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Upon Further Review: A Brief History of Instant Replay

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© Ron Sachs/CNP/Corbis

Instant replay in sports has sparked about as much controversy as it has eliminated since the feature was introduced more than 50 years ago, but it's hard to imagine watching games today without it. Here's a look back at the men behind the invention and how various sports have incorporated the use of instant replay through the years.

Instant Replay Pioneer

George Retzlaff, a Toronto-based producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's wildly popular "Hockey Night in Canada," used a hot processor to produce a wet-film replay of a goal during the 1955-56 season.

Retzlaff annoyed the advertising agency that sponsored the show by not providing advanced notice that he was planning to employ this innovative technique, and the program's other production studio in Montreal didn't have the equipment to replicate the method, so Retzlaff never used it again. Still, Retzlaff's not-quite-instant replay was a seminal moment in the history of sports broadcasting and ranks No. 24 on the CBC's list of the greatest Canadian inventions of all time.

The Origins of Videotape-Based Replay

Tony Verna, who was hired as a director at CBS by future Dallas Cowboys general manager and NFL innovator Tex Schramm, had experimented with videotape while working the 1960 Rome Olympics. Verna spent a lot of time directing football games and was determined to find an interesting way to fill the lulls in the action between snaps. He also wanted to be able to show viewers the game that was taking place away from the ball on a given play. "If it didn't happen on TV, it didn't happen," Verna told Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2003. Verna eventually developed a system—using audio tones added to the cue track of the videotape—that enabled him to rewind to the point just before the ball was snapped on the previous play for instant playback.

Instant Replay's Big Debut

Verna debuted his instant replay technique on December 7, 1963, during the annual Army-Navy football game. While technical glitches with the 1,200-pound videotape machine that Verna had transported to Philadelphia's Municipal Stadium prevented him from using the feature in earlier in the game—one replay camera was focused on Navy quarterback Roger Staubach and another on Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh throughout the day—it was finally introduced on Stichweh's one-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. As the touchdown was replayed at full speed, and therefore indistinguishable from live action, play-by-play man Lindsey Nelson declared, "This is not live! Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again." According to Verna, the first replay tape, which has since been lost, was recorded over a tape that included episodes of I Love Lucy. Verna went on to a distinguished career in television and detailed the invention of instant replay in a 2008 book.

Early Spread and Opinions of Instant Replay

Instant replay slowly became more ubiquitous. In 1965, the New York Times reported on a new feature of baseball broadcasts on ABC, which was the first network to use slow motion replay. "At least one station plans to introduce 'instant replay' and also a 'stop motion' or 'freeze' technique that could prove whether a base umpire's call on a runner was in reality right or wrong," Val Adams wrote. "The day of reckoning for umpires may be near." Former baseball slugger Ralph Kiner, a commentator for the Mets, had a different opinion. "I never saw the camera yet that could countermand an umpire, considering that the camera angle is just as prone to error as anything else," Kiner said. "In fact, video tapes seem to show how few mistakes umpires make."

A Costly and Useful Innovation

Instant replay, especially in the early days, was an expensive production. In 1966, the Pacific 8 college football conference voted to outlaw the television device that enabled football coaches to view instant replays on the field. Most of the schools that voted against the device, which provided a competitive advantage, did so because of the cost associated with purchasing one. There were other instances when coaches wondered when instant replay would be adopted to improve the game. One such example came in 1966, when Florida defeated rival Florida State in a game that featured a controversial finish. Officials ruled that FSU receiver Lane Fenner was out of bounds when he caught what would have been the winning touchdown. "I know it's a judgment call and there is nothing I can do about it," Florida State head coach Bill Peterson said. "But with all the electronic devices we have in football, why don't we have videotape or something like it to help officials?" Dave Nelson, a secretary for the NCAA, replied, "It is not true that pictures don't lie." College football wouldn't adopt a form of instant replay to determine calls until 2004.

In-Stadium Discretion

While leagues didn’t initially adopt instant replay for use by umpires and officials, teams took advantage of the technology to improve the in-stadium experience for fans. In April 1977, the four-man umpiring crew of a game between the Braves and Astros in Atlanta left the field in protest of the scoreboard operator’s decision to show a controversial replay. Predictably, the crowd began to boo the umpires after the replay revealed that they had made an incorrect call. The umpires received word from Braves management that close plays would not be replayed in the future before returning to the field. In fact, the Braves installed a former major league umpire in the press box to decide whether a specific play was too controversial to show.

