Article - Issue 19, May/June 2004
How technology enhances the Wimbledon tennis experience
Alex Phillips and Roger Blake
The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (AELTC) and IBM have worked closely together since 1990 to harness successive waves of innovative technology to transform The Championships into one of the most popular and technically advanced events on the international sports calendar. Alex Phillips and Roger Blake discuss the vital role of technology in supporting this mission through the provision of accurate, fast and reliable services to players, media, spectators and officials, along with worldwide television and online audiences via the Internet.
For 11 months of the year, the AELTC quietly serves its members in the leafy London suburbs of Wimbledon. Then, during the weeks around the world famous Championships, the eyes of the world are focused on the events taking place there. What are the challenges for those who power the technology?
Almost half a million spectators watched Wimbledon court-side in 2003 and around two billion viewers across more than 150 countries watched on television. Last year, more than 4 million unique users accessed the official website – www.wimbledon.org – from personal computers and wireless devices. Indeed, the Wimbledon website is one of the largest live web events that IBM has ever designed, managed and hosted. What makes the Wimbledon project different is the global nature of the project, the real-time nature, the vast range of products, technologies and services involved, and the huge supporting technology infrastructure required to run the wealth of projects round the clock. A team of around 160 professionals for the two week duration of The Championships is required, including IBM (the technology partner of the AELTC) and a wealth of specialist partners.
The scope of technology services at Wimbledon
At the heart of the project is the website. It is powered by the same IBM hosting infrastructure that has supported some of the world’s most highly visited sports event websites (for example, The Masters Golf Tournament). Tennis fans around the globe can feel that they are a part of the Wimbledon action via a ‘virtual seat’ at Wimbledon. The IBM Real-time Scoreboard, Media Console, interactive cameras, live Radio Wimbledon and online shop are just some of the features available to the user.
During the Wimbledon fortnight, the AELTC operates at about 250 times normal capacity, its website visited by four million people in just 15 days. By early July it’s back to business as usual, a small organisation catering for its regular customers and starting the long process of planning for the next tournament.
Only during events like Wimbledon can systems be exposed to the real levels and variations in demand generated by users across the globe. Thus, it provides an ideal opportunity to test new applications in the background or as restricted user pilots. IBM runs and hosts all of the official Grand Slam tennis websites, providing a rolling opportunity for new functionality to be introduced from event to event.
One technology to benefit from such development during Wimbledon is IBM MQ Event Broker, which provides ‘publish and subscribe’ messaging facilities. This technology allows scores and statistics to be constantly sent to a web browser and updated without the need for the user to refresh the web page. This technology was originally produced by IBM’s research labs, and was then tested and developed into a product that could be deployed at an increasingly greater scale. It is now a mainstream part of IBM’s leading WebSphere suite of software.
Wimbledon Information System (WIS) Intranet
The rapid distribution of detailed real-time information to the media, public, players and coaches on site during The Championships is critical to the AELTC’s goals. Press and broadcasters require draw and player information each day, scores and match statistics during games, and detailed point-by-point reports for matches as soon as they have finished. Players and coaches also find this information invaluable in order to develop strategies and identify areas for improvement in subsequent matches.
In the past, much of this information had been compiled by hand and reproduced though photocopying and printing, resulting in delays getting the information to those people who relied on it. For the media especially, time is everything. In 2000, IBM introduced The Wimbledon Information System (WIS) Intranet. WIS is now the main source of real-time information for those on site during The Championships. With around 80 touch-screen terminals distributed across the grounds, it provides up-to-the- second information for anyone visiting, working or participating in The Championships.
To provide the high availability necessary to maintain these systems, IBM WebSphere Edge Server is used for failover in the event of any problem during the processing-intense period of The Championships. In addition, this mission-critical software also performs load-balancing functions between these WIS terminals and the corresponding content servers, spreading the load evenly across the servers.
What differentiates WIS from the website is that users are unaware that they are using a web browser, and are contained within a controlled local network environment that restricts their use to only the WIS application. The high bandwidth available on the local area network provides WIS users with an exceptionally rich multimedia experience, making large, high quality video clips viewable from every terminal. Scores, statistics and results are typically delivered in less than a second from been entered by the data entry teams.
