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Optical tracking: The holy grail of tracking data In football

Optical tracking is what everyone’s been talking about recently. Not in the context of football, and maybe it isn’t really the core aspect of what people have been talking about, but it is well worth talking about.

Optical tracking is essentially giving a camera the capability to automatically track and identify objects, and convert that into data. In its most basic form, it tracks an object’s location as it travels across the screen. It exists in two basic forms. A 2D form requires one camera. A 3D form requires two or more to perfectly triangulate a location. It has advanced beyond that and is used in many places.

It’s one of those things that is simple in idea, and difficult to carry out. Having a technology that automatically tracks a specific element is a staple of science fiction stories, and for a very long time, while it has existed, in its publicly available form it’s been fairly useless in its scope, requiring a lot of set up and special trackers. It was revolutionized by Hollywood; a version of optical tracking, called “active optical tracking” is also used in movies and video games, when the camera films an actor in a suit covered with LEDs, like in this video.

Most optical tracking systems have looked somewhat like that. New advances, however, allow people to be marked more accurately by their clothes or other identifying markers. One could think that was why the people in Squid Games were wearing those jumpsuits - it makes it much easier for optical tracking to find you when you’re wearing a unique color.

How does optical tracking stack against its competition?

Football is another field where teams wear unique colors, and optical tracking has respectively become a dominant force in it. Why? Because as of today, this technology helps deliver one of the most vital building blocks in any analysis - accurate tracking data. Without the understanding of where each player in the team (and the opposing team) was at any given moment, analysts and coaches will have to depend solely on raw events that happened in the match and would not be able to get tactical insights and data-driven decisions.

But let’s first talk about the alternatives to optical tracking, as there are other methods that are more common currently. Attempts to get automated tracking data have been going on, and there are two main methods that have worked fairly well so far.

A favored one among many clubs is GPS trackers fitted into the uniforms. GPSs are a good source of physical data. They are flexible, portable and it’s easy to extract data from them, but they don’t come without limitations. And more than one. Firstly, they require a satellite signal line of sight in the stadiums, therefore might not be accurate enough (under closed roofs, for instance); Secondly, they monitor only the players that wear them, not the opponents/ball; Thirdly, they don’t carry a camera on them so the connection between raw physical data and actual events is missing (GPSs will tell you how much kilometers you ran but not where you ran and why). Generating tactical insights this way is almost impossible, and lastly - they are an extra encumbrance to players - their size is an issue for matchday usage.

There is another tracking method in local positioning (LPS) - a navigation system that provides location information. It involves placing equipment around the pitch at set distances, so a closed network is created around the objects that are measured. It then uses a set of signaling beacons,so that information is extracted anytime when there is an unobstructed line of sight to three or more beacons. It is an incredibly costly method and one that has different requirements for each pitch, but it is also very accurate, powerful, and has reduced chances of interference in the transmission path (in comparison to the GPS). Some clubs have great results with it.

Combine optical tracking with automated event data, and you have the winning recipe

But the holy grail remains optical tracking. Neither of the alternative methods are as accurate as this technology which follows both teams, the ball, and even the referee. It identifies the different teams and referees by their jerseys, meaning nothing in the game needs to be adjusted at all. It is non-invasive to players, has a high sampling rate, and maybe most importantly - in some cases requires a single viewpoint installation, a true revelation for sub-elite clubs that play in small stadiums and can’t accommodate multiple cameras. Add to that software that can collate the footage and figure it out, and you’re closer than ever to perfect analysis.

Images from Track160's fully automated data analytics platform, which uses optical tracking technology

Track160 uses a single camera placement that captures the entire pitch from one location and is FIFA EPTS certified. The camera feed is connected to an automatic all-in-one data analytics system that also handles the tagging and analysis, meaning that the cost of the system itself is offset by the lack of need to hire trained analysts to do the time-consuming work of properly tagging and analyzing the information. With groundbreaking solutions like the one Track160 developed, the sub-elite are now able to compete at data analytics on the level the top leagues do. It is a game-changer in every sense of the word.

When the bitcoin rush began, the people who joined it early reaped the benefits of doing so. People are constantly looking for the next gold rush, jumping on everything from GME to NFTs. When it comes to sports, football, in particular, the next revolution is the democratization of data analytics, and we want to give more people the opportunity to get into it early.

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