One year earlier, the New York Yankees were fined $1,000 and reprimanded by the league after using their instant replay scoreboard to “produce fan reaction against the umpires.” A Yankees team spokesman responded in The New York Times, “We would like to point out that we have only the fans in mind when we use our scoreboard for instant replays. The board cost us $30 million and we see no reason why fans at the ballgame should see any less than the fans at home.” Today, most leagues have policies about what replays can be shown in stadiums and arenas. In the NFL, only the broadcast feed is shown on video screens and it must not be shown after the referee makes his call. You’re unlikely to see a replay of a close play on the scoreboard at a baseball game, especially a questionable ball or strike call.

The NFL’s Trial Run and Instant Replay Adoption

The NFL implemented a trial run of instant replay during seven preseason games in 1978. “We’ll do a dry run on the replay on officiating decisions,” Commissioner Pete Rozelle told reporters. “We’re not going to implement anything, but it will be part of a study.” In 1986, the NFL approved replay for use in regular season games. A game official in the press box reviewed plays on the same feed that viewers at home saw and had the authority to reverse any call that was “totally conclusive.” The league mandated that any replay decision be made within 15 to 20 seconds so as not to disrupt the flow of the game. “It will be expensive,” Tex Schramm said at the time. “But money doesn’t make any difference to this league.”

Communication between the replay official and the on-field was initially a problem. During a Monday night game early in the season, the on-field officials nullified a Denver Broncos touchdown because of what they ruled was an illegal forward lateral. The official in the replay booth reviewed the play and determined that the call was wrong, but by that point the Broncos had already run another play. Toward the end of the season, The New York Times and CBS Sports conducted a poll about the system. Sixty-six percent of fans thought it improved the game; 20 percent thought it made the game worse. Coaches and owners voted to drop replay in 1992, complaining that it slowed the pace of games, but voted 28-3 in favor of reinstating it as a challenged-based system before the 1999 season.

Baseball Resists

Perhaps in the interest of preserving the heritage of America’s national pastime, baseball has been the most hesitant of the major sports to adopt replay. In 1988, MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth declared, "There will not be instant replay of any sort. We're just not going to do it. The umpires making split-second decisions is part of the flavor of the game. We don't want to lose that flavor. You can make a dish so bland that it's not worth sitting down at the table." Ueberroth’s announcement came one week after an umpire used a scoreboard replay to reverse one of his calls.

In 2008, the league instituted replay of disputed home run calls. This season, Armando Galarraga’s imperfect perfect game, in which first base umpire Jim Joyce botched a call on what should have been the final out of the game, brought baseball’s replay debate front and center once again. The Little League World Series began using instant replay in 2008 and switched to a challenge-based system this year. Each manager receives one challenge per game, and if the umpire's call is overturned, the coach retains his or her challenge.

Replay Rules and Systems in Other Sports

Here is a sampling of how replay is currently used in other sports:

National Hockey League: The NHL began using instant replay in 1991. In 2003, the league adopted a replay system that took the responsibility of making controversial calls out of the hands of an in-stadium replay official and bestowed it upon NHL staffers watching every game live from a Toronto office often referred to as the “War Room.” In addition to reviewing disputed goals, the office staffers, who have access to every television broadcast of every game, watch for illegal hits that may warrant a suspension or fine.

National Basketball Association: The NBA began using instant replay to review last-second shots after the 2001-2002 season. Since then, instant replay has been expanded to include reviews of flagrant fouls and to determine if a field goal attempt was a 2-pointer or a 3-pointer. Replay is also used to review possible 24-second shot clock violations and to determine which player last touched the ball before it went out of bounds during the last 2 minutes of regulation and overtime.

Tennis: The Hawk-Eye computer system, which processes the trajectory of a ball using several video cameras and displays a computer rendering of the ball’s path, has been used to review disputed tennis calls since 2006. In 2008, the sport’s various organizing bodies developed a uniform system of rules for utilizing the technology and decided a player would be allowed three unsuccessful challenges per set. Cricket uses the Hawk-Eye system to help determine difficult calls as well.

Soccer: Instant replay isn’t used, though some fans would like to see that change, especially after some of the disputed calls at this year’s World Cup.

Instant Replay Outside of Sports

In 1967, the Federal Highway Administration announced that it would repurpose Verna’s innovation and use video and replay capabilities to monitor busy intersections. According to an article in The New York Times, the FHWA developed a video device that would be triggered by the sound of a crash at a busy intersection. The resulting signal would preserve the video from 20 seconds before impact, which aided in the investigation and analysis of collisions. Today, the U.S. military uses the same technology the NFL uses for instant replay to analyze thousands of hours of video from Afghanistan and Iraq.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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