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The Tech secret behind Spanish soccer triumph

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Spanish football clubs are cleaning up in European soccer, but it’s not only their ball skills that give them an edge. Technology is playing a major role, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

The secret of Spanish club football success is out. Or, at least, one of the secrets.

It turns out, it is no coincidence that Spanish teams have taken six of the eight berths in UEFA Champions League finals over the last four years – and won the trophy on all four occasions. That’s as many times as they had won it in the rest of the century before 2014, and as many as in the 40 years before that.

Last week, during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, LaLiga, organisers of the Spanish premier football league, lifted the lid on the technology that is giving their clubs an edge. The intention of the demonstration, presented at the stadium of Espanyol, Barcelona’s less-known LaLiga side, was to showcase the state-of-the-art broadcasting technology used by the league to reach 2.5-billion viewers a year. However, they also revealed the tools provided to trainers and clubs for fine-tuning their teams’ performances.

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“The aim is for fans not just to watch matches, but to be immersed in an exclusive audiovisual experience,” said Joris Evers, LaLiga’s Chief Communications Officer. “Additionally, LaLiga is unique in providing all its clubs with valuable tools to assist coaching staff and make our teams even better.”

At the heart of the enhanced tactical understanding of Spanish club coaches is a tool called Mediacoach, described as “a suite of cutting-edge match-analysis tools and services”. It was developed by Grupo Mediapro, LaLiga’s broadcast production partner, and provides coaching staff – of all LaLiga teams – with the data to carry out in-depth analysis of their players’ performance as well as opposition tactics.

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This may help explain how a team like Atletico Madrid, long regarded as the underdog to iconic sides Barcelona and Real Madrid, could reach two UEFA Champions League finals in the last four years, as well as winning the Europa league twice this decade. An even less fancied side, Sevilla, won the Europa league three years in a row before Manchester United interrupted their run last year.

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Why haven’t fabulously wealthy leagues like the English Premiership embraced the technology? It’s not for want of data. In the United Kingdom, Opta collects a massive dataset, live, for the Premier League, but the emphasis is on delivering content to football fans and to the betting industry. The Premiership itself is notoriously slow to adapt to  trends, and club managements and coaches are so old school, they would not be out of place in the ealry 20th century.

This is ironic, since broadcasters as well as the Premiership’s own Fantasy League have embraced the use and visual representation of such data.

However, LaLiga takes it to a new level, and constantly looks for ways to add value to the fan experience – with knock-on benefits for coaches. During the showcase at the RCD Espanyol Stadium, these technologies were demonstrated:

4K HDR

“The visual experience on offer to fans of Spanish football has taken on a different dimension thanks to the 4K HDR broadcasts that LaLiga serves up for the two headline games of every matchday,” according to LaLiga. “A total of 20 HDR cameras are used for this purpose, although substantially more are incorporated for special occasions like El Clasico (Barcelona vs Real Madrid), major derbies and key matches in the latter stages of the season, when cameras mounted on helicopters and cranes are among the additions.”

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LaLiga claims to be one of the few sports competitions in the world to be broadcast in HDR, and the results are evident: a constant rise in the number of people watching, and growing sales of HDR televisions to football fans.

Skycam

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The RCDE Stadium is a live showcase for the Skycam – an innovation first seen in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup Finals. Essentually, it is an aerial camera located about 21 metres above the pitch to provide overhead footage and a bird’s-eye view of the action.

“The lofty vantage point, coupled with the camera’s ability to spin and travel at great speed, means it offers a special perspective of the pitch,” says LaLiga. “These cameras are compact, high-definition models with a 4/3, 14x zoom wide-angle lens, whose footage is transmitted from the pitch to a mobile unit via fibre-optic cables. They can cover an area of almost 7 000 square metres. During the pre-match build-up and post-match aftermath, as well as at half-time, the three technicians operating the Skycam position it at a height of 3- 10 metres in order to treat viewers to even more detailed shots.”

Intel True View

Intel True View is not a new technology, but its use is evolving rapdly. It allows 360° replays that allow every piece of play to be reproduced in 3D. This gives TV viewers a unique perspective of the action from any angle.

“The 2D videos from each of the 38 cameras in place at the stadiums are processed through a series of powerful Intel servers, allowing for replays to be viewed from any position or angle,” says LaLiga. “This technology is in use on a regular basis, with the system having been installed permanently at the Camp Nou (FC Barcelona), the Santiago Bernabeu (Real Madrid), the Wanda Metropolitano (Atletico de Madrid) and the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan (Sevilla Football Club).”

In December, during this season’s first El Clasico clash between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, LaLiga also premiered a “Be The Player” feature, which puts the viewer in the middle of the action, using the same technology to capture events from the perspective of a player in a specific play. This makes it possible to see what moves a player could have made, or the level of vision displayed by a player in making a specific shot or pass.

The same softare includes a new feature, the Laser Wall, which overlays a virtual wall on the pitch to give a clearer picture of offside positions.

Live 3D graphics

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LaLiga offers viewers Live 3D graphics during broadcasts to complement live match data, representing visual support to the data, and displaying tactical and positional analysis during action replays.

The next big thing for LaLiga is virtual reality content, which in effect began with the December El Clasico match. It was filmed with a set of two 360º cameras and four 180º cameras, allowing for both 3D and 2D content. However, the current state of VR imaging, which does not yet offer photo-realistic visuals, means that the 2D experience remains more satisfying.

