Electronics Put a New Spin on 'Inside Sports'

Electronics are everywhere. But in a hockey puck?

Sure enough. Certain National Hockey League games now use pucks crammed with electronics. Thanks to some high-tech wizardry, they're much easier to see on television.

This isn't the first time TV has invaded sports. Cameras have found their way into everything from race cars to football helmets.

But that technology was outside looking in. The new wave is inside looking out. Be warned: Pucks are just the beginning.

The new hockey puck comes from Etak, the same company making electronic road maps for General Motors and Mercedes Benz. The hockey system uses an infrared-pulsing puck, an array of sensors and detectors, and even a specially synchronized camera platform to keep up with the six-ounce blur of vulcanized rubber.

The result is that TV viewers see a "spotlight" focused on the puck at all times. When a player hits a hard shot, the system highlights its path with a red streak.

Called FoxTrax, the system was introduced at the NHL All-Star game in January and is now a weekly feature on FOX's hockey broadcasts.

FOX says experienced fans feel the system is unnecessary. But the network and the NHL hope current fans will put up with the system if it can attract new viewers to the game. Apparently, many would-be watchers stayed away because they couldn't see the puck.

In tennis, it's not the fans who have trouble seeing, it's the officials. "It's humanly impossible to judge a ball on a line," says Stan Mallesse, chairman of the US Tennis Association's technical committee. A hard-hit tennis ball can skid up to six inches on a court before it rebounds. This happens so fast that the eye can't distinguish between the point of contact and the point of departure, according to Mr. Mallesse's tests.

So two years ago, the US Open experimented with an automatic line-judging system from an Australian company. Using magnetic fields generated by cables buried under the lines, the system was able to detect where balls had landed, while filtering out the presence of metal rackets and other extraneous objects. (The balls were detectable because a small amount of iron powder had been added to their rubber mix.)

What the system's developers hadn't counted on were metal eyelets - the small holes in tennis shoes that the laces go through. At times during the Open's qualifying rounds, the shoes set off the system. So it was taken out and so far none has been widely adopted (although the Wimbledon tournament does use an automatic system to judge the service line).

Advocates of the technology say they don't want to interfere with sports, only enhance them. But one can imagine electronic gizmos embedded in everything from baseballs and golf balls to skis. The simple implements of our sports will never be so simple again.

Send comments to lbelsie@ix.netcom.com.

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