“Hard Bodies, Meet Big Data.”

NFL Debuts New Player-Worn Location and Movement Technology

If you’re an innovation buff, and I am, the Internet of Things is thrilling. That is, when it’s not a little creepy.

If you’re a football fan (and I am), learning that this season in the National Football League, worn sensors will connect players’ movements on the field to a computer for the purpose of data analysis seems kind of fun—although, outside the sports arena and taken to an extreme, this type of tracking could get really creepy. (More on that in a minute.)

That’s what I read in a recent article on CIO.com. Sensors inside each NFL player’s left and right shoulder-pads send wireless signals to a nearby server, capturing location, movement, acceleration, even the player’s direction—statistical details the article suggests could be used in everything from training to designing games to supporting fantasy football.

Innovation drives business value and the chase for value drives innovation. Here it appears to be fantasy football that is pushing this innovation. Currently, I learned, fantasy football is a $15 billion industry in hard numbers, with its intangible value—based on the number of users and the number of hours they spend playing it—worth many billions more, according to Forbes.

What about instant replay, I wonder? It puts an entirely different spin on how to tackle questionable calls. And what about potential applications for player safety? NFL players are highly valuable. With player safety now an enormous issue for professional football (and other sports), you wonder how the data might be used to monitor collisions (although no one mentioned that), and lower the rate of injuries like concussions.

This is a fascinating convergence of technology, sports and entertainment, and commerce. And let’s give credit where credit is due: the technology is being provided to the NFL by a Chicago-area company, Zebra Technologies, which has for years been developing radio-frequency identification devices (RFID) for bar-code scanning and tracking products and inventory.

I wonder, though, in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice last year and the prevailing anti-patent mood these days, whether Zebra’s technology remains patentable. Crazy as that sounds.

As the application of widely-used technologies from a range of technology arenas: location tracking, wireless communication, deep analysis on big data sets, it’s likely to encounter a myriad of prior art. And, depending on how it’s claimed, Zebra may have to defend its product as being something more than an embodiment of an abstract idea for data-streaming, warehousing, and analysis using a computer. Is it patent eligible or just obvious? We’ll see. It’s a strange world these days.

I also wonder what kind of “future-world” this technology enables. Knowing a smartphone can help you keep tabs on your teenagers, or even track them when they go AWOL, is reassuring.

But some of our technology capabilities do get a little creepy, don’t they? Couldn’t Mom or Dad just slip one of these little sensors into Heidi’s and Henry’s sneakers, and find out where they’re heading, all the time? Find out if the kids skipped P.E. and hung out at the mall instead? Or climbed out the bedroom window last night?

More awkwardly, what happens in the world of the private detective who’s helping a suspicious spouse. Better check your pockets before heading out the door!

I guess we’re already there. But for some this season, having smart sensors in the shoulder-pads promises to be a lot of fun.

Bear down!



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