Is this the future of football?
While tortuously protracted decisions about goal-line technology and the use of foam to mark out defensive walls do not suggest football is ablaze with innovation, the game as we know it could be set to change irrevocably. And though we are still talking decades rather than years for the most startling of these developments, numerous futurology experts have posited that the footballing world anticipated for our children — and most certainly our children’s children — is set to be a totally different spectator experience to the one we can see today.
“Football is a sport that is all about audience engagement, and technology has always been used to improve the quality of play and audience participation beyond the stadium,” claims Ian Pearson, a full-time futurologist and owner of small futures institute, Futurizon. “Today, we are used to ubiquitous cameras and sensors and having access to a vast quantity of player and team statistics via our smartphones. Even football boots and clothes can be full of the latest technology.”
A writer, lecturer and global consultant on all aspects of a technologically driven future, Pearson has a vision for football in the future that is sure to intrigue, and possibly upset, fans across the world. Here are the key changes he envisages.
Smartphones made smaller
As most football terrace regulars will concede, even today’s most advanced smartphones can be rendered useless in a capacity crowd situation; the sheer volume of users trying to navigate the half-time scores or social media feeds can reduce the speed of service to an infuriating crawl. But in the bright new future Pearson imagines, ongoing miniaturisation will allow for the replacement of these devices with assorted wearable tech — think electronic jewellery, video visors and contact lenses. All hopefully a little more aesthetically generous than those unsightly Google specs doing the rounds on the current tech circuit.
Pearson: “We will still need the capability of the phone, with many enhancements; it is just the physical form that will evolve, becoming more distributed. We’ll be able to access even more features and services, but they will be far lighter, smaller and less conspicuous. But let’s call them smart-phones until someone invents a more suitable name.”
A different kind of stadium “buzz”
As patently ridiculous as it might sound now, Pearson believes the next two decades could see games broadcast via miniature cameras, carried by flying, insect-sized robots flitting around the stadium. Like some macabre-sounding extras from Minority Report, these diminutive drones will follow players around the pitch, streaming live footage, with the optional extra of going behind the scenes to capture exclusive insight or — far more interestingly – managerial meltdowns.
Pearson: “Miniature cameras would be worn on player kits and retractable cameras could easily be put in the turf too, withdrawing as a player approaches. Instead of intense floodlighting, individual LEDs could be carried by similar airborne devices, so that more natural light comes from a more natural direction.”
“You need glasses, ref!”
One of the most clichéd heckles in the footballing vernacular could soon be eliminated permanently as the man in the middle, requiring an all-encompassing view of the game, adopts active contact lenses, enabling action to be seen from any angle. A most welcome vision for the game’s purists, it spells bad news for the incessant rule breakers and off-the-ball thugs in football’s ranks. Fortunately for the likes of Suarez and co, their boots will have long since been hung up by the time this technology hits the turf.
Pearson: “Raw camera feeds could be available to all referees, but 3D enhanced images would also be built in real time by computers combining inputs from several cameras and other sensors to make a high quality 3D view of the entire field.”
The Pursuit of App-iness
It seems a large part of social media’s involvement in the modern game extends no further than the asinine, faux-philosophical musings of players such as Joey Barton, or Saturday-night trolling by vitriolic keyboard crusaders eager to attack everything they dislike about a given team or player. Thankfully the medium also serves other higher purposes for fans, but, for Pearson, the role of social media in football’s future is a much more diverse one. He thinks it will one day provide legions of supporters with a far greater interaction with their clubs than they could possibly imagine today.
Pearson: “Apps come into and go out of fashion, but those that link fans together will remain popular. Different players may have their own special fans within the crowd, and they might even have their own apps. One player might prefer chants to be arranged, while another might prefer visual patterns being produced by the coordinated displays of their fan-base. Fans could also use these apps to talk to each other and exchange opinions, and perhaps even to communicate audio messages to the player.”
Scoff all you like, but seeing Sheffield Wednesday line up against a burly team of T-1000s may not be the far off dystopian vision as you once thought. According to Pearson, these silky skilled sentinels won’t be based on cogs, wheels and wires, but rather, a strong skeleton overlaid with gel muscles, that “feel soft but are five times stronger than humans, weight for weight.” A bit like Cristiano Ronaldo, then.
Today’s underperforming, journeymen midfielders need not fret about Pele and Robocop’s lovechild taking their place just yet, however. By Pearson’s reckoning, though androids would actually be able to play football sooner, a lack of advancement means we’d be unlikely to see them lacing up their “boots” for another 50 years.
Pearson’s timeline of innovation
Apps allow supporter groups to link to players on field
Retractable cameras in turf with player-location sensing
Referees get enhanced augmented-reality tools
Vibrating seating used in atmosphere management
Airborne LED lighting via insect-like robots
Full android teams very common, playing in their own leagues
Androids take over Chelsea Football Club, and later, the Earth *
*NB: Esquire own predicition