We're pretty comfortable with the idea of involving technology in sports, from the mundane usage of broadcast footage to aid a score review to full-blown, dedicated solutions like Hawk-Eye for tennis and cricket. The Australian Football League (AFL) has a reputation for being more measured when it comes to introducing such aids, but that doesn't mean it isn't investigating its options, with the most recent research involving "smart" footballs that can communicate their position via GPS.
As AFL.com.au's Adam McNicol writes, Melbourne's Victoria University has just published a brief paper outlining the work it's done so far regarding smart balls -- specifically, the impact the technology has on the performance of the football itself. Understandably, the AFL doesn't want to stick chips into Sherrins if there's a chance they'll have a detectable impact on their flight, weight or shape.
The paper also includes research on the characteristics of new and used balls, as well as how colour plays a role -- if any. The meaty part of the document however involves the smart ball, which did exhibit small, yet noticeable differences to its "dumb" counterpart:
There were few differences in technique, impact characteristics and ball performance between the Sherrin standard football and the Sherrin Smart ball. Coefficient of restitution and foot to ball speed ratio was higher in the Smart ball for some kicks but this difference represented an increase in distance of less than 1 m. ... Overall there would seem to be little change in either ball or participant performance when using either the Sherrin standard or Sherrin Smart ball. The Sherrin Smart ball was perceived by both players and umpires to be more used and heavier than the Sherrin New ball.
It's noted that umpires involved in testing found the smart ball to be "pointier, possessing harder inflation, more inconsistent stitching and with rougher leather than the Sherrin New ball". Players also observed a difference, saying it was "larger" and had "a more erratic level of flight control". The author points out that this might have something to do with the "perceptions ... of the manner in which the Smart balls were stiched".
It's easy to see the benefits of having hardware inside balls, though Mark Evans, the AFL's GM of football operations, says that it'll only be used for positional information to start with, but there is the possibility of generating "graphical images of play -- heat maps and things like that" and using the data for score reviews.