10 Tech Facts From The Australian Open

The Australian Open is one of the four key Grand Slam events in the international tennis calendar. IT plays a vital role in helping the players prepare and providing information for spectators on the ground and TV viewers at home. Here's some of the more crucial applications for technology at the event.

The core of the back-end technology which IBM provides to the Australian Open (and which it has managed for the last 18 years) is in detailed tracking of each match, with the speed and style of every single shot noted and measured. This database of statistics is used in a variety of ways, as well as being made available to broadcasters, players and viewers. 150 people work on the technology for the Open during the tournament.

Every player on the centre court is given a customised DVD at the end of each match, letting them analyse their performance and identify areas for future improvement. "The players really want that DVD in their hands," said Tennis Australia CEO Steve Wood. "Video analysis is really critical. It's a huge trend in tennis."

One consequence of improving technology -- including more efficient racquet-stringing techniques is that tennis champions are becoming older (the average age of male competitors is 26). "The game is much more physical now, and you have to be much stronger and harder to win," Wood said, suggesting that the era of teenage champions is all but over since physical strength isn't fully developed at a younger age. "The players of the future will be able to train smarter, manage injury better and analyse their competitors better than ever before."

One nifty on-site application for social media is a pair of display boards tracking Twitter references to Roger Federer and Andy Roddick. As the intensity of references increases, a picture of each player is gradually assembled. When I saw this, Roddick was being mentioned far more often, having just completed a match.

Last year, the Australian Open launched a special augmented reality application for iPhone users, letting users point their phone anywhere at the venue and see information on current matches being played in that area. That feature is still available, but now can be accessed on iPhones directly from the australianopen.com site, rather than requiring a separate app.

The major new mobile app this time around is the iPad app, which includes a PDF copy of the full Australian Open program, plus extra features including a signature collecting system, live news updates and access to social media. While the iPad was chosen due to its success, IBM and Tennis Australia do plan to develop further applications for other mobile platforms such as Android as their popularity grows. Unfortunately, there's not likely to be much in the way of streaming media for the foreseeable future, as broadcast rights issues make that all but impossible.

The Australian Open web site attracted more than 10 million unique visitors last year, a number which is expected to increase this year. The main site doesn't use Flash for its media content. ""You don't need Flash to do media anymore," said site manager Dave Provan. However, it won't be moving to HTML5 until that's supported in more mainstream browsers. "We are looking to use that when there's a stable platform. When we are HTML5, my life as a developer will be much easier," Provan said.

Flash isn't entirely neglected, however. It's been used for PointStream, a new app on the site which provides real-time analysis in graphical format as matches are played. In the early rounds, the performance of the winning player often streaks massively ahead of their rivals, as you can see in the screenshot.

The revamped media centre for print, online and radio broadcasters was only completed a fortnight before the Open began, and will see more than 1,500 working journalists on site over the course of the event. As we've reported before, Seven has received special dispensation under anti-siphoning rules to continue broadcasts on its secondary channel 7TWO if matches run over into scheduled programming. While it has already taken advantage of that option on the first day, interstate viewers aren't happy that they're still only getting the matches on time delay.

Instant on-screen analysis and a range of camera angles might suggest that watching on TV is more rewarding than visiting, but Wood is confident that the event will beat last year's figure of 653,000 visitors, and that enhanced technology makes that more likely. "The more we can connect with those who may have a distant interest -- if we can get them tempted, that can stimulate the interest for them to come along. And when we get them here, we have to make that experience unique and different. The more rich content and connectedness we can share, the more likelihood we've got of a meaningful relationship."

Angus Kidman travelled to Melbourne as a guest of IBM.

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