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Four Ways Technology is Changing Sports Officiating

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Hawk-Eye (Tennis)

Even though video replay may be useful, it's still pretty low-key. So, like George Lucas changing Yoda from a puppet to a CGI, tennis made the leap to computer rendering. The Hawk-Eye system, based on ESPN's Shot Spot feature, uses cameras set up around the court to track the ball's path and create a 3D rendering of where the ball hits. Besides being used to judge if a ball landed in or out, Hawk-Eye can also be used to analyze a player's strategies. In its sporadic uses, Hawk-Eye has proven effective, usually serving to anger the players whose points get taken back from the replay.

Microchip Balls (Soccer)

Fans of the Tottenham Hotspur were up in arms after a game they lost because a ref wasn't paying attention. The team scored an obvious goal, but the linesman didn't see it and simply signaled for play to continue. That prompted soccer officials to unveil a new ball, partially designed by Adidas, with a microchip in it. The chip would signal the official whenever it crossed the goal, thus negating the effect of refs napping on the job. The ball made its debut at the 2005 Under-17 Championship and has made sporadic appearances since. In terms of accuracy, the ball has been a success, although that could also be due to refs actually doing their job. However, some players have complained that the microchip makes the ball travel differently and is harder to control.

Umpire Information System (Baseball)

Being the home plate umpire in baseball has always struck me as one of the most difficult jobs "“ in a split second, you're expected to determine if a pitch was in or out of an imaginary box. To help standardize strike calling and reduce umping mistakes, Major League Baseball instituted a digital check on its umps in the form of Questec's Umpire Information System. The UIS doesn't correct calls on the field; instead, it compares the computer's results to the ump's. The technology stirred up controversy, with players arguing that it didn't take batters' size into account and was making umps scared to make controversial calls. Arizona pitcher Curt Schilling even smashed one of the cameras in his home stadium with a bat after a particularly rough outing. Reportedly, one of the umps told Schilling to break the other one.

Video Replay (Just about every sport)

ref_hood.jpgAfter Wayne Gretzky, video replay may be the best Canadian import to sports. A 1957 Canadian hockey broadcast marked the first use of instant replay, a technique that would soon revolutionize sports broadcasting and officiating. Since then, most major sports have adopted rules to allow officials to consult video feeds to correct calls. Baseball is the latest arrival to the replay party, with a recent decision to explore using video replay to check whether a ball has left the park or is fair or foul. Even though replay is used in sports as unusual as rugby, cricket and rodeos, the most unusual use of replay is listed in this Wikipedia entry (though research couldn't find another mention of the incident). At a high school quiz bowl tournament at Michigan State University, one team argued that the moderator had "allowed more than a natural pause" during a question. A judge noticed that a parent had been taping the tournament and took her camera, using the video to reverse the panel's original decision.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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