Commentators Information System
The Commentators system is a highly specialised application that takes the key match statistics in the real-time environment, and displays them in a format that is easily understood by tennis professionals and commentators. This system is available to any authorised commentator. It is found in the broadcasters’ studios, commentary positions around the televised Show Courts and in the TV production units. There is no system like this anywhere else in the world of tennis. It gives in-depth analysis relating to any game in progress. This includes information such as player biographies, players’ statistics in the event so far, and current match statistics broken down at a summary and detail level.
For each show court, systems generate TV graphics for the host broadcaster, the BBC, plus many international broadcasters. These courts are the ones reserved for key matches and are also covered by television. The international broadcasters take either a ‘clean’ feed, which is just the BBC camera feed where they can add their own graphics, or a ‘dirty’ feed, which includes the graphics chosen by the BBC production team.
Each court is equipped with two ThinkPad laptop computers that receive the data packets. Each drives a high quality TV Graphics Generator, known as the Agile, produced by one of the specialist companies that work with IBM. One is used to keep the burnt-in score in the top left-hand corner of the screen, and the other is controlled via keyboard extenders to the BBC production area, where they select the scores and statistics graphics to be shown on television. These graphics can be detailed and build up gradually on screen, such as serve direction, or more immediate mini-graphics that can show, for example, the latest serve speed.
Other core systems
There are a number of other systems that help with the running of The Championships. For example, Player Interview Schedule Application (PISA) is used to book Player Interviews. Another system, based on the information captured by the tennis experts, provides Player Reports as soon as each match has completed. This report contains various sections, analysing areas such as serve, return, baseline and net play, and even includes a point-by-point breakdown of how each point was won or lost. Players and coaches use it to help them improve their game. Player Reports generated via data entry on hand-held PDAs from the outside courts are of particular use to junior players and their coaches, who would otherwise not capture many statistics about their game as they rarely play on the show courts.
The key to a successful service is making information instantly available and accessible.
There are various approaches to collecting data, depending on the type of court and information required. There are 19 courts at the Club, six of which are show courts. All courts have the latest scores captured online by the Umpire using a Pocket PC device. For those who understand the information collected by the Umpire, the statistics captured are limited to the score, aces and double faults. This system is run to support the Referee’s Office, who also manages the event, including the draw and the order of play for each day. With the inevitable rain delays, the Referee’s Office also uses the system to move matches around the courts during the day in order to maximise the progress of the draw for key events.
Alongside the show courts, an extra team of tennis experts (usually county junior players) collects more detailed statistics such as where the serve was aimed (wide, body, centre), whether the server followed into the net and how the point was won or lost (‘winning forehand volley,’ for example). This data is captured using an IBM ThinkPad laptop computer, which boasts a specialised keypad for speed of data entry, with one person calling and the other entering data via the keypad and confirming the call. A network broadcasting technique is used to make this data available immediately to all users who need it, such as those using the Commentators, TV Graphics, Internet and Intranet systems. A copy of the data is also written to twin servers for backup purposes.
The callers on each show court are connected back to the main operations room via headsets, which can be used to provide the same information to another data entry person located in the operations room. This ‘backup’ person uses a separate ThinkPad laptop computer and keyboard to enter the data in parallel and sends out a backup packet of data using the same broadcast technique. If anything should happen to the courtside machine or connection, a simple switch allows the backup packet to be treated as if it were the main one. This shadowing technique can be used on all show courts, but tends to be limited to the key matches being televised at the time.
To ensure that a full set of statistics for singles matches is captured on all courts, a further tennis expert is used on each ‘outside court’ to capture the same data as on the show courts, but in this case with a hand-held IBM WorkPad personal digital assistant that employs the Palm operating system.
In addition to the statistics collected courtside, there are also radar heads at each end of the show courts that are used to capture the speed of each serve. A radar operator uses an IBM ThinkPad laptop computer to control the radar heads and they are enabled just before each serve is delivered. Once the speed has been captured, it is displayed courtside on displays at each end of the court so that the spectators can see the speed immediately after the serve. Together with the rally count, it is also broadcast across the network for instant access by all users of the Commentators and TV Graphics Systems, plus the Internet and Intranet. For later analysis, it is then merged in with the data entry packet relevant to that court.
