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Laser Technology Enhances Experience for Sports Fans, Refs

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Larry Weisman, Freelance Writer

A laser device helps spectators and officials to better visualize important markers, so that people in the stadium have the demarcation information offered to TV viewers at home.

Science and technology are inextricably linked with sports. Over the years, technology’s steady march has continued to help the sports world evolve into a more efficient marketplace of action and ideas, whether it’s improved equipment for the players, enhanced comfort and enjoyment for the fans, or better officiating for the various games.

Consider aluminum bats in baseball, or golf clubs that add dozens of yards to tee shots, bolstered by golf balls made more aerodynamic through constant study of the dimples on the outside and the contents of the inside. Football helmets were once made of leather; now they contain special air-bag systems designed for more protection and a better fit. Once upon a time, sprinters were timed by hand. Now, it’s electronic. And stadiums have gargantuan video screens, Wi-Fi for their patrons, electronic ticket scanning, food and beverage services via the Internet, and instant replay to aid the officials.

Laser technology can help football officials keep track of the first-down line on the field.

Now, even laser technology is getting in the game, finding a new application – not in manufacturing equipment but in setting up right down on the field, where it can change the sports experience for participants and fans alike.

The “green line” from Sports Laser Technologies, a division of Thought Development Inc. of Hempstead, N.Y., is a laser-projected marking visible in-stadium to fans, players and officials. In its football application, the device is called First Down Laser, and it indicates the line to gain (the first-down line) in football. In track and field, it’s called the Laser Leading Line, and it shows distance markings in events such as the long jump, triple jump, hammer throw, discus, javelin and shot put. It can be used in other sports, too: for offside marking in soccer, tracking the positions of vehicles in auto racing, and more.

The technology made its debut in sports use in June 2013 at the NCAA Outdoor Division 1 Track and Field Championships at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. The meet was televised by ESPN, giving fans worldwide a look at the new laser markings. The laser use was popular with both fans and athletes, according to Mark James, a USA Track and Field Foundation board member, and the device was used again at the 2014 meet.

In its football application, the laser product is called First Down Laser.

For football, the system comprises a projection system housed in the tunnel or behind the stands and fiber optics under the field. It also includes two sets of chains – the traditional method of marking 10 yards for a first down in the NFL – but these are modified to include projection units that align across the field and lay an unbroken line across it.

Home TV viewers are familiar with the “yellow line” superimposed by the television networks, but that marking is not visible in the stadium. The yellow line allows TV viewers at home to know when and how a first down has been made, although the paying customers on-site are often without that knowledge until officials bring the first-down chains onto the field and execute a measurement. With the green line, fans will be seeing something in the stadium that they are accustomed to with in-home viewing.

And that could be a boon in one key marketing war being fought in sports: “competition with the couch.” With HDTV and 60-in. screens, fans often feel that they get a better look at the game (with far fewer issues and expenses) by staying home. “The in-stadium fan experience has become one of the NFL’s top priorities,” said Alan Amron, the laser technology’s inventor and company founder. “They know the at-home experience is better.”

Consider AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the home of the Dallas Cowboys. One of its primary attractions is the video board, which offers 25,000 square feet of visual surface (and cost $40 million). It is not uncommon to see fans in the stadium watching the game primarily on the board – or even to see players looking up at it, as well.

“Someone once told me that the reason [Cowboys’ owner] Jerry Jones made the screen so big was so they could show the yellow line on it, just like people at home see it,” Amron said. “He could have just installed our system.” Amron has been developing the laser since 2003, and it has been through a few different incarnations. It was originally mounted up in the stadium lights, but now it can be incorporated into the first-down chains. This does not mean, however, that the long tradition of bringing out chains to measure for first downs – with all its attendant drama – has to disappear.

“The NFL’s competition committee told us, ‘We like the chains; we don’t want to eliminate them. They build excitement.’ Based on their feedback, we integrated the lasers into the chains,” Amron said. “That made the system less expensive, didn’t require installation and doesn’t eliminate the chains, which would still be used to confirm close first-down calls.”

The real impetus for developing the system wasn’t entirely for the fans – it was to help improve officiating the game and to make it more efficient. The laser line will remove doubts about where the line to gain is, allow officials to turn it on and off at will, and help players know exactly what spot on the field needs to be attained or defended. The laser could also be used as a coaching/teaching tool during practice, to give players a better understanding of where the first-down line is, how better to run their pass routes, or how to better defend the line.

