By Andrew Cohen, SportTechie
October 10, 2022
Gliding the ice this NHL season is a re-engineered puck from SMT, the league’s puck and player tracking partner. Last year was the first full NHL season played with SMT’s sensor-embedded puck, but LEDs that were in the puck’s center are now closer to its top and bottom layers.
The purpose is to broaden distribution of infrared light emanated from the puck to reach in-venue optical cameras that power NHL Edge, the puck and player tracking system operated by SMT. Light from the puck gets beamed through six tiny tubes or “light pipes” as described by SMT CEO and founder Gerard J. Hall. The optical tracking system leverages anywhere from 16 to 28 cameras hung in the rafters of each arena.
“We moved the LEDs closer to the puck's surface on both top and bottom, so we have the center circuit board and then the LEDs moved closer to the surface,” Hall explained. “The light disperses a lot wider, so it's not coming out straight as a little cylinder, it comes out more at a wide cone. It just allows more infrared light to come out of the puck.”
“That's why we call it the bright star,” Hall says of the new puck.
The NHL Edge tracking system also collects data from sensors stitched into each player’s jersey. SMT ingests and distributes the data through its Oasis software platform. SMT’s sensors are built into pucks from Inglasco, the NHL’s puck supplier since 1996.
SMT also runs the NHL’s Hockey Information and Tracking System (HITS) scoring system that’s been used since the 2007-08 season. The Durham-based company was not originally selected by the NHL to run its puck and player tracking system. That job originally went to RFID company JogMo but the NHL announced in Oct. 2019 that it was switching development to SMT due to organizational and financial issues at JogMo.
How SMT upgraded the puck
SMT’s initial sensor-fused puck lasted only a few days in the 2020-21 NHL season after players complained about how it was gliding on the ice. The high-tech pucks were replaced with standard non-tracking pucks before returning for the start of last season.
“There was a breakdown of the process where one of the final processing on the puck was not being done, that was clearly an error. And that caused it to not glide properly on the ice,” Hall says. “The testing that the NHL has now put in place between SMT and a third party verifies that the puck we offer and any changes to it has to go through very rigorous testing to make sure it still has the same balance, the same density, the same glide characteristics that is required. And that has all been vetted thoroughly.”
Hall compared the puck’s new LED placement to having moved from the creamy center of an Oreo cookie to its chocolate outer layers. The enhanced lighting enables faster and more accurate puck-tracking statistics and graphics for the league and its media partners like ESPN and Turner. The NHL also expects its betting data partner Sportradar to utilize puck and player tracking data to fuel gambling odds and new types of wagers.
“We just have much better coverage on the puck, we've improved our line of projection algorithms,” Hall says. “It's something that may not be seen per se, [but] the fine details of where the puck is located has been greatly improved as we move into the season with the addition of this bright star puck.”
Player tracking technology, stats
SMT began tracking time of possession for the NHL last season, and that’s one stat Hall sees as being more accurate this year when it's shown on TV broadcasts or in-venue video boards during games. Amazon Web Services, the league’s cloud partner, leveraged NHL Edge last season to debut its Face-Off Probability stat.
“We're going to see things like zone entry, zone carries, passing success and percentage,” Hall says of new stats this season. “There's just a wealth of new statistics that are going to become available. And the NHL will be going through policy decisions about whether they want to declare something to be an official stat.”
Metrics around shot quality, save quality, distance traveled, shot heat maps, and skate speed will also be shared this season, sometimes as sponsored assets on arena video boards. The puck and player tracking data will also fuel new virtual reality content.
“We're continuing to test how we can use the data to create really compelling live VR experiences,” says David Lehanski, the NHL’s SVP of business development & global partnerships. “We've done some pilots in the past at some of our tech showcases with a few different companies. I think we're going to take the next step this year and publicly distribute some live VR content built off of the Edge system.”
Next step could be 3D world, digital player avatars
Last season saw the NHL debut computer animated streams of select playoffs games that depicted players moving as digital block characters based off their tracking data. During a Stanley Cup Finals game in Colorado, the Tampa Bay Lightning invited fans to watch the game at its home arena as the block-player animations were projected onto the ice with shot-trailing animations. The actual broadcast was shown on the arena’s jumbotron.
“That was just an experiment last year that went exceptionally well, we got like 8 million views or something crazy,” Hall says. “A lot of the in-venue producers are looking to integrate the player and puck tracking in their venues. It's a great way as a companion application to look at a hockey game.”
SMT and the NHL believe its upgraded puck and player tracking system will eventually allow for those block figures to be replaced by digital player avatars for better aesthetics, perhaps similar to what the Brooklyn Nets debuted in its Netaverse that aired on ESPN.
“Taking the Edge data in real time and using it to create a virtual live game experience with avatars moving based on the coordinates of the players and the pucks to create a game that's in a virtual 3D environment,” Lehanski says. “You can create some really cool graphics so when a player scores goals there's an explosion behind the net.” SMT has previously made similar AR animations for NFL broadcasts on Nickelodeon.
Part of that virtual game replica evolution will stem from limb tracking and stick tracking that SMT’s cameras are testing in NHL arenas this season. FIFA is similarly deploying limb-tracking at the upcoming World Cup in partnership with optical camera provider Hawk-Eye to automate faster and more accurate referring decisions on offsides. Lehanski says SMT could track limb and stick movements to dictate high-stick penalties and other calls.
“There may be a way where we will leverage it for on-ice officiating to know exactly where the stick is, where the limbs are,” Lehanski says. “We could be using that potentially for officiating in a game or a video review that needs to get looked at.”
“It’s aspirational, but it’s very real as a possibility,” added Hall. “The experimentation is going on.”