Ever since West Germany lost the 1966 World Cup soccer final to England on a contentious extra-time goal—there's still debate over whether the ball actually crossed the goal line—German engineers have been on a mission to find technology that would eliminate such uncertainty. Now, as this year's World Cup plays out on German soil, they're getting close.
Sports giant Adidas—with partners Cairos and the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, whose scientists brought us the MP3—has been developing a "smartball." A radio chip about half an inch wide and embedded in an ordinary soccer ball sends up to 2,000 signals per second to 12 antennae around the stadium, enabling them to pinpoint the ball's position to within a centimeter, even when it's flying through the air at 110 miles per hour.
While other location systems such as GPS require a clear line of sight to navigation satellites, a Linux server linked to the antennae plots the smartball's coordinates through geometric calculations. When the ball crosses the goal line, the server delivers a pulse to the referee via his watch or vibrating wristband.
A smartball prototype tested at four stadiums during a Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) tournament for under-17s last September proved so successful that a rollout at the World Cup seemed inevitable. But, in March, the conservative International Football Association Board—FIFA's rule-making body—blew the whistle, leaving the smartball project up in the air. Now, Cairos spokesman Oliver Braun says the project partners are waiting for FIFA to inform them of further tests.
Ultimately, the smart technology could take many forms, in and out of sports. The chips could be embedded in shin guards worn by players to monitor their every move, noting when one strays offside, say. The system could be applied to basketball, football, hockey, or car racing; it could track shopping carts in supermarkets or inmates in prisons. But the 1966 final? That one, sadly, is in the books.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.