As the 2017 BWF World Superseries gets underway in Birmingham, Will Jones looks at how technology is transforming sport, and badminton, from automated line calls to predictive ball tracking
One of the biggest changes in sport since the turn of the century has been the development of technology to make, challenge or change key decisions on the field of play. Systems such as Hawk-Eye now allow umpires and referees to review the action instantly – and, in theory, to ensure they’ve made the right call.
Technology might be a little less charming than relying on the much-cherished ‘human element’ of arbitration, and can slow down the action. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find a sport where the majority of players aren’t happy with its implementation. The fans, too, have really embraced it – in some sports, the instant big-screen reviews even add to the drama.
The most well-known and widely used system is Hawk-Eye, which was invented in England by technological engineer Paul Hawkins (hence the name). It’s terrifyingly complicated but, in a nutshell, it uses six state-of-the-art cameras to track the path of a ball and either predict or recreate its movement.
Hawk-Eye technology first found fame in 2001, when it was used by British television on broadcasts of international cricket matches. At this point, the system was used purely for entertainment. It took a further seven years for the International Cricket Council to integrate the technology into competitive matches as part of the Decision Review System, which allows players to challenge decisions made on the field of play.
By then, Hawk-Eye had been adopted by the International Tennis Federation – the system made its Grand Slam debut at the 2006 US Open, permitting players to challenge in-out calls made by line judges and the umpire. The technology is now used by a host of other sports, most famously in football, where Hawk-Eye supplies the Goal Line Technology system used by match officials in the English Premier League.
We’ve engaged a lot in using new technologies to create added value for, especially, the viewers and the spectators. We can [use it to] create statistics, explain the tactics of the game and enhance the experience for the viewer
After a groundswell of positive opinion from players, badminton took the plunge in 2014. The Badminton World Federation (BWF) first approved Hawk-Eye’s Synchronised Multi-Angle Replay Technology system for use at the Yonex-Sunrise India Open in April 2014, since when it’s become a mainstay of the sport and the Superseries Finals in Dubai.
In badminton, Hawk-Eye works in a similar fashion to other sports, allowing players to challenge on-court line decisions and perhaps have them overturned. But as BWF Secretary General Thomas Lund explains, the technology isn’t just for the benefit of the players and officials.
“We’ve engaged a lot in using new technologies to create added value for, especially, the viewers and the spectators,” he says. As well as serving as the basis for a challenge system, allowing players to query line calls that don’t go their way, “this system is also a tracking system for the shuttle. We can [use it to] create statistics, explain the tactics of the game and enhance the experience for the viewer”.
It’s an astute comment. For all the improvements in decision-making that new technology can bring to a sport, fans won’t take to it if it doesn’t improve their experience of the game. As the BWF and other sports federations are proving, systems such as Hawk-Eye are nothing to be afraid of – technology is no longer the future, but the present.