As some US sports leagues return to play, a few athletes will be trying out ring-finger health trackers or new helmet-plus-mask designs that sports officials hope will keep them from suffering the same Covid-catching fates as Florida beachgoers or Texas bar-hoppers. Soccer and basketball games this July will be played in empty stadiums and arenas without spectators, but when the fans do return, they might also find a few changes, including facial recognition scans being used as a way to buy a beer or check a ticket, a method of reducing physical contact.
“This coronavirus crisis is an opportunity for innovation,” says Pete Giorgio, a sports practice leader at the consulting firm Deloitte. “A lot of things that teams are doing right now that feel short term will become long term. People will be asking, ‘Why didn’t we do this 10 years ago?’”
Giorgio says these technological adaptations to pro sports are being driven by the need to keep athletes safe from the novel coronavirus while still playing—and recouping some of the estimated $5 billion in revenues lost by the five major sports leagues, plus the National Collegiate Athletic Association, during the first few months of the pandemic shutdown.
The National Football League is gearing up for its fall kickoff with a new face shield and mask combination designed by sunglasses manufacturer Oakley, according to Thom Mayer, medical director of the NFL Players Association, the union that represents pro football players. Mayer says it will be made with the anti-ballistic, anti-fog lenses that Oakley uses to make combat goggles. “We are close to getting prototypes to the players,” Mayer says. “They want to see how it works.”
Oakley signed a deal with the NFL in 2019 to provide contrast-boosting tinted face shields to some players, the first time the league permitted visor use since a 1998 ban over safety concerns. At the time, NFL officials believed tinted visors would prevent doctors from checking on a player’s eyes after an injury. That design was fixed last year, making it easier to remove.
As of press time, an Oakley public relations representative had not returned requests for comments about the new face shield project.
Mayer says he has been pushing for a face shield that would be combined with an internal N95 respirator mask to block viral particles. “We want to know if it can filter the air going out, and maybe keep the splash from coming in,” Mayer says. “We’ve got to figure out a way to take out this virus. This is a contact virus in a contact sport.”
The NFL has time to plan before teams hit the field this fall, but pro soccer and pro basketball, which launch their seasons this month, are already facing some big hiccups in their reset. Major League Soccer starts a six-week tournament on Wednesday at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, a 220-acre resort adjacent to Walt Disney World. The complex is also in the middle of a region facing a major coronavirus outbreak, with more than 35,000 cases active in central Florida as of Monday. A coach and nine members of the FC Dallas soccer team tested positive earlier this month after arriving in the team’s hotel, and the team announced on Monday that the entire team was pulling out of the tournament. In June, Orlando’s women’s soccer team pulled out of a Utah restart tournament after six players and four staff members tested positive for coronavirus.
NBA players are cocooning at another resort on the same ESPN/Disney property and will begin regular season games on July 30. But as the players start training together, there are ominous signs in the Covid-19 case numbers. The Denver Nuggets and Brooklyn Nets closed their basketball training facilities at home for several days in late June after some players tested positive. On July 2, league officials announced another nine positive tests, making a total of 25 positives from a batch of 351 tests—a 7 percent positive rate. All tests were conducted before players arrived at the ESPN NBA tournament.
To give players, coaches, and staffers an early warning if they might be getting sick, some may be using a new ring-shaped tracker to monitor their vital signs. Oura CEO Harpreet Rai told WIRED that the NBA has purchased 2,000 custom-fitted Oura rings that track users’ activity and sleep levels, as well as respiratory and heart rates, and changes in body temperature. The data is crunched into a “risk score” that the ring maker claims can flag some potential early symptoms of illnesses like Covid-19. Rai says the rings will be used by NBA players in conjunction with daily Covid-19 swab testing.
NBA team officials won’t have access to players’ actual data—but they would be informed when the athlete’s risk score suggests the early signs of physical stress or an illness, such as a fever, Rai says. The risk score will be calculated every morning when the player wakes up, and a message will be sent to both the league and the player’s association indicating that a follow-up swab test may be needed.
