Enter the maze

Shirts that keep score

an abstract pattern of lights like pixels

When you are watching a sport in person, a quick glance at the scoreboard should tell you everything you need to know about what’s going on. But why not try to put that information right in the action? How much better would it be if all the players’ shirts could display not just the score, but how well each individual is doing?

Light up, light up

An Australian research group from the University of Sydney has tried to make it happen. They rigged up two basketball teams’ shirts with displays that showed instant information as they played one another. The players (and everyone else watching the game) could see information that usually stays hidden, like how many fouls and points each player had. The displays were simple coloured bands in different places around the shirt, all connected up with tiny wires sewn into the shirts like thread. For every point a player got, for example, one of the bands on the player’s waist would light up. Each foul a player got made a shoulder band light up. There was also a light on players’ backs reserved for the winning team. Take the lead and your team’s lights all turned on, but lose it again and they went dark with defeat.

Sweaty but safe

All those displays were controlled by an on-board computer that each player harnessed to his or her body. That computer, in turn, was wirelessly connected to a central computer that kept track of winners, losers, fouls and baskets. The designers had to be careful about certain things, though. In case a player fell over and crushed their computer, the units were designed with ‘weak spots’ on purpose so they would detach rather than crumple underneath the player. And, since no one wants to get electrocuted while playing their favourite sport, the designers protected all the gear against moisture and sweat.

Keeping your head in the game

In the end, it was the audience at the game who got the most out of the system. They were able to track the players more closely than they normally would, and it helped those in the crowd who didn’t know much about basketball to understand what was going on. The players themselves had less time to think about what was on everyone’s clothes, as they were busy playing the game, but the system did help them a few times. One player said that she could see when her teammate had a high score, “and it made me want to pass to her more, as she had a ‘hot hand’”. Another said that it was easier to tell when the clock was running down, so she knew when to play harder. Plus, just seeing points on their shirts gave the players more confidence.

There’s so much information available to you when you watch a game on television that, in a weird way, actually being in the stadium could make you less informed. Maybe in the future, the fans in the stands will see everything the TV audience does as well, when the players wear all their statistics on their shirts! We’ll see what the sponsors think of that...