Five future technologies that could improve football

As goal-line technology is used for the first time at the World Cup, The Engineer imagines what other inventions could help tackle dodgy decisions and player tantrums.

This year’s World Cup is the most high-tech football tournament ever, we’ve been told, largely due to the introduction of goal-line technology. Of course, it’s hard to imagine any event held every four years to become less technically advanced during that time, but the decision to use a high-speed camera system to detect whether the ball has crossed the goal-line is an important one.

The previous World Cup in South Africa saw outrage from England fans after a goal by Frank Lampard was controversially disallowed. When officials later admitted the goal should have counted, it helped prompt FIFA into introducing the goal-line technology after years of opposition.

Sadly, the British Hawk-Eye system used in tennis, cricket and several other sports lost out to a German competitor, GoalControl, which uses 14 high-speed cameras in the stadium roof and image-processing software to track the ball’s position to within a few millimetres.

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The German GoalControl system is being used at the World Cup for the first time.

The system also seems to have finally found a use for so-called smart watches (which have so far been a flop among the general public): when the ball crosses the line, the system sends a signal to the referee’s watch causing it to vibrate, instantly confirming the goal.

It’s a welcome move given how high emotions can run when it comes to football, how important the game is for many countries’ national pride and the money and prestige that’s involved in the tournament. And The Engineer began wondering what other technologies it might open the way for that could improve the game further.

1. Offside technology

Now that we can determine exactly where the ball is, why not apply the same principle to the offside rule? There are still plenty of instances of dodgy offside calls, some leading to devastating consequences with goals being disallowed. Even with replayed video footage, humans can sometimes struggle to determine whether a player is offside.

A video-tracking system like that used for goal-line technology may not be enough without major improvements to the image-processing software. So an easier route may be to use player-worn sensors to determine positions. However, as well as requiring an improvement in accuracy, this would likely raise questions about what counts as offside: if a sensor were positioned around a player’s waist, wrist or leg, it could technically be onside while most of the rest of their body was offside.

And, of course, for this to work, the system would need to understand the offside rule in the first place, something that still evades many humans. Now that some experts are claiming to have beaten the Turing Test for building a computer that can “think”, perhaps we should make an offside system the next milestone in artificial intelligence.

2. Faking detector

If we did find a way to apply sensors to players, this technology could provide a range of functions from monitoring their vital signs to analysing team tactics. The right sensors might even allow us to determine whether players have really collided and if a penalty is due.

This would probably require a multiple sensors all over the body so we might be better off using textile electronics to build the detection system into the players’ kit. This might also help us to solve another problem: with adequate medical sensing technology, we could catch out those players who waste time rolling around as if they’ve had their foot blown off only to instantly recover once the whistle blows again.

3. Player-cam

One area where there have been definite improvements to football-related technology in recent years is in our viewing experience. The BBC may have decided to abandon 3D TV due to low take up, but this World Cup will see the transmission of so-called 4K ultra-high definition images, enabling you to see every carefully sculpted strand of stubble on the players’ well-groomed faces (perhaps).

One interesting innovation that has yet to see official use is projector technology the BBC has been playing with for a few years now that turns your entire room into a screen.

But you could also imagine eye-catching new camera angles replicating the view of individual players or even from within the ball itself. Enough cameras mounted around the edge of the pitch could enable the creation of a feed that mirrored what a specific player could see, switching from one to the next as they moved around the pitch.

TV companies have also reportedly been testing tiny cameras built into players’ shirts. These might prove problematic, however, were they to include microphones that picked up the players’ ** ahem** rich language.

4. Robo-refs

With all these computer systems to assist referees, their jobs might increasingly start to appear redundant. Indeed, we might be better off working to replace them altogether with a line of robo-refs.

They could make instant, data-driven decisions, would have no chance of bias or sympathy towards one team and wouldn’t get riled by bad behaviour – they could just instantly give players a red card, or perhaps fire a friendly warning laser at them. With something as scary as a version of Boston Dynamics’ Atlas on duty, we might see far fewer tantrums.

5. Anti-corruption monitor

Perhaps the most valuable invention for the world of international football would be some kind of bribery detector or anti-corruption monitor. We’ve not yet worked out the details on this one so would welcome any suggestions, but perhaps something that made a loud noise any time a dodgy official publicly spoke would be a good start.