Engineering Inside:

2015 Issue 1

Bringing Cutting-Edge Technology to the World of Sports

February 2015

It’s the final seconds of the match. Adrenaline pumping, heart racing, you launch the ball towards the goal. All eyes are on you as the ball misses the goal by mere centimeters. You replay the moment over and over in your mind, but can’t seem to pinpoint exactly what went wrong. Engineers and computing professionals are developing technologies that can provide athletes with just this kind of insight into their athletic performance. These technologies are making it possible for fitness enthusiasts and athletes alike to train smarter, perform better, and play safer than ever before.

young skier race fast downhil at winter snow sceneAthletic garments and gear are critical to the success of athletes in sports ranging from swimming, to track and field, to hockey. Engineers design these materials to maximize athletes’ performance and keep them safe. In a sport like alpine skiing, where seconds can make the difference between which team takes home the gold, uniforms can have a huge impact. At the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, engineers designed special high tech uniforms for alpine skiing competitors. GPS analysis of trial runs on the course helped guide the placement of seams and zippers to minimize drag, or resistance. The super sleek suits even underwent testing in a wind tunnel. Padding within the suits was also made from a specialized material designed to harden up on impact to better protect wearers.

Helmets are a critical piece of equipment for preventing traumatic brain injuries in high impact sports like football and hockey. Engineers have developed smart helmets to further prevent and reduce concussions. Smart helmets contain sensors that measure the force and location of impact, and send an alert about possible concussions via a smartphone app to coaches on the sideline. Engineers are even considering the addition of strong magnets inside smart helmets, which would help disperse the energy of impacts using their repellant properties. Smart helmets have the potential to reduce the severity of injuries and improve the time in which players receive medical attention.

smart watchElectronics and computers incorporated into clothing or accessories that can be worn on
the body, are now being designed for use in sports and fitness activities. Known as wearables, these technologies gather data such as heart rate, breathing rate, skin temperature, calories burned, movement and even the duration and quality of sleep.  The collected data is analyzed by software in conjunction with inputted information about the wearer’s height, weight and gender. The wearer can then track and view this information on a computer or mobile device and use it to make better decisions about health, fitness, or athletic performance.

Wearables can take on a number of different forms. Fitness bands like the Fitbit are a type of wearable equipped with a pedometer containing MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) inertial sensors to detect steps. A smart tech polo shirt was also unveiled at the 2014 US Open. The shirt included silver fiber sensors woven into the fabric, an accelerometer (which turns bodily movements, or acceleration, into digital measurements) a gyroscope (which measures orientation) and a Bluetooth transmitter to relay information about wearers’ vitals.

A new type of wearable technology which provides information about a player’s jumping performance, known as VERT, debuted at the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES). VERT uses a small sensor-equipped device, which is worn on the waistband of a player’s shorts. Using a computer processor and a special algorithm, or set of rules, VERT can calculate jumping data such as the number of jumps, height of the jumps, and average and highest jumps. Data then is sent via Bluetooth to an app on the coach’s mobile device. The app provides information on not only the player’s jumping performance but also on whether they are at risk for possible injury due to fatigue.

Professional sports teams are now combining wearables with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology.  RFID tags added to players’ uniforms transmit data using electromagnetic fields to RFID receivers placed at various locations around the arena or stadium. The tags collect information about players’ movements such as speed, acceleration and distance run. Coaches can use this information to get a better sense of how their players are performing and working together on the field. These stats are sometimes even shown in broadcasts or on Jumbotrons, so fans can see how their favorite player stacks up.

Football/Soccer BallEngineers are not only developing athletic technology that can be worn on the body, but also technology that is incorporated into sports equipment itself. One example is the Adidas MiCoach Smart Ball, a hi-tech soccer ball that contains a number of internal sensors. When the ball is kicked, these sensors gather data on the speed and spin of the ball as well as its trajectory and strike point. The accompanying app includes tutorials and challenges that can be used to record and improve progress during training. CES 2015 also debuted a smart racquet called the Babolat Play Pure Drive. The racquet is equipped with sensors that can give players information about number of strokes, power, impact, and technique. Both of these technologies employ Bluetooth to transmit information to a corresponding smartphone app for tracking and analysis.

High speed cameras are being utilized more frequently in the wide world of sports. One application is to help referees and sports officials make less subjective calls about plays on the field. Camera-based goal line technology was used at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Cameras were placed high-up at different points around the stadium. If a ball crossed the goal line during the match, the word GOAL was transmitted to a smart watch worn by the referee. The system was able to determine whether a goal was viable within one second, and to an accuracy of 0.5 centimeters.

SportVu is a statistical tracking technology currently used in basketball that also uses high speed cameras. The cameras, which are affixed to the rafters of the arena, capture movement of players and the ball 25 times per second in X, Y and Z coordinates. This information is then transmitted to software that calculates players’ dribbles, passes, and touches. Coaches can use this information to make decisions on the court and assess whether players are in good physical condition to perform. The data can also be used to identify players’ strengths and weaknesses and for scouting out new recruits. SportsVu also enables players’ stats to be shared with both viewers and fans.

Whether it’s getting in shape, playing sports professionally, or watching your favorite team, technology is offering new insight and interactivity to the world of sports. These powerful tools are putting eye-opening real-time knowledge into the hands of users like never before. As sports technologies evolve, they will continue to help athletes everywhere push the boundaries of physical excellence.

Please note that IEEE Spark is not responsible for the content provided on “related” and “promoted” videos that accompany YouTube videos featured in articles. All readers should note that the content and opinions expressed in these videos do not necessarily reflect the opinions and position of IEEE Spark.

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