NFL, Microsoft Integrate 'Surface' Tablets For In-Game Use On Sidelines

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Surface 3
NFL teams will have access to Microsoft "Surface 3" tablets during games to study photos and design plays in real time.

The National Football League and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) have teamed up to let players and coaches use Surface tablets on the sidelines to provide real-time analysis of their opponents’ strategies.

The 2014 Pro Football Hall of Fame game between the New York Giants and the Buffalo Bulls on Sunday marked the first appearance of the “Sideline Viewing System” – the result of the NFL’s partnership with Microsoft, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Teams are now able to use Microsoft Surface tablets to study photos of opposing formations and botched assignments and draw up new plays as the game unfolds.

The digital photo system is designed to supplant the league’s existing method of using fiber-optic cables to transmit black-and-white images to sideline printers. Photos will show up on the Surface tablets after just four or five seconds, compared to 20 to 30 seconds for the old system. During games, each franchise will have access to 25 league-owned Surface tablets -- 13 on the sidelines and 12 in the coach's box. Eventually, the league reportedly hopes that coaches will be able to use the devices to call plays.

Aside from the obvious practical uses for the tablets, the initiative provides the first tangible sign of the partnership between the NFL and Microsoft. The software company will receive free advertising in the form of prominently displayed “Surface” cases on the sidelines.

The two parties announced in May that they had reached a deal to integrate NFL content with Microsoft products to provide an increasingly interactive experience for fans. The agreement’s financial details were not made public, but a person familiar with the situation told the Associated Press that it was worth $400 million over five years.

Teams that prefer to rely on the old system will not be penalized for their choice – the sideline printers will remain available for use. “We want to make sure the players are deciding wins and losses, not technology,” Microsoft spokesman Ryan Luckin said. “If I’m a coach and I’ve won multiple Super Bowl championships with this perfectly usable paper system, it would be a disadvantage to take that away from me if I don’t want to use this. We’re keeping the playing field level.”

Like all technology, the Sideline Viewing System will likely endure its share of technical issues; Bills head coach Doug Marrone told reporters on Sunday that he has already encountered a few hiccups. “I was told mine was going to work, and mine didn’t work,” he said, according to the Associated Press. However, Marrone said that he “liked [the Surface] a lot” once it was fixed.

Moreover, the Surface tablets will come with some limitations, primarily due to concerns over security. In the past, the NFL had resisted the use of any device that could record or transmit video during games. Thus, the devices will operate on a closed system, without access to the Internet. Furthermore, teams will be unable to transmit video; only still photos will be available for use. 

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