“We felt this was an interesting partnership,” Rai says. “You will have an environment that is a bubble, and they are already doing daily testing. Not every other organization will do this. What the NBA is doing is actually looking at the data from Oura that indicate a player has a higher physiological risk, then test those individuals twice.”
Rai says so far about half the league’s 300 players have agreed to wear the device, as well as most of the staff and coaches. He says he expects most players will be wearing the ring once games begin later in July. But some players have already balked at the idea. Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma tweeted that the ring “looks like a tracking device.”
Responding to privacy concerns, Rai says the location and activity data that the rings generate will not be shared with coaches or managers. Wearing the devices would be voluntary, and team officials are prohibited from using the data once the season is over.
While it’s one thing to use a wearable to track how well players are sleeping and how healthy they are during a grueling NBA season, it’s another to use it to flag an infection. And the jury is still out on whether wearables can do that. Last week, John Rogers, a materials scientist at Northwestern University, published a review of existing wearable medical technologies and their value in early detection of Covid-19 in the journal Science Advances. His review concluded that the most popular wearables, such as the AppleWatch, FitBit, and Oura Ring, do not provide key Covid-19-related diagnostic data, such as measurements of pulse oximetry.
Rogers says the Oura ring data might be of some use, but the medical value of these wearable devices in tracking signs of Covid-19 infections hasn’t been proven yet. “Technologies that most directly measure the symptoms of interest—coughing, respiratory abnormalities, fever, and blood oxygenation—from the most relevant anatomical locations and with proven, clinical-grade in accuracy, will have the greatest likelihood of making a difference,” Rogers wrote to WIRED in an email. “This is the future, in our view. Consumer wearable gadgets, initially designed for other purposes, will provide some value in the meantime, given their existing wide availability.”
In response, Rai says that the Oura ring is in early stages of development and that the device’s primary use will be not to diagnose but to indicate when a player needs a second test. (Some rapid Covid-19 tests aren’t 100 percent accurate and have been shown by the FDA to give false negatives.)
Pro basketball and soccer players must also follow strict social distancing guidelines, and will be sequestered in a hotel bubble during the upcoming tournaments in Orlando. Families won’t be allowed to see MLS players, for example, while players and staff must have written permission to leave the resort grounds, except in the case of a medical emergency. That prompted one Philadelphia Union player to call the Disney/ESPN setup a “luxurious prison.”
Down the road, once a Covid-19 vaccine is available, many team owners and league officials are hoping that fans will come back to stadiums. When they do, facial recognition technology may be used to reduce lines at concession stands as well as contact between fans and staff. Shaun Moore played football for Southern Methodist University before starting his own facial recognition company, TrueFace, that works with government and airport industry clients. Moore says he has been in discussions with two pro football teams and one pro soccer team who are interested in using facial recognition software to recognize people who have purchased tickets as they come in through the gate. This system would allow ticket-holders entry, eliminating the need for ticket-takers who would be exposed to thousands of fans. (Moore wouldn’t name the teams, since the discussions are still ongoing.)
The same facial recognition technology could be used for fans to pay for concessions, Moore says. Season ticket holders, for example, might register with their team ahead of time, and have a credit card linked to their image. That account could be used to pay for food and drinks, cutting down on the need to handle cash or a credit card. “I look at it as the future of the stadium,” Moore says. “Where are the touch points that we can reduce?”
Moore says his software will work with existing security cameras that are already set up at stadiums, while other cameras might be deployed at kiosks near concession stands. He understands concerns over privacy, or from customers who don’t have a credit card to use with this system. “There are some hurdles there,” he says. “But I don’t see them as reasons to halt the conversation or stop trying to test this technology.”
In fact, pay-by-face may be ready sooner than a Covid-19 vaccine. Moore says his company is already testing algorithms that may be able to recognize people wearing masks. “China has published algorithms claiming they can get a high degree of accuracy with a mask on,” Moore says. “I don’t have the results yet from our tests—I would imagine if they are able to do it, we will be able to do it as well.”
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