Zebra Technologies has been marking and tracking assets in the commercial world for years with their family of RFID products. What they couldn’t have foreseen at the beginning was their products winding up on Sundays with the National Football League. We sat down with Jill Stelfox, Zebra’s VP & GM of Location Services to find out how the NFL found IoT and what it means for the connected world.

So Jill, tell us about the work you are doing with the NFL?

What we do at Zebra is we do the player tracking for the NFL. So what that means is we put two tags in the shoulder pads of the football players, and then we place 22 receivers around the bowl of the stadium, collect the latitude and longitude, speed, distance, all those things, and that is sent to a server on site, and then in under half a second to broadcasters and two seconds to the rest of the world.

Really, two seconds?

In a total two and half seconds. It takes 120 milliseconds to get the data off the player and into our server, and then we add what we call “eventing,” which are the calculations for speed, for distance, to identify who the player is, identify what the play is and all of that. It happens in under half a second for broadcast and two seconds for the rest of the world. And it’s collected and verified in those two seconds.

JIll Stelfox, VP & GM, Location Services for Zebra Technologies
Jill Stelfox, VP & GM, Location Services for Zebra Technologies

So what are some of the challenges you had to overcome for this? It’s quite the mini-ecosystem you are building.

Well, there are some unique challenges to stadiums that are different than the corporate environment. In the corporate environment, in a big office building, 2,000 people may show up during the day. At a stadium, 80,000 of your closest friends show up. And when that happens, there are all kinds of interference issues. There are crowd issues around things being hung up. So we had to manage everything from interference and knowing the interference, and to funny things like if we hung a receiver and had a colored cord on it, that a fan might notice it and then take the cord.

So (we looked at) funny things about crowds that we had to get used to that are different than a manufacturing environment. But the collection of the data itself from the players through the system – that was the easy part of it.

And now you have started to expand how you can repurpose and repackage all this data.

Yeah, it’s interesting to go back and think about how industry thinks about data. You collect it once, say customer information, and then you use it in a bunch of different ways. So it’s exactly the same in football – we collect tracking information and we let the broadcasters use it for speed and distance, but it’s also being used for fun things like website information or Xbox One play information. But then you can use it for coaches and teams to really look at how they operate and what decisions they can make from it. What’s my go to play in the fourth quarter down by fourteen, and do I have a tendency in that situation? And if I know that,  might I switch it up the next time that happens and to throw my opponents off?


So in the connected world there is always this concern about privacy and who owns the data. Are there any concerns from the players about that?

In the case of the NFL, they already do that work with their player’s association and so it’s not there. In college, they are really working through what that looks like and it is interesting because every league around the world is going through just this decision-making process. If we look back again at industry, and what industry does with data, there is already well-defined work on things like HIPAA data in hospitals and things like that, and we can look to that to see what this will mean in the future. But I tell you, this is the first tracking solution that puts this in place league wide ever, so all those issues are coming out now and are all up for debate. So time will tell.

So initially you were in industry and RFID, and now you are in sports…where does this go next?

It’s really interesting because I think the whole concept of IoT is really around location as a big part of that. And we have been doing this for years, but now it’s kinda cool and fun, and I think in the future so many decisions are going to be based on IoT. I think about a connected home and what that might look like, but certainly the connected office. What would happen if I walked into my office and my office said, “Good morning Jill, your first appointment is at this time.”

It’s the same concept, for example, as Amazon Echo – but at work. And I think all of those kinds of IoT connect together. So the groups that I run at Zebra, we run passive RFID, active RFID, and beacons. And we think there are opportunities in things like robots at work and at home and we think that is really fun.

Can you keep the robots from taking over the world?

I just want the robots to do my dishes.

And I am done…I can’t top that.