Evolving the user experience through improved technology
New channels, such as the General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) data networks that are made available by mobile operators in Europe, have opened up the possibility of receiving graphically rich, real-time information in the palm of a user’s hand, anywhere that a mobile phone works.
In 2002 IBM introduced a mobile e-business solution that allowed users with GPRS-enabled Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) to receive up-to-the-second information from the Pocket Wimbledon website. For the first time, mobile users could follow all show courts in real-time, with point-by-point scores being pushed to their Java-enabled PDA devices. Detailed pages offering match results, order of play, and player biographies and pictures were also available.
Following on from this successful proof of concept, pda.wimbledon.org was introduced in 2003 for anyone worldwide to access real-time information on a mobile device.
In addition, the AELTC was very interested in bringing information to those queuing for tickets outside the grounds (often for hours), helping to improve the experience, customer satisfaction and loyalty. Queue walkers used Pocket Wimbledon to give information to the public while waiting to enter the grounds. What we dub ‘Pocket Wimbledon’ also gives key members of staff the ability to keep track of matches in play – as it unfolds.
Last year, a number of innovative Wireless LAN- (WLAN) based projects were introduced. A large area of the grounds was provided with WLAN coverage, using the IEEE 802.11b Wireless Fidelity (WiFi) standard. This provides a relatively fast, 11 megabits per second, wireless network. IBM’s Ethical Hacking Team – a group that ensures the latest and best standards of security are employed – was brought in to check the entire network was secure. In 2004 it will be upgraded to the 802.11g standard, potentially providing 54 megabits per second, thus providing a faster service for users.
Sports reporters are given access to the Internet from their own wireless-enabled laptop computers, allowing them to send their articles back to the office for editing and publishing as soon as possible. International press photographers on Centre Court were also given access to the WLAN network. In the past they gave their films or digital storage cards to ‘runners’ who took them off court during change-of-ends for processing. With the vast majority of press now using digital SLR cameras, IBM gave them the ability to send their photos over the WLAN network via their laptop to their editors, thus speeding up the time to publish. This was incredibly popular with the photographers and will be extended to other courts this year.
Finally, the IBM team delivered a proof-of-concept project evaluating the capabilities of active Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology when applied to staff and information technology (IT) assets in a dynamic operational environment. This makes it very difficult for high value equipment theft. The project also provided the opportunity to assess the technology’s applicability to security and staffing issues. A total of 40 users and a number of IT assets were equipped with Active RFID tags, allowing authorised personnel to pinpoint their locations within the designated 40,000 square metre zone. The asset tags had movement sensors that triggered security alerts in the event of unplanned equipment moves. The system – consisting of tags, readers and software – was integrated with an IBM infrastructure that allowed personnel to track locations through a web application. The system was capable of locating tagged items between 5 and 50 metres away.
With a wireless tracking solution, IBM and the Wimbledon team would be able to locate key personnel in real-time. It would also improve security by issuing security alerts when valuable equipment is moved without authorisation, thus eliminating theft and reducing costs.
By using IBM’s on-demand e-business model, Wimbledon can take advantage of a vastly scalable IT infrastructure equipped with the latest technologies without having to make the huge upfront capital investment needed to build one. The on-demand model also grants The All England Lawn Tennis Club access to additional IT support during ‘the Fortnight’ of The Championships. They don’t own, manage or maintain the information technology – all Club officials have to do is turn it on.
Alex Phillips and Roger Blake
Alex Phillips is currently part of IBM’s Pervasive/Wireless Emerging Business Opportunities organisation, and specialises in wireless technologies. He has worked on the IBM Wimbledon team for 5 years and is responsible for the Wimbledon Information System Intranet and bringing new Wireless technologies into the Wimbledon project. Alex has a background in science and graduated from Queen Mary’s (University of London) with a PhD in Chemical Physics.
Roger Blake is an IBM Distinguished Engineer and is the Technical Leader for IBM Business Consulting Services, the Consulting and Systems Integration arm of IBM. He has been the technical consultant to the AELTC since 1992 and is responsible for the overall technical solution for Wimbledon. Roger is a Fellow of the BCS and a Chartered Engineer. He graduated in Mathematics from Brunel University.