Tech mistake |Forget the return of chirping birds and blossoming flowers. March Madness is the real harbinger of spring. The NCAA basketball tournament is the pièce de résistance for both the die-hard fans and casual observers of college hoops. An estimated 40 million Americans, regardless of how knowledgeable they may be, put on hardcourt prognosticator hats and submit brackets to online competitions and office pools.

Behind this hoops hoopla is some impressive technology impacting all aspects of the tournament. From team selection to the way we watch games, March Madness is an increasingly tech-centric three weeks.

Fielding the Field of 68

The process of picking the 68 entrants into the tournament is a complicated affair. Division I men’s basketball has 353 teams competing in over 30 conferences. Thirty-two conference champions get guaranteed March Madness berths while the remaining 36 teams receive at-large invitations.

There’s a lot of sorting and slotting to do.

A 10-member selection committee stews and brews over a Byzantine matrix of rules to produce an optimum selected, seeded and bracketed tournament.

The NCAA has employed the assistance of software in assembling the March Madness field since 2001. Organizing and seeding the brackets, once a laborious manual process, is now done in seconds.

Viewing the Madness in VR

In 2017, the NCAA began a three-year deal to broadcast tournament games in virtual reality (VR). In a partnership with tech giant Intel and broadcasters CBS Sports and Turner Sports, delivery to the immersive technology leverages Intel’s True VR (previously VOKE VR) platform.

Since then, 21 games live-streamed in VR during the 2018 tournament via the March Madness Live VR app to Gear VR and Google Daydream hardware users.

The app allows users to select from multiple camera angles on demand or view procured game coverage spliced together from courtside cameras. An interactive bracket, full-length game replays, 2D and VR highlights, player and coach interviews, and other exclusive content are available through the VR app.

The March Madness VR experience comes with a modest cost. Consumers paid $2.99 per a la carte game last year, or $19.99 for a VR Tournament pass boasting all 21 games.

A Machine Learning Muscle Flex

Once the NCAA releases the tournament seeds, bracketology or the practice of predicting the teams and outcomes, the tournament field becomes a playground for big data nerds.

One only needs to see the long-shot probability to understand why. The chance of predicting a perfect bracket is 1 in 9.2 quintillions. That’s a nine and a two followed by 17 digits — or six commas if you prefer.

Kaggle, an online community of data scientists and machine learners owned by Google parent Alphabet Inc., sponsors an annual competition that tests algorithms attempting to predict the perfect bracket.

For the contest — branded the Google Cloud & NCAA ML Competition — the company presents a set of 40 million data points compiled from more than 30 years of college basketball detail. Included are each March Madness seed and final score from every regular season, conference and tournament game since the 1984-85 season. Also considered are each play-by-play moment from Division I men’s and women’s games.

Data science teams enter their predictive algorithms against Kaggle’s data. The winner is the team that most closely projects the final bracket outcome of that year’s tournament.

Now entering its sixth installment, the 2018 competition was the first to feature a prize pool with the top three teams splitting $100,000. The best showing by an algorithm to date is 39 correctly predicted games or 58.2 percent of the NCAA tournament’s outcomes.

Complex bracket construction, immersive viewing and machine learning challenges are only a few ways technology solves problems or enhances March Madness. You don’t have to think about binary crunching or blinking server farms when you fill out your bracket, but rest assured, there’s a lot of churning tech behind the scenes.

The 2019 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament runs March 19th to April 8th.