Football is a sport that is all about audience engagement. Technology has always been used to improve the quality of play and audience participation beyond the stadium. Today, we are used to ubiquitous cameras and sensors and access to a vast quantity of player and team statistics via our smartphones. Even football boots and clothes can be full of the latest technology. Broadcasters in particular have been ingenious ever since the invention of television in utilising the latest technologies to add extra dimensions to that engagement so that remote fans can enjoy their involvement even more, and we can be certain that future technologies will be harnessed just as enthusiastically. Smart mobile devices let people watch matches or generally keep in touch with football wherever they are, so that they can always feel in touch with their team. So what’s coming next?

Smartphone progress

Phones are already powerful portable computers but they are likely to change their form gradually over the next 10-15 years as ongoing miniaturisation allows their replacement with assorted wearable devices. Pieces of electronic jewellery will soon be able to house the electronics; video visors or contact lenses could provide the display; gesture recognition and fingertip tracking replace the keyboard; and voice recognition extending to thought and emotion recognition via sensors printed on the skin surface. We will still need the capability of the phone, with many enhancements; it is just the physical form that will evolve, becoming more distributed. We’ll be able to access even more features and services, but they will be far lighter, smaller and less conspicuous. But let’s call them smart-phones until someone invents a more suitable name.

Football-related merchandise could be linked to mobiles, such as electronic banners, hats or flags that are really just custom made displays. In a football match, spectators could wear the hats, wave flags, banners or displays with coordinated dynamic patterns, sometimes with sound or vibration to add to the atmosphere. Remote spectators in clubs and homes could join in too.

Player Cards

Fans may collect player cards - small collectable cards that are really just small displays updated periodically via the smartphone, linked to a player’s social media pages. Fans may collect cards for everyone in their team and carry them around or leave them pinned on a bedroom wall. Of course a smartphone could hold cards electronically, but having a dedicated display card creates a new kind of active merchandise. Fans like to collect memorabilia, and exclusive services or player data could be linked to these cards. Most players will relish the new opportunity to encourage their own special fan clubs by linking to their fans via the cards with frequent updates on their activities. Some might even provide a ‘life feed’ via their mobiles that relay a privacy filtered version of what they are doing as it happens. The cards could even use a player’s wearable camera to show a player’s eye view during a game or training.

Social place of football

People have a natural desire to identify with a team and football caters perfectly to that desire. Football also levels very different people from across the whole of society as supporters of a team. Apps come and go in fashion, but those that link fans together will remain popular. Mobile devices allow apps to link people together in many more ways, tapping in to locally broadcast services, allowing people to spread ideas for chants or songs or other behaviours to spur their team on. Different players may have their own special fans within the crowd, and they might even have their own apps. One player might prefer chants to be arranged, while another might prefer visual patterns and messages being produced by the coordinated displays of their fan-base. Fans could also use these apps to talk to each other and exchange opinions, and perhaps even to communicate audio messages to the player.

Apps could be distributed differently too. Instead of downloading them from the net, some might spread from phone to phone, and this allows apps to start in one part of a stand and spread gradually throughout, almost organically. As well as stadium audiences, games would often be broadcast for both passive and interactive viewing. Teams could allow audience interaction via mobiles to directly affect instructions to particular players. This could be linked to accelerometers in mobiles so that those viewers physically exerting themselves most would have the greatest say.

People will generally be much wealthier in a few decades, while technology will have fallen greatly in cost, so most people would be able to afford very advanced mobiles with ultra-realistic 3D video simulation and immersion capability to let apps immerse them in the game even better. Not everyone will want technology but everyone will be able to afford it.

3D immersion technology will make football even more socially inclusive because the feeling of being there in a stadium would be equally available to people viewing remotely, as would the associated interaction with play that could be enabled.

Stadium technology

As well as numerous cameras around the field, in boundary furniture and goalposts or on wires above, some miniature cameras would be worn on player kit and others carried by flying insect- sized robots that can follow players around. Retractable cameras could easily be put in the turf too, withdrawing as a player approaches. Sensors could also be built into the turf to monitor wear, hardness or wetness, perimeter and goal lines to precisely monitor player and ball position into the ball, and goalposts to measure ball impact. Turf biological data would be useful for grounds-men too of course to keep it in good shape. Instead of intense floodlighting, individual LEDs could be carried by similar airborne devices so that more natural light comes from a more natural direction. Balloons could do the same job, higher up.

