The Internet of Things, sport and avoiding the own goals

Martin Banks Profile picture for user mbanks January 17, 2016

Much of the technology now starting to be used in major sports has obvious benefits for all concerned – team, players and fans. But potentially nasty holes start appearing when the possibilities are applied to (or perhaps imposed on) other businesses

TheLeaders Meet Innovation conference - run by SAP and the National Basketball Association (NBA) took place in London last week, highlighting examples of the change that is coming over IT in general. Chief among these is the idea that the technology component of IT, and its uses, is really becoming far less important than the information, and the way it can be used.

The audience, for example, was drawn not from the CIO community, or technological evaneglists. Instead, the 'Leaders'  in question came largely from the worlds of media, sports and rights management, together with those concerned with the wider issue of brand management. These are people drawn from anywhere where the delivery of information, the availability of the information, the presentation of the information, and brand perception are considered important.

There is, of course, the big question of  how to monetize all of the above, but there are other issues that get thrown up by what is happening here, especially in and around sport. The challenges and solutions will have a direct impact, for good or ill, in the development of many other industries.

The good, and the not so good

These did not form part of the opening keynote presentation at the conference, by Adam Silver, the Commissioner of the National Basketball Association in the USA. But the possibilities did come shining through.

The most obvious one did get mentioned, as it happens. The downgrading of technology-for-its-own-sake was clear from Silver’s own admission on his relationship with both technology and its capabilities when applied properly:

I'm not a technologist, to me it all works by magic, but whatever we think of doing someone is able to figure out how to do it. The Internet has changed the way we do things, in every area of the game.

Some of those areas can be seen as positive for both the team as a whole and the individual players. Thye are taking wearable technologies to new levels that give clubs a much deeper insight into each player’s performance, coupled with their physiological condition at the time of that performance.

Silver admits it is already becoming something of an 'arms race' amongst the players and the teams, as each one gets individualized training programs that not only address their own fitness, but also their tactical skills in relation to their own team members and the next opposition. The data from wearables is also combined with data from analysis of video and movement sensors of each player in action.

Interestingly, Silver did express the feeling that some of the growing dependence on analysis is now going a bit far:

I do feel it has tilted too much to the analytical side and there is a re-emergence of intuition to be seen. When you have people who have played, and now coach, over a 30-year career in the game, there is still a role for intuition.

This was one of those moments when one wonders about how this might be applied in the wider world. After all, this is just the use of a version of the Internet of Things (IoT), coupled with some quite sophisticated analytics, but used on people rather than things.

The people in question, many of whom are on seven-figure annual incomes because of their basketball skills, have a strong vested interest in seeing that their performance levels are maintained, not only at a high level but also for as long as possible.


But how might this work out in the wider world? How might it apply to Joe Six Pack working on a production line or on a contracted out help desk service? It is not so long ago, after all, that the appearance of the 'time and motion man' – the guy studying the processes undertaken and the time consume by each – was a time of fear and loathing in most industrial establishments.

And what might be the consequences? Imagine being able to monitor every detail of every action taken by an employee and identify which might be the weak link, especially when compared to elements of the process that are already automated. It is a capability strongly to be desired by all company managements, no doubt, but it might prove extremely unattractive to the hard core of essential staff on the production lines.

Similar thoughts occurred with the technology being used to enhance the fans’ experience of both the game and facilities and information sources available inside the arena. There is also a huge range of developments in hand concerning how they experience it outside the arena, both online and through TV.

According to Silver, all the teams now have apps for the team itself and for the arena. Users can not just have replays available, but can select which ones, and which sets of player or match statistics they want delivered in real time.

There is also the whole 'driveway-to-driveway experience', from the time a fan (and family) leave home to go to the game to the time they return. This has tremendous potential for providing richer, collaborative services, such as including traffic information for their particular journey to the arena. The technology here is now a done deal, and the collaborative possibilities really are only limited by imagination.

One of the important objectives is to increase the entertainment value of the whole 'team package', so games have rapidly become a key component for inclusion. The use of virtual reality and how it can trick the brain is being exploited heavily, with Silver observing that one basketball shooting game that got him really sweating even though he knew he was actually just standing still.

There is obviously a huge element of 'live the dream' to be exploited as well, where fans can 'be' in the locker room with the team prior to the game, or travelling with them, or being at the training program.

The application of these types of technology in the wider industrial and business arenas could have significant benefits, such as finding new, richer ways of informing staff of process states, problems or issues in real time, coupled with a wealth of information on options for actions that can be taken.

The other side of the coin here, of course, is that while basketball fans make the decision to `opt in’ to such team information and entertainment sources, some employers may feel it OK to create work environments where the act of `opting out’ might be a sackable offence.

That 24x365 work ethos - where one is deemed to be `married’ to the company, where having a spouse is tantamount to having an affair and children are just an ignorable encumbrance - is already upon us.

And the late night conference call, with overseas colleagues appearing as virtual reality avatars at your dinner table is just around the corner.

My take

There is good and bad in most things, and while the good may sound exciting, the bad needs to be thought through as well. More on future capabilities talked through at the conference will appear soon.

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