Trends & Features

Artifical intelligence and new realities are changing the way we consume sport

At Wimbledon 2017, IBM’s artificial intelligence (AI) (powered by Watson, an AI platform for business that’s leading the way in cognitive era computing) highlighted some of the latest developments that are changing how both players and fans consume and experience sport.

Augmented reality, automated highlights and a chatbot* called ‘Ask Fred’ where visiting fans could ask questions about matches and players; dining options; and follow an interactive map of the venue, were among the new innovations which all aim to improve the customer’s experience.

Other trail-blazing advances included AI which analysed the noise from the crowd, the movements and facial expressions of the players, and crucial parts of the game such as set and match points, and then created detailed automated video highlights. ‘There is an average of three matches per court, per day, adding up to hundreds of hours of footage which could take hours to pull together into highlight packages,’ explains Sam Seddon, IBM Client Executive for Wimbledon and the RFU. ‘The intention was to help Wimbledon deliver high value content in the moments that matter to connect with fans everywhere.”

Big Data

AI relies on big data. And IBM has been researching this for 50 years. “2.5bn gigabytes of data are created every single day, 80 per cent of which is typically unstructured. The world needs to make sense of it all.

AI technology is starting to make that possible,” explains Seddon. “At Wimbledon, this starts with making sense of data and realigning it around fans – understanding and delivering on their needs and preferences,’ explains Seddon.

‘We’re seeing a huge proliferation of both data and devices, and an expectation to derive insight from that data even more quickly than before for fans across the globe. The exciting thing about AI is that it can help us understand data in both structured and unstructured form.”

Data and Performance

AI is also being used by ‘players and coaches so they can determine turning points in matches to build on future performance’, says Seddon.

‘One of the exciting capabilities of AI is its ability to understand natural language, in theory, players will be able to ask Watson verbally to outline specific aspects of their match, saving time and effort in analysing lots of information,’ he explains.

This year, IBM’s Watson powered a new fan engagement social campaign called ‘What Makes Great’ to provide fans with a new perspective on greatness by identifying the key facets that are collectively required to make a great champion and allow fans to look beyond the statistics. Analysis was made of 53,713,514 tennis data points captured since 1990, including: 6,349 newspaper print articles from the Telegraph written during The Championships since 1995; 22 years of articles, daily blogs and interviews from web sites ( and Telegraph since 1995); 10 Wimbledon annuals, interview transcripts; and more recently social media commentary that total 11,208,192 words.

Attributes that were analysed included ‘great serve and return, to more emotive drivers such as passion and performing under pressure. Before AI this couldn’t have been done in an objective way,’explains Seddon.

A new human touch

Customer Service is undergoing a revolution, too. Soul Machines is an innovative New Zealand company who are leading the way in innovation in the world of AI. The company is creating life-like avatars including ‘Digital Employees’complete with personality and character, not only sense. These digital employees can react to human emotion and have such human-like faces that they can build a rapport and connection with customers.

One of the company founders, Mark Sagar (who worked on the blockbuster movie Avatar) says they are humanising computers by creating ‘a central nervous system’. The company have found notoriety with their ‘creepy babies’ (BabyX 5.0), which you can see on You Tube. The name, which has come about as people have watched the videos, itself reveals some of our reticence and underlying fear about ‘humanising’ computers.

Creepy or not, a true measure of the success of the customer experience is the delivery of an experience in which customers cannot tell if they are communicating with a human or a computer – and where they’re not missing that human touch.

‘At Wimbledon, we refer to AI as ‘augmented intelligence’ i.e. enhancing human capability, not replacing it,’ says Seddon. For the optimists amongst us the future is bright – and not at all creepy. AI allows sport reach more people, in a shorter space of time and to a certain extent it democratises the sport and breaks down any elitist barriers. ‘Using AI to identify key match moments and curate highlight packages allows content producers to serve up the best content across digital platforms, at scale,’ says Seddon.

The Future

IBM are also working with the Masters Golf Tournament, England Rugby and Atlanta Falcons. IBM’s Watson is set to help the teams to predict and reduce injuries, and pick the best players. Edge Up Sports (, have already teamed up with Watson, and are using the technology to help develop their sports news analysis.

Chatbots are proving to be a popular tool in football, as a great way to share info and connect with fans via text or other messenger channel, and brands have clocked this. In April 2017, Heineken launched a chatbot on Facebook Messenger in a collaboration with the UEFA Champions League (UCL) as part of their “No More Excuses” campaign. The bot took on the personality of former football player and manager José Mourinho, who takes no excuses for you missing the Champions League.

The Ambient Era

The sporting household in 2020, is predicted to be a very different world to the one we live in now. Simon Gosling, is a Futurist at Unruly, a leading Whitechapelbased Ad Tech Company who distribute videos across the web for brands. He has a background in virtual reality and is the brains behind our #futurehome, home., ‘a 2,000 sq ft house built smack in the centre of Unruly HQ designed to give marketers a synapse-tingling shot of the future’. The house showcases what Gosling calls, the ‘ambient era of advertising’, following on from the first era of bill boards and magazines, in the Mad Men and Don Draper era, to the digital era of 2000, when brands moved from TV to digital and asked companies such as Unruly to send out their videos to the laptops, desktops and hand devices of their targeted market, using cookies data and understanding who and what has been searched for.

The Ambient Era of advertising is all centred around the ‘cognitive connected home’, which will have a whole new eco-system whereby voice activation such as Alexa will be involved in helping us select everything from what we watch on TV, to what we’re going to cook for dinner – which brands will be able to capitalise on by offering us choices and learning to master voice requests.

Gosling predicts that in this house, 360 technology won’t be used by whole families watching 90-minute long films, but is far more likely to be used to submerge users into 90 seconds of exciting highlights. “You’ll be able to watch the last lap of the Grand Prix from Hamilton’s driving seat then jump into the pit with Vettel. And rather than turn on your phone, then put on your headset, then press a button, it’s going to be a straight handset than headset. A simple tap of a button on the TV will trigger the headset and voice activation will help you change from scene to scene, for example “drive with Hamilton or join Vettel in the pit” or “view goal from crossbar” says Gosling.

Gosling also predicts that we’ll see voice-activated betting, and mixed reality, so for example you can look at the picture of a great goal on the sports pages, scan it and experience the whole thing in 360. Whatever dark side there may be (for example, voice activated betting has serious implications for gambling), it’s also clear that in this intelligent world of big data and new reality, there have been never more opportunities for sporting brands and more exciting times ahead for consumers of sport.

*chatbots are messaging services, such as Facebook messenger, What’s Ap, Slack, text messengers.

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