Seating could provide wireless data services differently to home and away spectators to enhance team allegiance. Seats offer direct physical contact with spectators so are perfect for using vibration in atmosphere management during a game.

Advertising could be totally personalised. Augmented reality could change the appearance of on-pitch or perimeter ads and also provides extra in-view advertising space. During half time, directions to preferred refreshment stands and toilets could be overlaid.

Player kit

Players will wear visually similar clothing, though the fabrics will have video capability and be better at keeping players comfortable, but some extra regulated mobile device technology might be permitted on the field, such as active contact lens displays for augmented reality and audio links to the coach, as well as numerous monitors for health or fitness monitoring (such as pulse, blood pressure, sugar, oxygen and CO2 levels, sweating and hydration, so that a coach can see who is working hardest or decide when a player should be substituted. Players’ displays could show a bird’s eye view of the field with overlaid graphics illustrating rollout of the agreed team strategy.

Football boots would have embedded sensors to measure every step, and allow apps to recreate their every move, and also to measure the strength and angle of impact with the ball, or another player’s leg. This data could be available to referees to help decide if a player was guilty of a foul.

Players could also wear an electronic tattoo layer that acts to relay sensory and physiological data to fans, as well as providing a video display platform that might change according to any warnings they’ve been given, or according to spectator input. Using their sensory data, a fan could pretend to be that player, feeling what they feel. Although computer simulations of potential strikes would be technically feasible, they seem somewhat redundant since players have such ability deeply ingrained naturally, but they would have some use for training sessions as a shared tool while a coach discusses strategy and technique with a player. So even if technology isn’t allowed on match day, it could still enhance training.

Augmented reality

One of the things spectators love to do is to see data about the particular players. A heads up display (HUD) visor or contact lens display allows all the interesting data to be overlaid on the field of view as they watch a game. Each player could have a data bubble above them. Seeing a favourite player’s current physiology data as well as their close up facial expression and how they fit into the strategy allows spectators to feel more intimately connected with their hero. This will be a very everyday experience in 25 years, but by 50 years, it will extend to full active skin sensory relay to experience virtual sensations remotely.

Referees should ideally be able to see the action from any angle and zoom in or out at will. Using active contact lenses, they could easily do that. Raw camera feeds could be available to them, but 3D enhanced images would also be built in real time by computers combining inputs from several cameras and other sensors to make a high quality 3D view of the entire field.

Active skin

Active skin uses electronics printed on the skin surface to link the nervous system and blood chemistry to external networks and devices so provides a perfect platform to improve the sensation of being there and being involved. It could also include display surfaces to enable video tattoos or team colours and logos, accelerometers and positioning devices.

Even within 20 years, active skin will allow players to improve their technique quickly. Computers can analyse movements as they happen and compare them with those it thinks are perfect. By injecting sensory stimulation directly into nerves in the appropriate parts of the body, the best movements sensory stimulation directly into nerves in the appropriate parts of the body, the best movements can be made to feel more comfortable and imperfect ones could feel wrong. By repeatedly doing what feels right, players would quickly gain get the right muscle memory. Top professionals will perform close to perfection.

Football simulations were among the earliest computer games. By 2050, using active skin and fully immersive displays, people will be able to feel as if they were an actual player. Teams of gamers would compete in a virtual league and some teams would reach very high performance levels if they play together regularly.

Android players

Football isn’t just for professional players. Computer gaming and leisure football are also important and the technology can be much more fun here. Mobile gaming technology using augmented reality will allow full immersion, so amateurs playing on a village green could see their playing field as Wembley and even have a simulated crowd. Although professional players couldn’t be present at every game, they could certainly have virtual avatars backed up with a lot of AI that simulates their normal patterns of play, so amateurs could see their heroes virtually on the field while they play too, even if they can’t actually kick the ball. Further in the future, as androids become feasible, an android could make a very good job of replicating a real player and this could make local amateur games more fun.

Although human-like robots, or androids, will be able to play football in 25 years to some degree, they won’t be very advanced by then. Within 50 years though, they will look and feel like people and be stronger and more agile. They won’t be based on cogs and wheels and wires, but on a strong skeleton overlaid with polymer gel muscles that feel soft but are five times stronger than humans weight for weight. This will make androids far more agile and the matches potentially more exciting. They will of course be very well networked so every aspect of their play and condition could be used in supporter apps.

