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On the sidelines: how the NFL is making use of the Surface Pro 2

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Now that we've talked about the design process behind the NFL's Surface Pro 2s, it's time to show you how these things are actually being used throughout the league. It's worth noting that at least for now, the functionality of the Sideline Viewing System is limited to players and coaches annotating, drawing and looking at images from plays. Still, this is a notable first step in the NFL bringing technology into the game, and Microsoft wants to play a big role in that development. Sure, it doesn't hurt that the tech titan is said to have paid a huge sum of money to the NFL for the alleged five-year partnership, but it's safe to say that it's equally beneficial regardless.

Microsoft's laptop/hybrid device began appearing on NFL sidelines earlier this year, at the start of the preseason, and the company tells us that the adoption rate of the Sideline Viewing System by players and coaches has been "great" up to now -- though a spokesperson wasn't willing to discuss specific numbers. That said, it's one thing to see these in action during games from afar, on TV, so when the opportunity to spend time with the Seattle Seahawks arose, to learn their game day workflow with the Surface Pro 2, we couldn't say no.

Gallery: How the NFL is making use of the Surface Pro 2 | 22 Photos

Gallery: What Microsoft's Sideline Viewing System looks to replace | 6 Photos

For the NFL Sideline Viewing System, the process begins before the start of each game, when the carts that house the devices, 13 Surface Pro 2s behind each bench, are wheeled to the field, all set up and ready for home and away team members to pick up and start using immediately. In total, each team has access to 25 Surface Pro 2s on any given Sunday (or Monday, or Thursday); the remaining 12 are up in the coaches' booth, and they don't sport the same ruggedized case that you see in players' hands. "Response has been really good. Every team has been using the device," James Bernstrom, Microsoft's product marketing director, says. "It helps coaches having the real-time option to teach players on the go."


Over a private network, the images being pushed over to the units, which are taken by a camera in the end zone and another on the sideline, show up almost instantaneously. This is important, since it makes the process much faster than the old printer system, one that still has a heavy presence in games. Microsoft says the NFL chooses to do this as a backup plan, in case any problems arise with the Sideline Viewing System, and because there may still be coaches or players who prefer to go the paper-based route. If something does happen with the Surface Pro 2 during a game, though, Microsoft and the NFL have placed "Purple Hats" on teams' benches -- these are people who are there specifically to troubleshoot anything related to the Sideline Viewing System app.

"We went out and did training for coaches and players, but the key was to work with the video directors," Bernstrom added, emphasizing how key every team's video director is to the system, since they are the ones in charge of making the learning process easier for staff members. Seahawks Director of Video Brad Campbell says that his team embraced the viewing system from the get-go, noting that the coaching staff was fascinated by the fact they could do things like draw and annotate the images. "I think you could probably push more data to this, eventually, if you could somehow [safely] distribute your own play-call data to it,' he added, "I think if we can expand it, you could eventually get into where you're sorting more of your own data through [the Sideline Viewing System]."


Meanwhile, Russell Wilson, Seahawks quarterback and Super Bowl champion, says the app made a huge difference for him, particularly because it lets him zoom in on the pictures to get a better view of the plays, something he obviously couldn't do with the old system. "The speed, the processing of getting the plays -- it's a lot faster," Wilson says. "You know, we used paper before, so you had to go through each slide in each piece of paper, which took a long time, and a lot of the times you only have a couple of minutes on the sidelines."

"We used paper before, so you had to go through each slide in each piece of paper."

The company says it's always working with the league on what makes sense to fit with the integrity of the game (read: more features one day, perhaps?). But it's not just the NFL. "Microsoft is proud to be working with leading sports leagues and organizations across the globe, from Formula 1 racing to Real Madrid, the most valuable sports club in the world," Jeff Tran, director of sports marketing and alliances at Microsoft, states. "We have great momentum in this space, and are continually looking for future opportunities to make teams, leagues and organizations even more productive."


For his part, Corporate Vice President of Microsoft Surface Panos Panay, tells me that the goal with the NFL partnership is "to change the game so teams can be more productive, efficient and, ultimately, more competitive." He says the Surface brand represents the best in productivity and precision, and that this is what the Sideline Viewing System brings to the table.

"And while we've seen great success on the field so far, this is just the beginning," Panay says. "We're learning quite a bit this season and we will use that feedback to provide the league, teams and individuals using our products with technology that helps them succeed on and off the field."

Philip Palermo contributed to this report.


Part one of this series can be found here. In part three, we interview Seahawks QB Russell Wilson.

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