Former NFL special teams coach Mike Westhoff described the future implementation of the laser technology in football as “a no-brainer.” He’s not alone in seeing how it could assist players.

“This would be a visual cue on third-and-one as to how far we have to go. When we’re battling in the trenches, knowing how far we have to go would be invaluable,” said Keith Sims, an offensive lineman who played 11 years in the NFL.

It’s not always so easy to encourage testing and use of new devices, however. The NFL flirted with instant replay technology for years, voting it in and out and tweaking the methods by which it was used, creating annual battles at its winter meetings. And the general thinking is to study changes from every possible angle. (For more information about the freeD camera technology now installed at AT&T Stadium, see “Real-Time 3-D Replays Bring Fans Closer to Action,” by Patrick Myles of Teledyne Dalsa, which appeared in the February 2014 issue of Photonics Spectra.)

“You talk about it at the owners’ meeting, kind of go through the variables, exactly how accurate it is and how it would be implemented,” said two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Mike Shanahan. “I think there’s a lot of technology that you could possibly use, but before you do that, you go through all the situations and find out if it’s effective and how effective.”

The caution camera system is activated only when the player is in the caution zone and in the caution frames. If the player’s helmet/head is in the laser line caution zone, or if players look toward the projector, the laser line instantly shuts off.

The equipment meets all national safety standards, and other precautions are being built in against any questions about possible danger to player vision, should the player have the laser in his visual field. “Safe operation has always been the highest priority,” Amron said.

The system can include a “caution” camera that is activated only when the player is in the caution zone and in the caution frames. If a player’s helmet/head is in the laser line caution zone (36 in. × 36 in. × 53.3 yards across), or if players look toward the projector, the laser line instantly turns off.

The laser system can include a “caution” camera that is activated only when a player is in the caution zone and in the caution frames.

“With redundant safety mechanisms built in, we project a laser line onto the playing field, to be seen in the high noon sun by everyone in the stadium and on the field,” Amron said. “We have a laser source-to-algorithm-to-projector onto the field. The caution zone is a 4-in.-wide line by 30 in. high by 53.3 yards across the field that a player must be in, in order for our safety camera algorithm to anticipate his head/eyes location to shut off and put back on the line from that side of the field.

“It will always leave the other-side projected line still on for others to see.”

Other safety factors are also at work in football applications. With a visible line across the field, players would not have to look toward the sidelines to see the first-down markers, possibly eliminating some head and neck injuries. Former NFL player and longtime TV announcer Pat Summerall, a founding partner of the company, once observed that every line on the football field is marked, except the most important one – the first-down line. Adding this visual should assist players.

A helmet-tracking algorithm ensures eye safety for players on the field.

“From an athlete’s standpoint, it creates an increase in on-the-field awareness. With that, there’s going to be a lot more reduction in injury, not just muscular-skeletal injury but traumatic brain injury,” said Raymond Solano, a chiropractic sports physician in Falls Church, Va. “I think less diving and less extension will take place at the end of plays, therefore reducing the chance for injuries. This will increase the safety of the sport of football.

“If I were in the NFL somewhere high up as a ranking official, I would say, ‘Yes, this is what we’re going to do to reduce injuries and the number of concussions that our athletes sustain.’ ”

Football isn’t the only sport with concerns about how to give its customers a bit more. Tests of the laser with NASCAR suggested ways the product could be improved for TV, as well as for those in the seats at the track.

“Right now people at home [on TV graphics] can see little flags that lock on and track the tops of the cars for them to know the pole position throughout the race. But in the stadium, no one has a clue as to who is actually in first, second, fourth or ninth position at any given time in the race. They have pit stops and – unless you count the number of laps completed without penalty laps, which our algorithm does automatically for all the cars on the track – there is no way of actually quickly knowing who’s winning the race,” Amron said. “So we consider this enhanced in-stadium fan experience: Give the fan paying the big dollars to watch live more bang for their bucks.”

Meet the author

Larry Weisman is a freelance writer based in Delray Beach, Fla. email: [email protected]

Photonics Spectra
Sep 2014
AmericascamerasFeaturesimaginglight sourcesopticsSuper Bowlsports technologylasers and sportsviewing sportssports and televisionSports Laser Technologiesprojected markingin-stadiumFirst Down laserLaser Leading LineAlan AmronJerry JonesMike WesthoffNFLKeith Simsinstant replayMike ShanahanPat SummerallRaymond SolanoLarry Weismanlasers

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