Many homes will have android assistants in 50 years, and they may join in with humans or even have their own games. Once androids are included, each android player on the field might represent a whole swathe of dedicated fans who collectively control its behaviour. Rather than just watching a match, the fans on each side could be directly playing against each other. This would also help bridge the gulf between physical football and computer game variations. The means of android control may be familiar to those who also play the computer game versions.

Rich people could own their own android teams, while moderately wealthy people may well lend their androids to a local team. Within 50 years, it may be possible to remotely inhabit an android so that you can feel as if it were you. So older or less-able people could join in football via an android, as if they were playing themselves.

Summary | The evolving role of smartphones

Clearly smart phone technology lies at the centre of much of this progress. By making good use of the many sensors worn by players and in the stadium the fan can be more intimately involved with their team. They can link to other fans, see how a team strategy is working, and in due course even control players and androids on the field. Eventually, the fan could experience actually being on the field via remote links into androids or a human player’s active skin. Phones today already provide good audience involvement, but their potential will improve that massively over coming decades.


The dates listed on this timeline don’t indicate first technical feasibility or market release, but allow some time for market maturity and rule changes to allow their inclusion into football. Most will be possible in the lab years earlier and some may be in use in other sectors before they filter into football, which has its own culture and values.

2016 - Accelerometers in mobiles used in supporter apps
2016 - Basic data overlays via visors
2017 - Displays used in electronic hats and flags
2018 - Apps allow supporter groups to link to players on field
2018 - Collectable Player Cards
2020 - Retractable cameras in turf with player location sensing
2020 - Active contact lenses
2020 - Personalised adverts and half-time directions
2020 - Electronic Jewellery
2020 - Cameras routinely embedded in player kit
2025 - Full hi-res video augmented reality overlays via video visors
2025 - Ball impact sensors and accelerometers in football boots
2025 - Referees get enhanced augmented reality tools
2030 - Vibrating seating used in atmosphere management
2030 - Pitch condition data sensors embedded
2030 - Insect-like robots carry tiny cameras and follow players
2035 - Players wear active skin video tattoos
2035 - Active skin used in health monitoring and training
2035 - Real-time player physiological data broadcast to coach
2040 - Robot football starts becomes commonplace
2040 - Airborne LED lighting via insect-like robots
2040 - Real-time player physiological data available to fans
2040 - Full video clothing worn by players and fans
2040 - Sensory relay between players and fans
2040 - Active contact lenses & coach audio links permitted on-field
2045 - Players get bird’s eye view of field with strategy overlay
2045 - Smartphones enable ultra-real 3D simulation & immersion
2045 - Full strike and strategy simulation used in training
2050 - Full sensory simulation lets fans feel as if they were playing
2055 - Virtual leagues with online gamers competing in ‘real’ games
2060 - Full android teams very common with their own leagues
2060 - Fans can directly control android players on field
2060 - Fans can remotely inhabit android players as if it’s them
2060 - Full active skin-based sensory relay from player to fans
2060 - Advanced nutraceuticals linked to real-time physiology
2060 - Smart nutritional consumption data used in advertising

HTC FootballFeed™

HTC has already taken a step into the future of football with its new HTC FootballFeed app available now for free via the Play Store. The fan-focused app delivers official, play-by-play updates from the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League, direct to your phone. Wherever you are – in the stands, on the sofa, at the office or out on the town – HTC FootballFeed™ provides you with live, customisable information and stats, as well as a wide variety of great news and content.


About the author

Ian Pearson is a full time futurologist, tracking and predicting developments across a wide range of technology, business, society, politics and the environment. He is a Maths and Physics graduate, and a Doctor of Science. He has worked in numerous branches of engineering, from aeronautics to cybernetics, sustainable transport to electronic cosmetics. His inventions include text messaging and the active contact lens. He was BT’s full-time futurologist from 1991 to 2007 and now owns Futurizon, a small futures institute. He writes, lectures and consults globally on all aspects of the technology-driven future. He has written several books, recently including Space Anchor, Total Sustainability and You Tomorrow, and made well over 500 TV and radio appearances. He is a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, and Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science, the World Innovation Foundation, and the Royal Society of Arts.

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