SportsX: MLSE, AWS team up to launch unique R&D initiative

How fans watch sports, and how coaches gauge the performance of individual players – and the team as a whole – is about to head in an entirely new direction following the launch yesterday of a research and development program called SportsX by MLSE Digital Labs and Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Humza Teherany, chief technology and digital officer at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), described it as a “new incubator in collaboration with AWS, rooted in research, applied sciences and product development.”

The debut of SportsX follows an announcement from the two organizations, made last February, of the two innovating to “transform how some of Canada’s best-known sports franchises – Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors, Toronto Football Club (FC), and Toronto Argonauts – create and deliver extraordinary sports moments and enhanced fan engagement.”

As part of the agreement, MLSE selected AWS as its official cloud provider, as well as its official provider of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and deep learning cloud services.

The company said it will use AWS’ portfolio of cloud capabilities, including ML, advanced analytics, compute, database, and storage services to “to support their teams and lines of business. Innovating together, MLSE will build solutions that will support how teams play on the ice, court, pitch, or field; how players stay healthy; how fans connect with each other and experience games; and how sports franchises operate internally.”

Eric Gales, country manager for AWS Canada, said that just as the company is “democratizing technology by giving businesses of all sizes” access to the same cloud and AI offerings, “MLSE and AWS will give anyone, from organizations to superfans, the opportunity to take their amazing idea and transform the sport they love.”

On Monday night at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, media were introduced to two pilots – Immersive Basketball Experience (IBX) and NHL Extended Reality Stats Overlay – both of which provided examples of the direction SportsX is heading in.

One took place in the Raptors’ practice facility and is based on augmented reality technology that combines “optical tracking body pose data, 3D models and a video game development engine to deliver the experience to any mixed reality headset.”

That experience means that, through the headsets, users can experience a basketball game from the perspective of fans who are sitting at courtside, coaches on the bench, or even the players themselves on the floor.

The other, demonstrated during the Maple Leafs’ tilt with the New York Islanders, provided a whole new way to watch a live hockey game via real time stats from NHL Edge, the league’s Puck and Player tracking technology which is currently deployed in all of the 32 NHL arenas and used in all NHL games. Through the use of AR glasses, SportsX created an overlay that allows fans to access data from NHL Edge, which, according to a fact sheet, “takes viewers deeper into the play on the ice.

“Infrared technology embedded in pucks and on players provides dozens of new insights for fans on things like puck possession, speed and distance travelled. The system has the ability to generate nearly one million 3D coordinates and data points over the course of a regulation game.

“The technology is demonstrated live using AWS Multi-Access Edge Compute (MEC) infrastructure. The tracking technology adds a new digital fan experience while pushing the boundaries of technology by giving fans access to information about the game in real-time.”

The program, a release states, is designed with a “bottom-up approach to capture, analyze, and build out the best ideas from key stakeholders, which include coaches, fans, partners, and employees. Chosen ideas will be evaluated for viability, developed, and tested in the MLSE environment with the goal of creating solutions that can benefit the sports industry at large.

“A dedicated SportsX web portal accompanies the launch, where interested stakeholders can join the collective and receive updates regarding idea submission openings.”

In an interview with IT World Canada, Teherany described this week’s announcements as the start of an “innovation partnership” in which not only MLSE and AWS will be involved, but potentially an entire fan base.

He said the SportsX web portal will allow anyone from sports fans to academics to submit recommendations on what they would like to see, and more importantly, how it can be achieved. “The next great idea,” said Teherany, “could come from anywhere.

“There’s really nothing like this in sport and I think over time we are going to discover some incredible tech enablers for sports and entertainment.

“Where do we think that NHL technology will go? And where do we think the NBA technology will go? We actually don’t know at this point, but to have a research and development mindset and to have the two entities together, working on it along with the rest of other smart people from academia, research and other places, there’s really nothing like this that exists in sports.”

Meanwhile, Christian Magsisi, vice president of technology and digital at MLSE, said there are three primary goals associated with the SportsX initiative, the first being to create experiences for fans that they have never had before.

“The second one obviously, is you want to create a competitive edge for teams, and with the help of AWS and the R&D program that SportsX has created, it will help us do that. And the third, and probably most important, is we want to create a positive social impact – environmental and social.”

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Paul Barker
Paul Barker
Paul Barker is the founder of PBC Communications, an independent writing firm that specializes in freelance journalism. He has extensive experience as a reporter, feature writer and editor and has been covering technology-related issues for more than 30 years.

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