Cricket, tennis and now football use Hawk-Eye - but how accurate is it?

Hawk-Eye's technology is an impressive tool that makes the lives of referees and umpires easier, but don't be fooled - there's a chance that Hawk-Eye could sometimes get a call wrong.

Hawk-Eye is a device used to reconstruct the track of the ball for LBW decisions in cricket and for line calls in tennis. It will be much in evidence during the remaining Ashes tests and is now being used for goal-line decisions in Premier League football. The technology is at its best when officials make a really bad decision.

But there are things you might not know about Hawk-Eye. For instance, it cannot track the ball to a millimetre even though one might get this impression when watching some replays; in tennis, those shots shown to be touching the line by a hair’s breadth and called in might actually be out and vice-versa.

Few people realised that there was an issue with accuracy until my colleagues and I wrote about it in 2008; even top scientists were quite surprised until they thought about it.

How it works
Reconstructed track-devices such as Hawk-Eye work by using a number of TV cameras to record the position of the ball in each frame, then a computer reconstructs the path and projects it forward from the last frame.

These devices were first used to aid leg-before-wicket decisions in cricket. The projection-forward principle is the same in tennis since it is unlikely that a camera shutter will be open at the exact moment the ball hits the ground next to the line so the crucial position has to be estimated from a series of previous positions.

What we uncovered
From the frame-rate of the cameras and the speed of the ball, a back-of-an envelope calculation gave the range of possible accuracy and it turned out to be less than the replays suggested. So we telephoned the firm to talk about it and we hit a wall. As sociologists of science we had spent decades chatting with scientists about this kind of thing but suddenly we were told this information was private and lawyers were on call. Before we could publish our first paper we had to ask Cardiff University to back us in case we were hauled into court.

Our results were based on the range of possibilities for frame-rate and such other technical matters we could glean from the internet but detailed data for these devices was and still is secret. The International Tennis Federation refuses to release the details of its tests and the International Cricket Council also keeps its results under wraps. I have tried and tried to get the information from them and the scientists they commissioned to do the testing but am always met with the claim that the information is commercially sensitive.

Margin of error
The problem with reconstructed track devices is that their output is based on estimates. The position of the ball in any one frame is a blob of pixels. The future path of the ball must be extrapolated from at least three frames if the ball is swerving but if it is moving fast and the bounce point is near to the crucial impact point there may not be three frames.

Even with three frames, projections have errors and if, as in tennis, the ball distorts on impact, the footprint on which the line call is based is, again, the result of an inexact calculation – and so on. Hawk-Eye itself used to claim an average error of 3.6 millimetres; more recently it claims this has been improved to average of 2.2mms. However, particularly in tennis, the reliance on this technology to provide a definitive call means that this margin of error isn’t reflected in the replays, leading most fans to assume it is 100 percent accurate.

Accuracy, of course, will depend on the speed and the angle of the ball and many other factors which is why these are average figures and, as with all averages, on occasion the error will be bigger – sometimes much bigger. To know what is going on one needs details of the tests and the distribution of errors that resulted.

Tech and circuses
Assuming that tennis and football lovers, unlike enthusiasts for, say, the professional wrestling circus, want to see fairness as well as an entertaining spectacle, they ought to know more about how the technology is trying to work out what happened to the ball.

When the ball is really close to the line we should see something like a spinning coin to indicate that the final judgement has a lot of chance in it. The crowd would still get its decision and fun but something closer to the truth would be on display.

More and more, computers are able to simulate what looks like reality and this is dangerous for the future of society. The public needs to learn to question technological claims such as those that have been made for anti-missile weapons systems. In certain sports some spectators think that technology is infallible when it is not.

Paul Hawkins, the founder of the Hawk-Eye company, recently said our arguments were “typical of people who spent a lot of time in universities rather than on the tennis circuit”. He’s right, and thank goodness for that.

Harry Collins does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


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Andy Murray reacting to a Hawk-Eye call at Wimbledon, 2013. (Photo: Getty)
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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.