Every year at the Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara, makers of wearable gadgetry gather to debut prototypes and debate the future of bionic living.
This year, Mounir Zok, the director of technology and innovation for the U.S. Olympic Committee, predicted that wearable sensors will soon be just as important to elite players as their designer athletic shoes. In fact, that day might be Friday, when the 2016 games open in Rio.
Among the technologies used for Olympic training this year: Sensors worn by divers and gymnasts that track performance metrics in real time. Glasses for cyclists that deliver cadence, speed and heart rate data directly into their field of view. And for the Paralympic Games, Zok said, the Olympic Committee worked with automaker BMW to develop a new wheelchair that tracks stats like miles traveled and the frequency of arm strokes.
The Age of the Superhero
“We are very, very, very fast approaching the superhero stage. Tony Stark is not anymore a science fiction character,” Zok said, referring to the Marvel Comics Iron Man hero who wears an armored suit that gives him cybernetic superpowers. “Tony Stark will be on the field of play.”
Technology has long been integrated into sports training, in everything from nutrition to physiology. But as recently as the year 2000, Zok pointed out, most high-tech performance analysis took place in an environment unnatural to the athlete: the lab.
Having an Olympian jog on a treadmill just isn’t the same as having her sprint on a track or whoosh down a mountain. And, Zok added, it took days to compile the old data into spreadsheets, which didn't help athletes make immediate corrections during training or game play.
This year, many Olympians are training using sensors that instantly port performance metrics to a coach’s tablet device. This gives the coach a kind of dashboard, displaying each team member’s stats as well as their historical performance.
Zok believes that being able to match their metrics to their visceral experience will help athletes learn faster. If an athlete knows, for example, the ideal angle at which her body should enter the water or the perfect rotational speed for her spin, she can check her stats after each dive, or dismount, and match the data against how the move felt.
In gymnastics, said Zok, “we have almost come up with a digital code of what makes the gold medal,” a set of figures that describes a perfect 10 performance. “Imagine having that milestone for each and every Olympic athlete, specifically when they are very young, so that they have that fixed North Star.”
Wearable Tech is Changing the NFL
Olympians aren’t the only elite athletes trying out wearable sensors. Dan Waters of San Jose-based Zebra Technologies spoke about the tracking devices NFL players wore during the 2015 season, which relayed to their coaches real-time information about their location, speed and distance traveled. Zebra’s RFID chips, worn under players’ shoulder pads, pulsed information 25 times per second to receivers mounted inside each stadium.
“We’re translating the physical player into digital information that could be acted upon in real time by coaches,” said Waters. This, he said, could help coaches prevent injuries. Suppose, said Waters, “you have a wide receiver who has already run 6 miles in a game. Well, it might be good to rest that player, for example, before they pull a hamstring.”
Waters’ company has also worked with Big 10, Pac 12 and Southeastern Conference schools. At the moment, NFL teams have elected to receive only their own players’ data, but Waters points out that these measurements, if shared, could ultimately effect recruiting, “allowing for the more thorough and efficient identification of player alignment and tendencies; both of which will contribute greatly to scouting and coaching efforts.”
Zok credits the proliferation of smartphones with driving down the cost of parts—accelerometers, magnetometers, GPS devices—and enabling today’s boom in wearable sports technology. And improvements in transmission range has allowed sports scientists to finally ditch the cables that once attached computer to electrode.
Next Gen Smart Gear
The next wave of wearables will be smaller still, as the industry moves away from hard plastic sensors like heart rate monitors that strap to the chest or smart bands that encircle the wrist. Sports gear will likely make use of ever more lightweight “smart tattoos,” or flexible electronics that stick on like bandages, and “smart clothing” that has conductive or sensing fibers woven directly into the fabric. With these, Zok said, “We can finally exploit all the real estate that we have on our bodies.”
Recreational and student athletes are in line for this new generation of smart gear, too. At the expo, Joyce Chow, the creative director of design and brand development for Toronto-based Myant, was demonstrating the company’s fitness wear prototypes. “We believe that textiles are the best and the most natural solution to be next to skin,” she said, and can be used for preventing and rehabbing injuries.
She held aloft a windbreaker for urban runners and cyclists; it has an electroluminescent strip, as thin and rubbery as a vinyl window decal, embedded along the spine. In the current design, the strip simply lights up to make the user visible to traffic, but in future versions, she said, wearers will be able to program its flashing pattern to signal their turning direction or heart rate.
Myant is also working on distributing sensors throughout a garment, like a compression knee sock embedded with electroactive polymer sensors; these measure deformation and can be used to monitor swelling for people with conditions like diabetes. Chow also showed off a gray tank top woven with conductive yarn that can measure breathing volume and electrocardiography; next to it was a bike shirt that shimmered metalically thanks to heat patches knitted into strategic spots to provide a gentle warmth to the wearer.
And CEO John Ralson of Seattle’s X2 Biosystems spoke about using wearable sensors to prevent head injuries for young athletes. His company is developing two kinds of sensors: One worn as a mouth guard fitted to the upper teeth and one that sticks to the bony area behind the ear. These monitor the buildup and distribution of impact forces that rattle the brain.
Much of the company’s research has been conducted in collaboration with UC Santa Barbara and Stanford University, measuring head trauma in college sports like soccer and mixed martial arts. Ralston said the company hopes to use its accumulated data to create a “neuro-trauma dosimeter,” or a device “that tells you when it’s time to get off the field,” the same way a radiation tracker would tell you when you’ve had too much exposure.
While it may seem sci-fi indeed to imagine athletes instantly transmitting their data through the ether, Zok said wearables are just the next evolutionary step for an industry that has always sought to give players a competitive edge through better gear.
“If you have a good running shoe, you are at an advantage,” Zok said. “If you have got ski goggles that don’t go foggy on you, you are at an advantage.” And if you’re Iron Man, maybe you have a big enough advantage to take home the gold.