The Internet of Things (IoT) has blossomed into one of the hottest tech topics. There are countless awesome DIY projects, and sweet gadgets, but it’s not all about smartwatches and Raspberry Pis. Rather, industrial IoT is poised to revolutionize society, and is where the greatest advances in the Internet of Things space will manifest. Zebra Technologies is an IoT company specializing in industrial IoT, such as healthcare, manufacturing, and transportation verticals. However, a 2014 partnership with the NFL lead to a revolutionary new IoT application: tracking NFL player data. I had the pleasure of chatting with Zebra's VP and GM of Location Services Jill Stelfox to learn more about how Zebra is using NFL player data.
Data tracking is usually associated with industrial environments, intrusive cell phone companies, or shadowy government organizations. Zebra’s NFL data gathering though remains at the intersection of commercial and consumer IoT. The technology itself is used by NFL players and teams, but data is pushed to fans as well as TV networks and coaching staffs. Zebra’s NFL collaboration began in 2014, where they had equipment in about half of the stadiums, and tracked data during the Pro Bowl and Super Bowl. 2015 brought an expansion to every stadium, allowing for increased player tracking. This meant all plays, from pre-season to post-season, could be tracked.
Logistically, this is accomplished with two tags in player shoulder pads, and tag other objects as well: refs, pylons, sticks, and sometimes even the ball. Movements are tracked and then that information sent to various receivers located throughout the stadium. Then this is uploaded to Zebra’s servers, and offered to broadcasters for the purposes or replays on TV and jumbotrons.
So what’s being tracked, and how is it being used? Metrics like distance, speed, and player participation. Since all of this is happening in real-time, that means data transfer necessitates quickness, just like the players on the field. Data is sent to the NFL cloud in just 2 seconds. For fans, there’s a partnership with Microsoft to broadcast stats to the Xbox One. If you’ve got an Xbox One and are an avid NFL fan, you might be familiar with the video game-style instant replays being shown. That’s made possible through the stats Zebra is gleaning.
The other impact this is having is on NFL fantasy football. When you have a player on the field, your screen lights up a different color for that player. This way you’ll know what opportunities they have for your fantasy team.
Zebra has mainly stayed within the realm of enterprise asset intelligence. Major clients include corporations like Boeing, and other manufacturers. It’s a business of translating physical information to digital information. An industrial example: ensuring auto manufacturers have supplies delivered to supply lines in order to keep processes going. While sports might seem a far cry from supply chains, both require speedy real-time data capture.
Technology being used is active RFID (ultra wideband). That information goes into MotionWorks, which includes several integrations. There’s a livestream which goes to broadcasters, NFL roster systems, and the game clock. Then data is pushed to the NFL cloud. Data is also sent to the Zebra command center, where every play, tag, and piece of software is monitored for the health of the system.
Although NFL player data benefits coaching staffs by giving them access to more metrics, the main focus is on enhancing the fan experience. 2014 concentrated on fundaments, such as speed and distance. This led to fascinating discoveries about various positions on a team, as well as individual players. Stelfox recalled a particular play in the 2014-2015 season when Houston Texans defensive end intercepted the ball and ran it in for a touchdown. He was clocked at 20 miles per hour (mph). For comparison, a great wide receiver typically runs between 20-22 mph.
In 2015, data is being used in a more advanced way, such as looking at where defensive ends stopped players on the field. NFL graphics are being compiled with information captured by Zebra, thus converting physical movements into analyzable and actionable data. Another stat being tracked is yards after the catch. This info can be used to compare wide receivers, and see how many yards they average to run after a completion.
As for the future of tracking sports data, Jill enlightened that Zebra has plans to expand active RFID to other sports. It’s a sector where this tech can be put to good use, both for players, coaches, and fans. Main takeaways for coaches and players are aspects such as how much training second and third string players have had in a given week. This is vital to know, especially when considering which players are out on injured reserve. Plus, there are experimental metrics being tracked in practice for select teams, such as the New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions, including heart rate and hydration monitoring.
Wondering about the future of this kind of tracking? Jill postulates that we’ll see more integrations, comparable to the evolution of patient data. Electronic medical records consolidated information in a central location. Similarly, in the enterprise world, ERP adoption took over. With the NFL, players, coaches, and fans will be able to access a depository of data that will influence their decisions and adapt to their needs. Coaches like Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly (fly Eagles fly) are increasingly reliant on numbers to strategize desired seconds per play, and make roster changes. This simply wouldn’t be possible without the technology available today.