Dr Gopichand Katragadda looks at how technology has pushed the frontiers to impact the performance of sportspersons and the experience of viewers
Who can forget Kapil Dev taking the catch to get Vivian Richards out off Madan Lal’s bowling in the 1983 World Cup? In those days, Bengaluru had only black and white television broadcast and only one channel — the national TV (Doordarshan). The match was interrupted many times with standard programming, including the news.
To watch a replay, one had to wait for Doordarshan to decide when they would show the replay during the game or wait for a repeat broadcast. There was, of course, no concept of the third umpire who could use technology to listen for contact of bat and ball or visually confirm a stumping. Technology in broadcasting was a minimum and depended a lot on the skill of the cameraman to capture moments like the skyer from Vivian Richards’ bat.
Today sports broadcasting is significantly dependent on technology, same as sports itself. An example: Tata Elxsi worked with leading broadcasters to ensure quality of service, deploying the latest technologies. Elxsi has developed remote digital video recording (DVR) set-top boxes and multi-room / multi-screen DVR that allow time-shifting, record and replay of sports events to the delight of the viewers who are unable to check on the sports event live when traveling or out of their homes.
As another example, Pixellot, a startup I had the opportunity to visit in Israel, uses multiple cameras on a single footprint equipment to stitch panoramic 6K-resolution TV quality video. Portions of this video can then be used for live 4K sports production broadcast using automated game flow tracking and zoom capabilities. Leading broadcasters are providing internet-based services catering especially to followers of live sporting events. Tata Elxsi has developed intellectual property to automatically test user experience while consuming internet-based broadcasting.
Technology has also impacted the performance and experience of the sportsperson. Be it the materials used in a golf club, aerodynamic designs and materials of sportswear for bicyclists, or wearables used by a marathoner, the sportsperson can focus on pushing the limits of human performance.
Technology also helps coaches, managers, spectators, and fans in their respective contexts with sports. The TCS NYC marathon app, as an example, provides several options for users to connect with the event as family, friends, and as a marathoner, before, during, and after the event. The app allows live on-map tracking of your favorite runners with splits at the start, every 5K, at the half, and at the finish. Other technologies are critical in training athletes, from giving swimmers that extra second of speed to an additional bit of accuracy to archers and shooters. At Boca Raton, Florida, I have myself experienced technology which visualised, analysed, and corrected my golf swing.
Sports regulations can hardly keep pace with technology, and sports traditions rarely welcome new developments. Most kids in Bengaluru played rubber or tennis ball cricket while growing up. Those who were serious about cricket graduated to a cork ball. Only a few could afford the regulation cricket ball — a small cork ball wound with twine and encased in leather. Cricket bats varied in quality from homemade makeshift bats to tennis / rubber ball bats, all the way to cork / cricket ball bats. A cricket ball bat typically was either owned by an institution or was a family heirloom. An SS bat was handled with no less reverence than a traditional musical instrument. Tradition was to break in a new bat with a mallet and maintain it over years with linseed oil lovingly applied to any exposed wood. The Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) is the caretaker of the regulations that govern cricket. When a leading bat maker introduced a graphite sticker backing, the MCC stepped in saying that the development contravened Law 6. The Laws of Cricket were first drafted in 1744, and Law 6.2 (updated in 2003) states that any covering material should not cause unacceptable damage to the ball.
In other examples, a sport has been quick to adopt new technology. In the case of hockey, AstroTurf was introduced in 1976 and changed the game completely. From being a game of dribbling skill, the game changed to one of strength and speed. From 1928 to 1972, India won a hockey medal in every Olympic event, including six gold, one silver and two bronze medals. From 1976 till date, India has only one medal — a gold in 1980.
When technology changes involve significant costs such as AstroTurf, developed economies can adapt quickly by providing their athletes access to newer infrastructure while other countries play catch-up. There are specific sports such as Formula 1 racing which are anchored on advancing technology. F1 thrives on pushing the frontiers of structural materials, engine systems, control systems, tyres, testing systems and maintenance systems to name a few.
While it is a continuing debate as to how much technology is good for sport, there is no denying that impact of technology on sport has been significant and will continue to free up humans to push the frontiers of physical and mental performance.