From the very naming of its business, it would appear the Lincolnshire, Illinois based firm Zebra Technologies has a way of visualizing the product it delivers. Specifically, when it was founded in 1969, Zebra focused on implementing barcode and UPC technology for industrial use. Specifically, in creating these barcode tags, it provided businesses the ability to track whatever might be critical to its internal operations: inventory management, package tracking, etc. The visualization of this, of course, played out in the very name of the company, as the barcodes themselves represented zebra stripes.
In 2007, however, Zebra acquired another business – WhereNet – which specialized in making a much more high tech version of the barcodes Zebra had built its business upon. These Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags allowed for a much more dynamic type of tracking to occur, as unique RF pulses could be emitted from different tags, providing real time updates on locational data on items the tags were attached to; the potential for this digitization of a previously analog process promised to fundamentally change the trajectory of the business. After Zebra’s acquisition of WhereNet, a string of further investment in locational software and hardware drove the company to think about new potential ahem – arenas – it might be able to compete in. The new target? As Jill Stein, VP and GM of Zebra’s Location Solutions puts it: “We started a project in sports. What do you need in order to effectively track professional athletes? You need the ability to track a motion in subseconds. Our tags can blink up to 85 times per second.”
Beyond the ability of the RFID tags to rapidly transmit locational data, however, the data would be significantly less valuable without the various other investments Zebra made in the wake of acquiring WhereNet. Zebra is able to truly capitalize on the value of these rapid emissions due to the low latency – or delay from signal to server – as it only takes 120 milliseconds for RF emissions to reach the main server after departure from the tag. The result? Locational data accurate to an astounding 6 inches wherever a tag is located!
Having made the appropriate investments to track at the speed and granularity required to provide meaningful data in an athletic setting, Zebra approached the National Football League about partnering in a way that might bring the benefits of this digitization to NFL players and fans alike. The partnership began to take hold during the 2013 season, when over 2,000 players were outfitted with tags, and 18 of the NFL’s 31 stadiums installed the requisite receivers to track the RFID emissions.
This relationship continued to blossom into the 2014 NFL season, as the Zebra real time tracking system proved its ability to harness digitization to the league’s benefit. Over 2,000 players once again received sensors, with one quarter-sized RFID tag placed under the left and right shoulder pads of every player. (As a reference point for those who have never put on shoulder pads – pads are constructed such that the tag neither directly touches the player’s body nor is placed on the outside of the pads in a way that would affect the contour or outline of the player). By having two tags on each player, directional data could be deployed – specifically enabling the sensors to shed light more precisely on how and when a player turned. The net output of all these sensors for the 2014 season was a whopping 1,692,000,000 distinct XY player coordinates.
While the sort of insights afforded by Zebra’s digitization of on-field player tracking are in the phases of gaining traction for the NFL’s fan base (e.g. at-home fans are now able to see in either post-play or post-game analysis the exact routes run by players on the field), the growth in this area holds a great deal of promise. Employing applications through Windows 10 and XBOX One, Zebra has sought ways to tie highlight clips to individual players’ data (specifically, through an app called “Next Gen Replay”) and, in an even earlier implementation of the technology, Zebra was able to provide in real time, on the stadium’s display, which players were on the field at any given moment.
For all the benefits fans might reap from this technology, however, NFL teams and players have stood to gain even more. Through a more detailed analysis of how players are precisely moving on the field, these athletes are able to not only focus on their individual performance, but teams can analyze their collective performance with a more granular set of data that simply cannot be derived from game film.
Note: all of the information and graphic for this blog entry drawn from “The Internet of Things Comes to the NFL” [http://www.cio.com/article/2980853/wearable-technology/the-internet-of-things-comes-to-the-nfl.html]