Wimbledon 2018: How IBM Watson is serving up the best viewer experience

No sporting experience quite encapsulates the British summer like Wimbledon. 

The All-England Lawn Tennis Club Championships, to give its full name, has been an indelible part of the sporting ecosystem since for over 150 years now, and now forms one of the four major global tennis tournaments.

But despite its long-standing history and famous traditions, Wimbledon is rapidly becoming one of the most technology-friendly sporting tournaments in the UK, if not the world.

Ahead of this weekend's finals, TechRadar Pro headed along to the club to find out how the world’s oldest tennis tournament is actually helping lead the way when it comes to utilising AI technology. 

Tucked away alongside the bulk of Centre Court is Wimbledon’s media centre. Housing the hundreds of journalists that cover the tournament every year, the facility is also home to the myriad of TV and online broadcasters, whose content is provided to them by the club itself.

But powering all of this top-end tennis action is a high-powered AI system from IBM. The computing giant has been working with Wimbledon and the AELTC since 1990, and is now using its world-famous Watson AI technology to make the championships much more exciting for viewers around the world.

(Image credit: Mike Moore)

IBM’s Wimbledon bunker is located within the media centre, and is home to the company’s dedicated team, who monitor coverage and analysis from all the Wimbledon courts before it is made available to the world. 

"It's about getting the data quality right...there's a real trust element in terms of the data we're providing,” Sam Seddon, IBM Wimbledon client and programme executive, who heads up the team at the All-England Club.

Seddon took TechRadar Pro on a tour of the bunker, which is lined with screens showing the wealth of real-time data from every game taking place. He notes that Wimbledon 2017 saw 4.8 million data points recorded during the Championships, and more is expected this year. Every single point is recorded by IBM’s Slamtracker system (pictured below), including its duration and how it was won, creating a huge wealth of data that can then be analysed by pundits and fans alike. 

But asides from the media and fans, Seddon says that all the data is also made available to the players and their coaches, allowing them to identify what areas of their game needs improvement - and can even be delivered quickly after a match for any player worried about facing tricky post-match interviews.

(Image credit: IBM)

The bunker is also equipped with an IPTV system that delivers HD-quality footage of every court, allowing the team to quickly access records of each point.

The footage is then also used for creating highlights packages of the day’s play, another area where Watson shows its worth. Last year saw the AI platform used to help create highlights for the first time, and Wimbledon 2018 takes it a step further. Watson analyses a number of areas to spot the key action points, including the noise level of the crowd, and even celebrations or gestures from the players, to identify what are the real highlights of a match,

Seddon notes that thanks to Watson, the production time of creating the highlights packages (pictured below) has been cut down from 45 minutes in 2017 to just five minutes this year - meaning players can look back on their top shots by the time they’ve finished their post-match shower.

(Image credit: IBM)

All this data needs some hefty technological infrastructure to support it, though, and IBM has all this covered.

The work is supported end-to-end entirely by IBM, with a hybrid cloud platform that stretches across the globe. Although there are no data centres on-site, the information from every court is sent out to four IBM data centres in San Jose, Montreal, Tokyo and London, with updates to a live scoreboard being available within a matter of seconds.

IBM and Watson are also helping safeguard the tournament from cyber-threats. Although Seddon notes that there is little of value on Wimbeldon.com save the tournament logo, the AELTC is incredibly proud of its image and standing worldwide, so upholding the prestige of Wimbledon is a vital task. 

Seddon adds that the site was targeted over 200 million times last year, with assaults from all around the world, so the need for rigorous cyber defences is paramount. Watson is able to continually monitor for threats, and identify key areas of interest that can be quickly blocked.

Ultimately, IBM and Wimbledon want to use the wealth of data and footage being collected to provide a top-end fan experience for tennis nuts everywhere. 

This includes a dedicated Facebook chatbot which allows fans to see scores from every match in real-time, as well as signing up for updates on their favourite players whenever they take to the court.

Linked to the official Ask Fred AI service on Wimbledon.com, this makes the tournament more accessible and personal than ever before, which Seddon says is hoped to boost viewer numbers and interactions even further than before - not bad for an organisation that celebrated its 150th anniversary last year.

Mike Moore
Deputy Editor, TechRadar Pro

Mike Moore is Deputy Editor at TechRadar Pro. He has worked as a B2B and B2C tech journalist for nearly a decade, including at one of the UK's leading national newspapers and fellow Future title ITProPortal, and when he's not keeping track of all the latest enterprise and workplace trends, can most likely be found watching, following or taking part in some kind of sport.