19 July 2010

The dark side of electronics in sport

World Cup 2050 Match report: Semi-finals - England v Germany.

At nil all after ninety minutes, the game erupted five minutes from the end of extra time when a thunderbolt from the right boot of Wayne Rooney the Third slammed into the crossbar and deflected straight down at the goal line. The German keeper claimed the ball deflected in front of the goal, but the England players were confident it had crossed the line. All eyes turned to the giant scoreboard hovering over the stadium like a menacing Zeppelin from a bygone era.

With the decision pending, replays from all angles flashed up on the display, giving visual credence to England's confidence. The ball had plainly hit the ground inside the goal mouth. English fans were jubilant, and the noise from the vuvuzelas was deafening.

Then the scoreboard flashed up the words "No Goal".

As English cheers turned to catcalls and sheer disbelief, the English coach furiously slammed the "Appeal" button on his netpad, setting off an electronic audit of the bank of sensors and signal processors engulfing the ground.

Sophisticated visual processing algorithms reviewed the gigabytes of footage and determined that an errant pigeon had triggered the goal line radars just before the ball arrived. The on-board image processors should have been able to tell the difference, but a watchdog timer had triggered a processor reset seconds before causing an invalid logic state at boot up that triggered the tracking algorithm to focus on the wrong object. The pigeon had indeed crossed the goal line. But as to the ball, the system just didn't know.

The main audit program ditched the video and radar evidence and turned to the secondary monitoring systems embedded in the ball and the players' boots. The force sensors in Rooney's boot were correlated with GPS data from the ball to plot the trajectory of the shot with millimetre accuracy. But the system stalled when trying to calculate the exact angle of deflection off the goal. The drone of the vuvuzelas had apparently set up a resonant vibration in the crossbar that the expert system was unable to correct for.

In a last ditch attempt, the main audit program connected virally with a botnet of thousands of host computers around the world to review all data collected throughout the game and construct a complete model of the events leading up to the shot in an attempt to predict the outcome. The sheer amount of data overwhelmed the arena routers, causing a thermal shutdown and crashing the entire system. The extent of the damage is still being assessed.

In the absence of any conclusive data, the original decision was upheld.

With the game still nil all at the end of extra time, the penalty shootout was abandoned as all monitoring systems were still offline after the audit meltdown. The match was decided by "Rock, Paper, Scissors", with the German captain's paper wrapping up the English rock for victory.

The outcry following the incident prompted renewed calls for FIFA to consider employing human referees in future tournaments. The FIFA president remained firm in his rejection of the proposal saying, "human fallibility should play no part in modern sporting contests".

In other news, the headquarters of German electronics engineering company SportsTechnikElektronik, leading manufacturer of intelligent football goal line monitoring systems, was engulfed in flames last night. According to eye witnesses, a group of young English football fans eating toasted marshmallows while returning to their hotels after watching the world cup semifinals match at the Munich fan site, "It's a mystery. One minute it was standing there, the next - poof! Up it goes!"

Rob Irwin is product marketing manager at Altium.

Rob Irwin

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Altium Ltd

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