Originally published on cbc.ca/sports
Tennis fans watching Wimbledon this year may not realize that Wimbledon is watching them right back.
Whether they’re talking about the matches on social media, or actually in attendance at the All-England Club, a super computer that’s best known for winning the game show Jeopardy! has been tasked with gathering meta data on their every thought and expression.
The social media outreach is nothing new; the tennis tournament has joined forces with IBM and Watson for the last few years in an effort to cut through social media clutter and gain people’s attention.
However, the new twist this year is that Wimbledon – in addition to seeing what’s trending – is using Watson to also monitor people’s facial expressions within the stadium to decipher who they’re cheering for.
While this raises some privacy concerns, it also says something about sport and the need for fans to remain constantly entertained.
Watson, for instance, is capable of reading over 400 tweets a second to see what’s trending. It then presents the data in a way that allows Wimbledon’s communication’s team to optimize traffic and get people talking about the tournament.
This is made possible by what IBM calls “cognitive computing.” Thanks to Watson’s ability to understand natural language it can actually comprehend human conversation. For instance, in the case of tennis, Watson knows that the term “love” refers to a score instead of a feeling.
Wimbledon isn’t the only one using the cognitive computing technology. The Toronto Raptors became the first NBA team to use Watson to help evaluate their draft picks. The franchise used Watson to help identify players that not only fit the team’s needs, but also serve its on-court philosophy.
Since Watson can process large amounts of data with speed, it’s capable of seeing patterns that humans might otherwise fail to detect. Not only that, Watson presents this data in a way that makes sense to the human mind.
The ‘seduction’ of sports by new technology
And yet, there’s still something gimmicky about the way Watson is being used – at least in the case of Wimbledon.
“I remember when Fox first had the glowing puck and the comet trail,” says James Sharman, a writer and broadcaster with Sportsnet. “I think sometimes the technology seduces TV production teams, until they finally realized a black puck on white ice isn’t that difficult to follow.”
There is also undoubtedly a commercial element. While not driven by Watson, the NFL has also used a similar type of digital technology to drive beverage sales at this year’s Super Bowl. The fact that people were able to order drinks from their seats increased sales by 67 per cent, according to hosts San Francisco 49ers.
This same app was also used to help people find the nearest hot dog stand and merchandise booth.
And like with Watson, the NFL was able to deliver near instant stats to the phones of fans in an effort to enhance their viewing experience.
“It used to be the game was enough but now we need more stimuli. Our perhaps, sport is simply getting boring?” – James Sharman, Sportsnet sportscaster
Is there a risk of losing the game with all this digital excess since the sport itself is meant to be the source of entertainment?
Sharman says that may have been the case a few years ago, but nowadays people are multi-screen consumers.
“It used to be the game was enough but now we need more stimuli. Or perhaps, sport is simply getting boring? Watching Euros [this past] Saturday the games were dire…awful. I honestly had my face in my iPad,” Sharman says. “I had more fun talking with the fans than I did watching those games.”
Sharman usually follows Twitter in addition to the matches, but admits that he’s not a big stats guy.
“As much as I understand and acknowledge [the] use [of statistics], I’d rather paint the picture subjectively. You can sprinkle them in to give relevance, but if you over use them they too become boring.”
It’s yet to be seen whether Watson’s new facial monitoring is here to stay or if it will fade like the Fox glowing puck. But in an age of hyper entertainment the next gimmick is surely only a phone tap away.