06/26/2012 03:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Wimbledon: Using Analytics to Measure Athleticism at the Tennis Championships

There's no shortage of European sporting events for fans to enjoy these days. The Euro 2012 football championships are going strong in Poland and Ukraine even while fans gear up for the London Olympics. So, how does the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, whose Wimbledon Championships qualifying rounds kicked off this week, get people to pay attention to tennis?

One way the club generates excitement is by enriching the fan's experience through the use of cutting-edge technology. For several years, IBM, a sponsor of the Wimbledon Championships, has used the event as a showcase for some of our leading-edge solutions-technologies that we believe can make the whole world work better. It's a way of using a popular sport to bring our Smarter Planet agenda to life.

This year, in collaboration with the All England Club, we're introducing a new technology to Centre Court. It's called IBM SecondSight. Using a handful of strategically placed video cameras, we track the movements of players in real time and present to fans a digital on-screen representation of the match, complete with avatars representing the players. Fans can click buttons to see up-to-the-second analysis of the match. Who is moving faster? Who is running more? Is somebody tiring?

It's the deepest look ever at the purely physical dimension of the game, enriching the fan's (and coaches and officials) knowledge of the science of tennis.

Here's a video that shows how the technology works:

The idea for IBM SecondSight emerged out of a remarkable happening at the Championships two years ago when American John Isner and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut played the longest match in professional tennis history. Their 183 games lasted a total of 11 hours and five minutes over a three-day period.

I was sitting in the control room as the points racked up in the tie-breaker session. The designers of the scoring system had not anticipated ever needing to record and display such a high score, so we were in danger of running out of numbers. I was a nervous wreck. But, at last, Isner put the match away with a passing shot and won the tie breaker. The score: 70-68. When he flopped to the ground in a combination of exhaustion and elation, I bet I was as relieved as he was.

That's when I had the revelation: why don't we track the players' movements? After all, we recorded almost everything else about the matches. So we set about developing just such a system in collaboration with a technology partner whose main line of business is tracking missiles. We tested the system last year in a discreet pilot program on Court 18.

For this year's Championships, IBM SecondSight is moving to Centre Court, but, for now, it will only be available for visitors to Wimbledon. In the future, once we certify the quality of the data, I expect this system and others like it to be available for Web site viewers at all major tennis tournaments worldwide.

For next year's Wimbledon, we plan on adding the capability to IBM SlamTracker, our cloud-based package of predictive analytics for enabling fans to gain deeper insight into matches. The movement-tracking technology will bolster the Keys to the Match feature, which leverages historical and real-time information to determine the top three things a player must do to win a specific match.

It's early days, but I can envision powerful uses for the movement-tracking technology in realms far beyond tennis and sports. For instance, it could be used to monitor and analyze movements of people in a shopping mall, a factory or an airport, or traffic on highways. Imagine the valuable insights one could draw from that kind of information.

When IBM hosts clients at Wimbledon, we talk to them about Keys to the Match. We urge them to think about how analytics can help them understand the "three keys" (or four, or five...) in their businesses. And we can talk to them about how technology can boost their performance. It's a useful exercise, clients tell us. Now, thanks to IBM SecondSight, we can give the concept of business velocity a whole new meaning.