It’s coming home: How wearable tech is about to change football

Trackers and Oculus Rift are on their way to the Premier League
How wearables will change football

Picture the scene: it's the World Cup final, and it's gone to penalties. Rooney – alright, we can dream – steps up to take the deciding kick, the weight of a nation on his shoulders.

Seeing the expression on his face is one thing, but imagine seeing his heart rate escalate, the speed of his run up, and how hard he strikes the ball in real-time. It sounds like the kind of info you'd get playing FIFA 16 but it could well be the future of football.

Soccer has lagged behind other sports like rugby, Aussie rules and American football

Unprecedented in the Premier League

For years now, football players have been wearing tracking devices in training, so coaches can see who's in tip-top condition and who's been burning the candle at both ends. But so far, the devices haven't been allowed during competitive play. The only wearable that is permitted is the referee's watch that buzzes to let him know a goal has been scored.

This means football has lagged behind other sports like rugby, Australian rules, and American football; all of which use wearables to enhance the sport. What's more, the NFL announced last year that it would be tracking players and sending the data on player speeds, runs, exertion and fatigue exclusively to broadcasters for the fan's enjoyment.

This level of in-game data is unprecedented in the Premier League, but this could be about to change.

The International Football Association Board (IFAB), the body in charge of the Laws of the Game, has already discussed allowing the devices to be used during match play. It could rule on it before the current season is finished. It let women's teams use wearables during the recent Algarve Cup. And as well as in training, Premier League teams currently use wearables in pre-season friendlies. Permitting them during matches seems the obvious next step. But what would it mean for the game?

Tracking Messi

Jim McEneaney is the head of marketing for Stat Sports, the company behind the Viper Pod, a wearable device which is used by 17 Premier League teams, Barcelona and Juventus, as well as a host of American football and basketball teams. He says not only would real-time data be a dream for broadcasters, it would have a big effect on how the crowd in the stadium watches the match.

Bookmark Wareable: Latest wearable technology news and reviews

“It brings fan engagement to the next level," he explained. “We could launch in-stadium apps, so fans can engage more with what's happening on the field, and see each player's data. Clubs could develop their own apps for fans too. To be able to see Messi, and say he's running at 9.3 metres per second, compared to someone who's only running 8.7 metres per second… it's the next level for fans."

But it wouldn't just be a boon for stat fans, it could gamify the sport even more.

“We could see the gaming companies take interest in this information for a whole host of reasons, rightly or wrongly," said Chris Barnes, head of sports science at West Bromwich Albion, and a member of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences.

“So pretty soon, you could be putting bets on how hard someone is working. This is purely me postulating, but it seems that's the way the gaming side of the business is going. So I've no reason to doubt that they will come on board the minute we're able to broadcast quality data."

At the moment, stats are compiled by a combination of on-pitch sensors and video footage from companies like Opta and Prozone. Rather than being competitors, the different technologies could complement each other, providing more comprehensive stats.

“Should there be a situation where football's governing bodies allow this sort of technology to be used on the pitch, then there absolutely would be an opportunity to integrate our data with that kind of information," stated Simon Farrant, Opta's marketing manager.

“As it is, teams use our on-pitch information and try and combine it with training ground data, which obviously occurs under different conditions."

Understandably, some players might not be too keen on this brave new world. With all their data on show, coaches will know for sure if they're putting in the requisite 110% or not. With a sensor on your back sending over info in real time, there's nowhere to hide.

With a sensor on your back sending over info in real time, there's nowhere to hide.

Initially, some were resistant to using the tech in training. Though now it's seen as an aid rather than a hindrance.

“Players asked a lot of questions, because it was seen as a form of Big Brother," Barnes said. “This kind of information can be used as a carrot or a stick."

Over time, everybody has come to appreciate that it's there to help us. In actual fact, an awful lot of what we do is based on this information. It means we can make decisions based on objectivity and not purely on the coach's eye."

Now that's what we call goal-line tech

The devices are so advanced, they can be calibrated to each player and position. There's even one for the keeper.

“The Catapult OptimEye G5 was developed specifically for goalkeepers," Barnes told us. “It is used by over 400 sports organisations around the world. With the outfield players we're interested in how far they go, how fast they go, how many sprints they perform, and the cardiovascular side of things. Whereas with goalkeepers we're more interested in the number and magnitude of diving activities.

“What we've done is spent a bit of time looking at the data coming from the inertial sensors, and we've created fingerprints which identify these goalkeepers' physical reactions. So now we've got a unit which is bespoke and unique to their needs."

But that's the big leagues. What about at the grass roots level?

Last summer, Adidas launched the miCoach Smart Ball which gives you feedback on your kicks via an app on your smartphone. Experts think wearables and connected devices like this are becoming such an accepted part of people's lives that they could make football more appealing to youngsters.

“We are looking at a generation of young people more used to having multimedia platforms at their fingertips," said Dr Andy Harland, director of the Sports Technology Institute at Loughborough University. “These kinds of devices bring football in line with what children are seeing in the rest of their lives.

“They're used to having every aspect of their lives linked into their smartphones, so if football isn't, maybe it becomes old hat."

Louis Van Gaal and Oculus Rift

Looking further into the future, Google Glass and Oculus Rift have immense potential for the sport. Manchester United's manager Louis van Gaal used both at the 2014 World Cup to let his Dutch players relive match situations from a different player's perspective. We can't wait for the day when we can switch between players' viewpoints at the touch of a button, like a next-generation player cam.

However, Chris Barnes reckons we're in for a bit of a wait. “The days of players getting differential views are a long way off," he said. “But I can see a situation where coaches are receiving information by wearable technologies. The information is there, it's hooking it up to Google Glass, which as we know, is an area that Google is investing heavily in."

Catapult has developed infrared tracking technology which is ten times as accurate as GPS and doesn't require a signal, which should be handy for indoor sports (as well as pitches in remote locations). It's the same kind of technology used to locate miners, so the goalposts are being moved all the time.

McEneaney is a little more sanguine about the future. “Technology like Google Glass could be integrated into our system, so it's all in one spot," he said. “The idea of seeing a match from a player's perspective sounds like a pipe dream, but cameras and sensors are all getting smaller. You only have to watch the video of Tevez wearing a GoPro to see what it could be like.

“And 15-20 years ago, our system was probably thought of as a pipe dream," he adds, “so you never know where this technology is going to go.

What do you think?

Connect with Facebook, Twitter, or just enter your email to sign in and comment.