Numbers game


Direction finding technology is helping satisfy ice hockey fans’ love of statistics

Ice hockey fans love numbers. And the sport serves up some impressive ones. Midfield players cover up to 9 km during the 60-minute games and hurtle across the ice at speeds of over 30 km per hour when rushing the puck forward. And the puck itself can reach speeds of around 160 km per hour when struck with a slapshot. Wireless technology is not only helping servers generate these statistics during a game but also precisely monitor, in real time, player position, speed and acceleration, as well as tracking that fast moving 160 g puck. Bitwise, a Tampere, Finland, software company, has recently signed a five-year contract with the Finnish domestic professional ice hockey league, Liiga, ensuring the company’s commercial package, Wisehockey, will monitor professional games. The player and puck tracking system is changing the game by taking all the action from inside the rink and automatically packaging it into flexible, real time, detailed Cloud-generated analytics for the enjoyment of hundreds of thousands of fans across ice hockey-loving Finland.

It might be a relatively small country with a population of only 5.5 million, but when it comes to ice hockey, Finland is a major player on the international stage, with both its men’s and women’s national teams currently third in the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Rankings. Among an impressive list of past and present ice hockey exports, the original ‘Finnish Flash’ Teemu Selänne is the highest scoring Finn in (U.S.) NHL history with 684 goals and Jari Kurri is a five-time Stanley Cup Champion and Hockey Hall of Fame member who spent much of his career playing alongside the great Wayne Gretzky for the Canadian team, the Edmonton Oilers.

In Finland, Liiga was launched in 1975, but the country’s first ever national men’s league was established almost half a century earlier in 1928. These days, Liiga comprises 15 franchises including the 2019 Finnish Champions HPK and perennially successful teams Tappara, TPS and Kärpät. Last season, Tappara participated as a testing partner for the Wisehockey system. 

Data smorgasbord
No other sport in Finland can compete with the popularity of ice hockey for television viewership, attendance figures and media coverage. Together with fans of other sports in the modern era, Finnish ice hockey fans are increasingly interested in a smorgasbord of live player and match data to support their enjoyment of the game. 

For Liiga and its television broadcaster, telco and local pay-per-view company Telia, the availability of more in-depth statistical and performance analysis during and post games has the potential to enhance overall fan engagement, whether live at the arena or watching from the comfort of home. Having initially partnered with Wisehockey three years ago on a pilot program for one team in one arena, Liiga expanded its use of the technology to five teams in five arenas the following year, and to all 15 teams in 15 arenas across the whole league for the 2019-20 season. 

Wisehockey is powered by location finding firmware supplied by Quuppa, an Espoo, Finland-based developer of real time location service (RTLS) solutions. Quuppa’s Intelligent Locating System, a proven platform for location-based services and tracking applications, can track the position of fast moving objects with accuracies down to a few centimeters. 

“We use the direction finding technology to accurately track both the individual players and puck in real time, and then use the raw location data to generate proprietary Cloud analytics and present the information based on the context of whether the system is tracking a player (or players), or the puck,” says Miska Kuusisto, Head of Sales at Bitwise. “The basic objective of the system is very simple - to provide data that enhances the viewing experience of the sport. We have successfully developed an algorithm to meet this tough analytical challenge because ice hockey it is a very fast-paced sport and precision is paramount.” 

In operation the system deploys around 20 locators in the arena to receive the Bluetooth LE signals transmitted from the tags and upload the positional data from each player and the puck to a server for deeper analysis via Bitwise’s Cloud API. The data can be delivered over the TV stream or via a mobile app - which is particularly useful for live spectators wanting to engage with this extra layer of information. 

“We measure the puck position roughly 100 times per second and the player around 25 to 30 times per second,” says Kuusisto. “The data currently being generated is all derived from the positional data provided by the sensors. Anybody can go to the ice hockey rink and see the movements of the players and the puck, but we are making it possible to accurately measure those movements.” 

Wireless infotainment
The Wisehockey system generates a broad array of data including player time on ice, time in possession of the puck, maximum speed, shots on goal, passing accuracy, as well as heat maps, and overall team performance and mobility statistics. Another recently introduced metric is ‘game momentum’, an AI-produced composite based on actions such as scoring, faceoffs, penalties and possession. In ice hockey the whole team is sometimes changed by the coach at the same time, so the system will also show the impact on the game of these mass substitutions. 

“From the harmonized data, the user can access relevant and interesting information such as the possession breakdown per zone, which player has the hardest slapshot, how fast the puck is traveling, how fatigued certain players are likely to be, and so on,” says Fabio Belloni, Chief Customer Officer at Quuppa. “This is infotainment that a true sports fan will really appreciate. The idea is to add to viewer entertainment at, for example, half time when pundits can review the statistics and analyze what’s happening.” 

According to Belloni, the ‘infotainment’ factor represents the best opportunity to monetize these kinds of location service applications in the early stages of their life cycles, but other opportunities are bound to arise. “For the time being Wisehockey is essentially an infotainment solution rather than a platform for improving the capabilities of ice hockey players, but the data could in theory be extended to the team level to enhance tactics, training and performance on the ice,” he says. 

“The information can be made available in seconds so there is great scope for the technology to be used for various applications beyond spectator infotainment, such as athlete performance analysis by coaching staff,” echoes Kuusisto. “Because the system is fully automated, there is no need for an individual to be present at the venue collecting and organizing statistics manually during a game. This eliminates human error and creates almost limitless opportunities.” 

The number of applications driven by this technology is likely to be much greater than Bitwise is currently targeting, with other sports like soccer, rugby and basketball making ideal candidates given the key elements of shooting, passing and player movement are similar to hockey. In the meantime, Finnish ice hockey fans are loving Liiga in a whole new way. 

Direction finding technology is generating interesting information such as which player has the hardest slapshot and how fast the puck is traveling