Whether you call it football or soccer, the thrills and excitement of the World Cup unite fans around the world. And this year, the tech in play at the 2018 FIFA World Cup is nearly as astonishing as the athletes themselves.
Technology can create controversy in a sport that is already loaded with passionate fans, and this year, a new video assistant referee is among the most loved and hated of the new tech.
"One of the benefits of technology at these large-scale or global events is that it can introduce ideas or innovation that otherwise might be missed by seasonal leagues. The budgets for global events are large and the stakes are even higher," said Mike Guiffre, senior vice president of SuiteHop.
With that in mind, here are six technological advances making a difference at the 2018 World Cup.
1. Adidas Official Match Soccer Ball
Adidas has been making the official soccer ball for the World Cup since 1970. This year, in a nod to the 2014 Brazuca Official Match Ball, it has created the Adidas Telstar Mechta for the knockout rounds of the tournament. The Telstar 18 was used in the earlier group stage of the World Cup.
The Telstar 18 is a reimagining of the first Adidas FIFA World Cup Official Match Ball, used at the 1970 tournament in Mexico.
Both the Telstar 18 and Mechta contain embedded NFC chips to communicate with smartphones.
2. Electronic Performance and Tracking Systems (EPTS)
The Electronic Performance and Tracking Systems is a tablet-based system where each team can share information with its coaches in real time. Player stats and video footage are available. Each team has three tablets. One is for an analyst in the stands, another for an analyst on the bench, and a third for the medical team. Optical tracking cameras are used to monitor the players and the ball and provide feedback. It works with camera-based systems and wearable technology.
3. Video Assistant Referee (VAR)
This is the first year the World Cup has used a new kind of video technology, called the Video Assistant Referee, to assist in officiating. The idea is that it catches errors which weren't caught earlier. The VAR team supports the referees from a centralized video operations room at the international broadcast center in Moscow, according to a FIFA video.
One video assistant referee, three assistants and four replay operators make up the group, which has access to all 33 camera feeds covering the matches, plus exclusive access to two special offside cameras. Two cameras are turned on the refs themselves, so their decision process will be public, according to CNET.
The tech is only used in situations where a call may have changed the result of a match. If a "clear and obvious error" has been made, the team communicates with the on-field refs and they can stop play at any time to consult with the VAR team.
4. 4K Ultra High Definition Video and VR
This is the year for 4K Ultra High Definition technology at World Cup. There were 4K trials at the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, but this is the first time it's been widespread and available to viewers with compatible TVs.
In the UK, however, the matches have only been available online via the BBC iPlayer. The BBC also has a virtual reality feed that fans access through the BBC Sport VR app.
"Most notably, with all 64 matches produced in UHD, 4K and HDR has taken a major leap forward, with broadcasters around the world, including the BBC, DirecTV, Sky Deutschland, Swisscom and BeIn showing matches in 4K via cable, satellite and IPTV," said George Bevir, editor of IBC365.
"AI, via IBM's Watson, has been used to process requests for footage and there has been more dedicated content for social media than ever before. And it's notable that virtual reality and 360-degree content has been embraced by FIFA. There appears to be a reasonably healthy appetite to experience immersive content; midway through the competition, the BBC announced that its BBC Sport VR—FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 app had been downloaded a total of 325,000 times," Bevir said.
Bevir said that while no one expects VR to replace regular viewing, it does provide broadcasters and advertisers with the opportunity to create additional content for large events that they know will attract big audiences.
5. Goal-line technology (GLT)
Figuring out whether it's a goal or a near-miss is an important part of a ref's job. Goal-line technology debuted in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and it's still an important part of the tech being used this year in Russia. With GLT, 14 cameras capture up to 500 frames per second and send the image to an image processing system. The 3D coordinates of the ball are monitored and when the entire ball crosses the goal line, the camera captures it and sends a signal to the referee's watch.
GoalControl is again providing the technology, as it did in Brazil.
6. Contactless payment
Contactless payment isn't brand new, but it's worth a mention because of the overwhelming use of it at the World Cup. Visa, the Official Payment Services Partner of FIFA, analyzed spending inside the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia stadiums from the opening match on June 14 through the semi-finals on July 11.
"Contactless payments have played a huge role for us in Russia at the FIFA World Cup," said Chris Curtin, chief brand and innovation marketing officer at Visa. "During the opening days of the tournament, more than half of the payments in-stadium were contactless, showcasing that fans truly relied on the innovative technology."
Around the world, 20% of face-to-face Visa transactions are contactless. "We knew that fans attending the FIFA World Cup— a truly global event —would be familiar with the technology and expecting in-stadium payments to be quick and seamless. We worked to outfit the 12 stadiums around Russia with the latest payment technology, ensuring that fans could leverage the speed and ease of contactless payments to spend less time in lines around the stadium and more time focused on the action on the pitch," Curtin said.
The World Cup is the ideal venue to try out new technologies.
"The FIFA World Cup continues to make great technological advancements, from improvements that directly impact play on the field, to improvements for fans in-stadium—like the updates to the payments systems that Visa provided. From a technology perspective, at Visa we look to the FIFA World Cup as a venue for testing new initiatives, and for providing fans with new ways to pay using products such as the payment bands and rings," Curtin said.
- How to stream the World Cup 2018 online (ZDNet)
- How to watch the 2018 FIFA World Cup matches on Android or iPhone (Download.com)
- World Cup in your travel plans? US warns of Russian hackers (CNET)
- How massive events like the Super Bowl and Olympics fend off malicious cyberattacks (TechRepublic)
- FIFA is going to ref the hell out of the World Cup this year (CNET)
- World Cup 2018: The tech security challenges around the big event (ZDNet)
Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including People, W and Women's Wear Daily.