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New software could create computerized sportscasters

Algorithms from a Swiss developer could allow computers to track the real-time movements of athletes, making automated sports commentary possible.

A "people detection algorithm" called POM estimates the position of people in an individual time frame.

Could a computer replace this era's crop of clownish sportscasters like Dick Vitale or Lee Corso? We can dream--while a Swiss company works on software that could create artificial intelligence systems to call sporting events.

Computer researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland are working on a system that can track multiple athletes on a football field, a basketball court, or a soccer pitch via multiple cameras and advanced scanning algorithms. These days, computers can track human athletes, racing cars, and other sporting elements via GPS. But that's illegal in many sports as the introduction of such technology threatens to overpower the human element of athletics. The EPFL technology uses visual cues instead.

The Swiss institution's Computer Vision Laboratory uses multiple, precisely arranged video feeds that are constantly analyzed by three individual algorithms. The first system divides the playing area into a grid and calculates the odds of each section of the grid being occupied by a player. The second subroutine handles player tracking, estimating the location and movement of players based on the work of the first algorithm. Since a computer can confuse or lose a player and his/her data amidst movement and contact, the final computer system monitors, records and follows the players' appearance--including the color of their uniform, their jersey number or other visual cues.

If the engineers can take that collected, flowing data and send it to an additional computer system able to vocalize and describe the movement, we could have our play-by-play robot. It's been attempted before, as far back as the 1990s for Sega Genesis, but with very limited results. There's no indication from EPFL yet when it might produce a Robby the Robot for the broadcast booth.

For now, the technology is of more interest to coaches. Much like the telemetry system currently monitoring concussion data for the Notre Dame football team, such computer tracking systems become tools for gathering essential data and can be used by coaches to analyze plays and athletes' on-field performance.