Some NFL franchises stay ahead of the technology curve better than others.
After all, the Dallas Cowboys used drones to film part of their practices in late May and the Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots have all reportedly invested in virtual reality training programs to use this season.
But it took a Tech Times reporter being buzzed in via an unassuming building doorfront on New York City's West 22nd Street and riding a slow cargo elevator to the sixth floor to realize that Microsoft is doing its part to ensure that its technology makes the NFL better for all teams with the Surface Pro 3 tablet on sidelines and for fans at home via its new NFL Experience app on Xbox One.
During an afternoon walk-through of the Xbox loft, Tech Times got a feel for what NFL coaches, players and even referees will sense during games this season with the revamped Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet as well as the NFL Experience app for fans on Xbox One.
With Microsoft having recently released Windows 10 and the NFL celebrating its 50th season this year, 2015 figures to be a landmark year for both companies. Microsoft is confident that the third year of its partnership with the NFL will generate its most productive season yet and paves the way for a tech-driven future in football.
"We're going to be storytelling on the future and how technology can improve the game of football and enhance the fans' experience—not for next year, but really for the next 50 years. It's the Super Bowl 50 celebration this year and it will be the next 50 [years] for us," Jeff Tran, Microsoft's director of sports and alliances, tells Tech Times. "Ultimately, we're going to see this technology revolution happen right before our eyes. We really feel here at Microsoft that we're well-positioned to formulate and shape that revolution."
Surface Pro 3 Tablets On NFL Sidelines
The 2015 NFL season, which officially kicks off Sept. 10, will see the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet replace the Surface Pro 2 on league sidelines.
Offering a bigger screen, sharper display and lighter in weight than its predecessor, the Surface Pro 3 is also more rugged, specially built to perform in inclement NFL weather.
"This device will work in the coldest possible Green Bay temperatures or the warmest Miami Dolphins' field temperatures as well," Tran says.
With Microsoft headquarters being in Washington and Seattle known for its rain, Tran demonstrated the Surface Pro 3's durability by pouring water on its screen, only to wipe it off and continue use without an issue. He also forcefully dropped the tablet to the ground, picking it up and continuing normal function of the device.
After a Microsoft rep shepherds each team during the loading of all its plays and full formations onto the tablet's sideline viewing system, coaches and players can use the built-in stylus pen to annotate with color, something they couldn't do with the Surface Pro 2. There's also a new whiteboard feature, allowing players and coaches to quickly draw up plays from scratch.
In speaking with Russell Wilson last week, Tran tells Tech Times that the Seattle Seahawks' star quarterback told him that using the pen to annotate plays allows him to get into a "high degree of articulation."
In recently meeting with the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees, Tran says the veteran QB likes how the tablet shaves precious seconds off the old process of thumbing through a physical, bulky playbook on the sidelines.
During the NFL preseason, which begins this Sunday, Aug. 9, the league will also experiment with referees reviewing instant replays on the tablet, instead of poking their heads under a hood and reviewing plays at a monitor station. Tran thinks the experiment could lead to a more speedy and accurate method of ruling on questionable plays, thus improving the game.
Any given Sunday during the regular season will have 50 Surface Pro 3 tablets in each NFL stadium—split up by 25 to each team; 13 on each sideline and 12 above in each coach's booth.
A Microsoft tech representative wearing a purple hat will also be present at every NFL game this season, just in case a coach or player needs assistance.
Each tablet is programmed to only allow NFL teams to use the sideline viewing system of plays and formations, annotate with color and draw up plays on the whiteboard feature—nothing else. So, we should never hear about coaches or players live-tweeting during games.
When Tech Times asked Tran what precautions Microsoft is exercising about safeguarding the tablets from possible hacking, he only said that the company trusts each stadium's safe encrypted network and that the Microsoft rep at each game will accurately account for all tablets.
The Microsoft NFL Experience App In Fans' Living Rooms
There isn't a better feeling for a football fan to sit back on a lazy Sunday and watch NFL games.
But the new Microsoft NFL Experience app on Xbox One and Windows 10 manages to enhance fans' total viewing pleasure right in the comfort of their living rooms.
Walking into the Xbox loft, we're greeted by a large flat-screen television set to the app's NFL command center main menu on Xbox One.
Sitting on a sprawling, plush leather sofa with an Xbox controller in hand is Todd Stevens, Microsoft executive producer, ready to guide a Tech Times reporter through the NFL Experience app.
When opening the app, which is set for release in late August, fans will be asked to name their favorite NFL team.
Answering will automatically load up news and highlights of that team, at whatever point they're at in the year or season, upon opening the app each time. A demonstration of this feature set to the Seattle Seahawks showed a plethora of clips relating to the team's current training camp news, highlights and player interviews.
Fans will then get push notifications any time there's breaking news involving the team or a scoring update during games when the season kicks off.
But the push notifications aren't reserved just for one's favorite team. The NFL Experience app allows users to sync their fantasy football leagues, offering push-notification updates on owned players or players one's going up against. The best part about it is, one can be watching a game and be hit with a little update about their fantasy football players and opponents scoring or delivering highlights without interrupting the viewing of the game.
The Experience only gets better with "snapping" the app, a feature that lets fans scale down the screen and have a scrollable side menu filled with real-time, automatically updated highlights via the NFL Now video channel. So, one could be watching a game, see a highlight of interest on the side menu and click and watch in real-time, before returning to the game.
Perhaps the app feature that has Microsoft execs most geeked is its NextGen Stats, which offer in-depth X-and-O simulation highlight replays. With the 2015 NFL season marking the first year that tracking sensor chips are embedded in players' shoulder pads, retrievable data seemingly offers endless information.
"For the first time, we have real-time access to players' position on the field, their velocity, their distance covered during a play," says Stevens.
He adds taking those highlights and marrying them to the stats "creates a highlight experience that nobody has ever seen before."
The app can take those NextGen Stats and build weekly lists, such as its top afterburners—the fastest players clocking the quickest miles per hour on routes or runs. That's one of many lists that can be created.
Aside from all that, the app also offers access to the NFL Films' archive, including all 49 Super Bowls, and sync access to the NFL Red Zone game-day channel and Sunday Ticket, although users are required to have separate subscriptions to those services to use them on the app.
Game days will seemingly never be better.
"To be honest, if the NFL has made a video, I feel like it's available to our users of the app," Stevens says. "We've really tried to customize the experience to be optimized for game day. On a Sunday, you'll just see this app completely light up."