The NFL is constantly adapting to new technology and new opportunities like NFL and Hawk-Eye Partnering. As of summer 2021, one of these opportunities takes the form of a partnership with the Sony-owned computer vision system Hawk-Eye.
Hawk-Eye pairs a software system with a network of high-speed cameras to track balls in several sports, notably tennis. By combining the images of all the cameras, using statistical analysis, and feeding that analysis into a computer model, Hawk-Eye can create a three-dimensional model of the ball moving through the air. That model can then be used to determine if a ball is out of bounds, whether a ball was hit in a legal way, or resolve other disputes. The system claims to be accurate within several millimeters and has been adopted for use by a number of sports, including cricket, soccer, badminton, and snooker.
HAWK EYES ORIGINS
Hawk-Eye was first produced for cricket in 2001 and rose to fame through a series of questionable calls during the 2004 US Open. Since then, it’s undergone nearly two decades of refinements and benefited greatly from advances in cameras, processing power, and computer intelligence. As of 2020, Hawk-Eye was trusted enough by tennis officials to replace live judges almost completely during the COVID pandemic.
Unlike its use in tennis and other sports, Hawk-Eye is being used by the NFL to provide camera networks that can give officials more angles to review replays. Hawk-Eye’s normal use involves juggling the feeds of multiple high-speed cameras that have been carefully positioned to give a complete picture of the state of play of a competitive sport. With the NFL, Hawk-Eye will simply provide the images from those cameras to a person. The platform’s experience with finding the best angles for software and evaluating critical angles will no doubt come in handy when it comes to placing the cameras and suggesting which ones are best to watch for which plays.
In addition to the partnership with Hawk-Eye, the NFL has changed its rules regarding how on-field referees, officials reviewing replays, and the official New York NFL office communicate. The sum of all of these changes should allow officials to quickly and accurately review replays before making the correct ruling. Prior to these changes, viewers sometimes saw referees make calls that seemed inaccurate in light of the instant replays being broadcast to their TV screens. Television broadcasts have traditionally had a leg up on the NFL when it comes to finding the right angle for a replay due to having producers watching multiple angles, having access to lots of cameras, and having dedicated staff with adequate time to review the replay. If the NFL’s plan works, not only will these advantages be nullified, but the league will have a leg up in several categories.
HAWK EYES ROLE
Hawk-Eye’s role here is to provide more information to the humans involved in the process. The camera networks will be set up on fields in order to provide game officials with access to numerous critical angles. In theory, this will allow for anyone reviewing a play to quickly select an unobstructed angle, view the play, and communicate their findings to the team. The new communications guidelines and infrastructure will allow on-field officials to speak with both replay officials and the officiating department during this process, allowing calls to be delivered in a timeframe that doesn’t slow down the game.
As of now, Hawk-Eye is slated for internal NFL use only. This means that it’s unlikely that fans will get a chance to see the images captured by these new cameras. Instead, the NFL aims to speed up the play review process and increase the accuracy of calls made by game officials. Their goal is a sport where the actions of a team on the field matter, not on where an official is standing or where a camera happens to be when they review a play.
The effectiveness of this system has yet to be proven. Under the prior system, however, fans often took issue with the lengthy replay review process and the seeming inaccuracy of many of the subsequent judgments. The new rules changes hope to address both of these issues so that the NFL can review plays quickly and accurately throughout the 2021 season and the future.
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