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FIFA to test ‘limb-tracking technology’ for automated offside at Club World Cup

One step closer to robot referees

Robot Baxter to predict results of 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup football matches Photo by Artyom Geodakyan\TASS via Getty Images

The merits of FIFA’s Club World Cup are certainly debatable, but two things are very clear. One, once you’re in it, you’re in it to win it. And two, it can provide the opportunity to test new things in the game without the massive spotlight of a World Cup or some other big tournament.

Case in point, this year’s edition that’s about to take place in Abu Dhabi — with Chelsea heading out next week for our two games on February 9 (semifinal) and February 12 (final or third place) — during which FIFA will be testing “limb-tracking technology”.

As one might surmise, limb-tracking tech is used to, well, track limbs of players on the pitch, “which enables the real-time creation of three-dimensional visual representations of players’ skeletons”. And the most obvious application of such technology would be something I’ve been hoping to see for a long time, automated offside calls!

Much like goal-line technology, there’s no reason not to give this binary decision over to the machines as well. If you can track the position of the ball, and you can track the positions of all the players (arms, legs, heads), determining offside becomes a simple matter of crafting an algorithm to identify a pass forward and compare the positions of the various limbs at the other end — with an appropriate envelope of uncertainty, to account for margins of error in the tech, as well as giving advantage to the attacking team when the players are “level”. No more relying on human eyesight, subjectivity, camera frame rates, or lengthy line-drawing exercises. The calls would be made in real-time essentially, and by definition, always objectively correct. Skynet, baby!

FIFA are also envisioning this to be useful in analysis (i.e. able to visualize what a player might have seen during a specific situation) or something a bit more uncanny, like a sort-of virtual reality experience for fans: “mirroring football matches in virtual worlds using this technology can unlock exciting opportunities for fans and individualise their football experience”. Pretty sure that’s just an episode of Black Mirror.

But this technology as far as it could apply towards improving the officiating, is very exciting. FIFA say they are just in the infancy of this process, but envision it positively impacting the game by “optimising decision-making processes and increasing objectivity” with a “pivotal” role foreseen in “semi-automated offside technology”.

Would love to see that indeed, fully automated even.

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