Next week, when Barcelona face Chelsea in the second leg of their round-of-16 UEFA Champions League clash, both teams will hope to break the 1-1 deadlock from the first leg at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge stadium. But clearly, at Camp Nou, the visitors will be up against more than merely the best club side in the world.

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

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Rain, Telkom Mobile, lead in affordable data

A new report by the telecoms regulator in South Africa reveal the true consumer champions in mobile data costs

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The latest bi-annual tariff analysis report produced by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) reveals that Telkom Mobile data costs for bundles are two-thirds lower than those of Vodacom and MTN. On the other hand, Rain is half the price again of Telkom. 

The report focuses on the 163 tariff notifications lodged with ICASA during the period 1 July 2018 to 31 December 2018.

“It seeks to ensure that there is retail price transparency within the electronic communications sector, the purpose of which is to enable consumers to make an informed choice, in terms of tariff plan preferences and/or preferred service providers based on their different offerings,” said Icasa.

ICASA says it observed the competitiveness between licensees in terms of the number of promotions that were on offer in the market, with 31 promotions launched during the period. 

The report shows that MTN and Vodacom charge the same prices for a 1GB and a 3GB data bundle at R149 and R299 respectively.  On the other hand, Telkom Mobile charges (for similar-sized data bundles) R100 (1GB) and R201 (3GB). Cell C discontinued its 1GB bundle, which was replaced with a 1.5GB bundle offered at the same price as the replaced 1GB data bundle at R149. 

Rain’s “One Plan Package” prepaid mobile data offering of R50 for a 1GB bundle remains the most affordable when compared to the offers from other MNOs (Mobile Network Operators) and MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators).  

“This development should have a positive impact on customers’ pockets as they are paying less compared to similar data bundles and increases choice,” said Icasa.

The report also revealed that the cost of out-of-bundle data had halved at both MTN and Vodacom, from 99c per Megabyte a year ago to 49c per Megabyte in the first quarter of this year. This was still two thirds more expensive than Telkom Mobile, which has charged 29c per Megabyte throughout this period (see graph below).

Meanwhile, from having positioned itself as consumer champion in recent years, Cell C has fallen on hard times, image-wise: it is by far the most expensive mobile network for out-of-bundle data, at R1.10 per Megabyte. Its prices have not budged in the past year.

The report highlights the disparities between the haves and have-nots in the dramatically plummeting cost of data per Megabyte as one buys bigger and bigger bundles on a 30-day basis (see graph below).

For 20 Gigabyte bundles, all mobile operators are in effect charging 4c per Megabyte. Only at that level do costs come in at under Rain’s standard tariffs regardless of use.

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Qualcomm wins 5G as Apple and Intel cave in

A flurry of announcements from three major tech players ushered in a new mobile chip landscape, wrItes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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Last week’s shock announcement by Intel that it was canning its 5G modem business leaves the American market wide open to Qualcomm, in the wake of the latter winning a bruising patent war with Apple.

Intel Corporation announced its intention to “exit the 5G smartphone modem business and complete an assessment of the opportunities for 4G and 5G modems in PCs, internet of things devices and other data-centric devices”.

Intel said it would also continue to invest in its 5G network infrastructure business, sharpening its focus on a market expected to be dominated by Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson.

Intel said it would continue to meet current customer commitments for its existing 4G smartphone modem product line, but did not expect to launch 5G modem products in the smartphone space, including those originally planned for launches in 2020. In other words, it would no longer be supplying chips for iPhones and iPads in competition with Qualcomm.

“We are very excited about the opportunity in 5G and the ‘cloudification’ of the network, but in the smartphone modem business it has become apparent that there is no clear path to profitability and positive returns,” said Intel CEO Bob Swan. “5G continues to be a strategic priority across Intel, and our team has developed a valuable portfolio of wireless products and intellectual property. We are assessing our options to realise the value we have created, including the opportunities in a wide variety of data-centric platforms and devices in a 5G world.”

The news came immediately after Qualcomm and Apple issued a joint announced of an agreement to dismiss all litigation between the two companies worldwide. The settlement includes a payment from Apple to Qualcomm, along with a six-year license agreement, and a multiyear chipset supply agreement.

Apple had previously accused Qualcomm of abusing its dominant position in modem chips for smartphones and charging excessive license fees. It ordered its contract manufacturers, first, to stop paying Qualcomm for the chips, and then to stop using the chips altogether, turning instead to Intel.
With Apple paying up and Intel pulling out, Qualcomm is suddenly in the pound seats. It shares hit their highest levels in five years after the announcements.

Qualcomm said in a statement: “As we lead the world to 5G, we envision this next big change in cellular technology spurring a new era of intelligent, connected devices and enabling new opportunities in connected cars, remote delivery of health care services, and the IoT — including smart cities, smart homes, and wearables. Qualcomm Incorporated includes our licensing business, QTL, and the vast majority of our patent portfolio.”

Meanwhile, Strategy Analytics released a report on the same day that showed Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia will lead the market in core 5G infrastructure, namely Radio Access Network (RAN) equipment, by 2023 as the 5G market takes off. Huawei is expected to have the edge as a result of the vast scale of the early 5G market in China and its long term steady investment in R&D. According to a report entitled “Comparison and 2023 5G Global Market Potential for leading 5G RAN Vendors – Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia”, two outliers, Samsung and ZTE, are expected to expand their global presence alongside emerging vendors as competition heats up.

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