-demand services, robotic systems, smart home devices, and wearables, will deliver strong growth with a five-year CAGR of 10.2%. This growth will see emerging technologies account for 17.1% of overall consumer spending in 2023, up from 13.7% in 2019. Smart home devices and on-demand services will account for around 93% of consumer spending on emerging technologies by the end of the forecast period.

“The low penetration of smart home devices in the region, combined with growing efforts from market players to educate home users on the benefits and usage of these devices, will serve as an engine of growth for consumer spending on emerging technologies,” says Charakla. “A large portion of end users are already looking to invest in devices that will improve their productivity and quality of life, two key demands that smart home devices can be positioned to fulfil.”

On-demand services represent a new addition to IDC’s Worldwide Semiannual Connected Consumer Spending Guide. “On-demand services enable access to networks, marketplaces, content, and other resources in the form of subscription-based services and includes platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify, among others,” says Charakla. “As connected consumers juggle multiple services across their devices, it is essential for technology providers to understand how the adoption of these various technologies and services will impact their customers’ experiences in the future.”

Communication and entertainment will be the two largest use case categories for consumer technology, representing more than 79% of all spending throughout the forecast. More than 70% of all communication spending will go toward traditional voice and messaging services in 2019. Entertainment spending will be dominated by watching or downloading TV, videos and movies, as well as listening to music and downloading and playing online games. The use cases that will see the fastest spending growth over the forecast period are augmented reality games (49.5% CAGR).

The Worldwide Semiannual Connected Consumer Spending Guide quantifies consumer spending for 22 technologies in ten categories across nine geographic regions. The guide also provides spending details for 23 consumer use cases. Unlike any other research in the industry, the Connected Consumer Spending Guide was designed to help business and IT decision makers to better understand the scope and direction of consumer investments in technology over the next five years.

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Could robots replace human tennis players?

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While steeped in tradition, tennis has embraced technology on multiple fronts: coaching, umpiring and fan experiences. Since the early 2000s, the Sony-owned Hawk-Eye system has been assisting tennis umpires in making close calls. At Wimbledon, IBM’s Watson AI analyses fan and player reactions in real-time video footage from matches to create highlight reels just minutes after the end of a match.

Meanwhile, at the ATP Finals in London, similar data analysis is being carried out by digital services and consulting firm Infosys.

GlobalData’s Verdict deputy editor Rob Scammell hears the future of tennis discussed at a recent panel discussion about the use of data analytics and technology in the game.

Scammel writes: “Infosys has been partnered with ATP for five years, providing features such as its cloud-based platform, which leverages artificial intelligence to analyse millions of data points to gain insights into the game.

“Players and coaches can also make use of the Infosys’ Players and Coaches Portal, allowing them to “slice and dice” matches on an iPad with 1,000 data analytics combinations. This is data crunching is vital according to Craig O’Shannessy, strategy analyst for the ATP World Tour and a coach for 20 years – including for the likes of Novak Djokovic. 

O’Shannessy says: “Video and data analytics is crucial for giving players an edge. It’s about finding out of 100 points, the 10 or 15 that matter the most, and explaining that these are the patterns of play that you want to repeat in these upcoming games to win those matches.”

However, although Chris Brauer, director of innovation at the Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, asked whether the “inevitable conclusion” of technological innovations in tennis was removing humans from the game entirely. ATP chair umpire and manager Ali Nili suggested that while there could one day be robot players adjudicated by robot umpires, it would be an entirely different sport.

Nili told GlobalData: “At ATP, we’re most proud of our athletes. It’s our athletes which make the tennis exciting. It’s how fast they are, how strong they are being. As humanbeings, we compare them to us and we’re fascinated by the things that they’re able to do. They’re the number one attraction for anyone who comes in, watches tennis, and everything else is secondary, you know, all the data and everything else, because we try to make our athletes more appealing.”

Could robots replace human tennis players?

Raghavan Subramanian, associate vice president and head of Infosys Tennis Platform, says it’s a “very philosophical question” and that we can look to the precedent set by other ‘man vs machine’ face-offs.

“In chess, we had [Garry] Kasparov play against the computer. So I think the natural first transition will not be two robots playing against each other, but one robot, possibly playing against the best player today. That’s the first possible bridge before two robots play.”

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