Friday, October 30, 2015

The Football of Tomorrow Will Be Connected - And Undeflateable

[ed. See also: British bloggers who are reinventing how the NFL coaches.]

For a glimpse into football’s immediate future, you have to go back in time. Nestled among the silos and wheat fields and wind turbines that dot the rural northwest Ohio landscape, there’s a large white factory in the town of Ada. There are no sign markers to lead you there but drive toward the “ADA”-emblazoned water tower and, there in its shadow, you’ll come upon the Wilson Football Factory. It’s been in constant operation for 60 years with one primary purpose: manufacture official NFL game footballs. Every ball in every Super Bowl has come from here, crafted by the gnarled, taped-up hands of 120 or so local residents, who clock in at 7:30 a.m. and leave by 3:30 p.m. Many of the workers have been here 10, 20, even 30 years or more; one recent retirement party celebrated 48 years of service.

On a slow day, the workers pump out about 2,000 footballs, with the busiest times approaching 3,500 or more. The NFL may have a five-month season from opening day to the Super Bowl, but Wilson’s football-makers never stop. In all, about 700,000 footballs exit the Wilson warehouse doors every calendar year — about 70 percent of the global football market. “If they’re not perfect,” plant manager Dan Reigle, who’s been there 35 years, tells me, “they don’t go to the NFL.” (...)

The next wave of footballs is so close. For about five years or so, there’s been talk of chipping a football with some kind of Bluetooth- or RFID-transmitting device that can be tracked in real-time and let officials know, say, when a ball swallowed up in a scrum has crossed the plane of the goal line, even when obscured by all those 350-pound linemen. This has been one of the holy grails with football analytics for years. Baseball, soccer, and basketball have it easier because the game ball is rarely obscured from view, so they can rely on optical tracking (i.e. a camera being able to follow and calculate its movements). In the NFL, the football is often hidden so the only real way to crack this problem is to embed a chip in the ball that is self-powered and has a success rate somewhere on the order of 99.9 percent. Trying to determine a Super Bowl-deciding scoring play only to discover the ball’s gadgetry malfunctioned? That’d be bad for business.

But Wilson is close, as evinced by the ball being thrown around in its company parking lot on a recent afternoon. Randy Schreiner, who’s only been with the company about eight months, making him an extreme newbie around these parts, boots up the beta app that Wilson had built, slaps the ball in his hand to mimic it being “snapped” to the quarterback, and lets loose a 30-foot-long spiral. It looks perfect to me, but the iPad app shows an animated ball wobbling along a straight line and only gives the throw a 68 percent rating. It’s been a painstaking process to get this far — Wilson engineers have logged thousands of throws in the course of “teaching” the app what constitutes both a complete and incomplete pass — but this is proof of a concept that is inching ever closer to market. The idea is to unveil a few hundred of these balls to the public at the NFL Experience before Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara and then start selling them in stores later in 2016. If all that goes well, Murphy says, you should see a connected football coming to the NFL in less than five years.

The NFL has been keen to get this done, but Wilson has had to basically create everything from scratch. The league came to them with the bulky impact sensors that are used in shoulder pads and said they wanted them in the ball, but they were heavy and had to be reduced down to the size of about six quarters stacked on top of each other. Then they had to decide where to put the transmitter. They found that smack in the core-middle of the football was best but they had to design a completely new bladder for this to happen, one that has a pouch in the middle to keep the chip and battery (which lasts about a year) stable and protected.

But while developing the technology has been a challenge — and Wilson owns all the IP, so the R&D expense will be worth it — the toughest part has been figuring how to incorporate the new materials into the traditional manufacturing process, and that’s something Wilson is still fine-tuning. 

by Erik Malinowski, Wired |  Read more:
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