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NC State researchers work with Disney on football tracking tech

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The ball could be tracked in heavy snow, goal line pile ups, or the position of the ball’s forward progress. (Disney Research) The ball could be tracked in heavy snow, goal line pile ups, or the position of the ball’s forward progress. (Disney Research)

Two North Carolina State University researchers are working with Disney on technology that would change the way fans watch football games on television.

Football fans know you have to keep your eye on the ball, but that can be easier said than done. That's where David Ricketts and Dan Stancil come in.

The two N.C. State researchers have helped come up with a way to track the football at all times -- even in a pile-up where the ball gets lost in the mound of players.

Stancil and Ricketts are working with researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Disney Research on magnetoquasistatic position and orientation tracking, a long name for tracking technology implanted inside a football.

"Inside the football we've got an antenna that's been wound around inside the football, and it attaches to a little transmitter," Ricketts explained.

The antenna is taped around the bladder of the ball and stuffed back in. A small low-frequency transmitter is then attached. Receivers positioned around the football field can sense the football's transmitter and track the ball's position at all times.

"He epoxies it so when they kick or hit the football, they're not going to damage [the transmitter]," Ricketts said.

The research team compares the ball tracking technology with what fans have now grown to expect with the yellow line indicating a first down. A yellow line overlaid on the game shows the ball in motion.

"We want to know where the yellow line is, where the first down is," Ricketts said. "The refs have the chains, so they don't need the yellow line. But it's more about sports visualization and bringing the viewer into the game."

Earlier attempts at creating tracking technology failed due to researchers using high radio frequency waves that would be absorbed by players and result in incorrect data. But the new technology utilizes magnetic waves that are not blocked by people, meaning fans can still see the ball under a pile of players.

"We can still see through all the players and see exactly where the ball is," Ricketts said.

The technology also tracks speed and position, and even how a running back is holding the ball, allowing fans to play the role of referee at home.

"If they could do a replay and show you exactly on the screen where the ball went throughout the play, you get a better feel of what the play was," Ricketts said.

The technology is still a work in progress, but the researchers' goal is to get Wilson Sporting Goods using the technology in its football building process. They would then meet with the NFL and rugby teams about using the equipped balls.

"We believe it can be taken to the next step," Stancil said.

Stancil and Ricketts said the addition of the technology does not change the feel or weight of the ball. They said there's already a 1-ounce weight variation allowed with each ball, and the technology weighs less than an ounce.


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