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Digital technology comes to the NFL (sort of)

With the NFL regular season about the kick-off (literally), I thought it would be interesting to talk a bit about some new technology which will be on the field, or at least on the sidelines, for the upcoming season.

Players and coaches will have access to Microsoft Surface tablets that will let them look at game photos.

Other than the delivery mechanism, this doesn’t sound all that different than the binders of pictures that we see quarterbacks poring over trying to get a better understanding of a broken play. But it is a technical breakthrough. Back in the old days, teams had photographers stationed up high in stadiums. These guys took Polaroids and lowered them down to the field on wires. As technology evolved, digital pictures were taken automatically and sent to sideline printers.

Now, with tablets, things have really gotten wireless. Plus the pictures will be in color, and players and coaches can annotate them (all those x’s and o’s…). But still no video.

Even the level of technology that will now be available required a change in NFL rules, which had not allowed for any computers on the field.

If you’re a football fan, you’re well aware that there’s a lot of sensitivity in the NFL around any sort of espionage. (Patriots’ followers – whether fans or haters – will all remember the infamous Spygate incident.)

But Microsoft worked closely with the NFL to come up with a limited-use version of the Surface:

The NFL’s Surface tablets have had their cameras disabled and can connect only to a private in-stadium wireless network. The devices can only run a single program, which allows people to browse through digital game photographs… There are protective modifications too, made in hopes that the 13 Surface tablets [available to the players; there will be another dozen for the coaching staff] might actually make it through a football season. The NFL versions are bulkier than their consumer counterparts, covered with a thick rubbery coating with waterproof screens. (Source: Business Week.) .

The league is apparently not taking any chances on the more tech-savvy teams trying to game the new system.

Just before kickoff, the devices are handed over the to each team and remain in each team’s possession only for the next several hours. When the game ends, the tablets are put away and spend the next six days in locked, temperature-controlled carts.

Wonder what impact it will have – if any – on the game.

Anyway, it’s interesting to see new technology, however minimal, being introduced to the game.