At the NFL’s yearly cattle call called the Combine, scouts poke, prod and measure the country’s top college football players before the draft. Prospects go through a battery of tests that include a 40-yard dash, shuttle run, standing long jump and vertical leap. This year, Under Armour’s E39 augmented the scouts’ stopwatches and measuring tapes by tracking players’ heart and breathing rates and acceleration.
The E39 is a shirt with heart- and breathing-rate sensors built in, which connect to what Under Armour calls a “bug.” The bug is a modular unit that plugs into the front of the shirt to process data from the sensors along with a triaxial accelerometer. Measuring acceleration along vertical, lateral and sagittal planes (the sagittal divides your body into left and right parts, cutting right down the middle of the nose), the bug measures g-forces and can detect imbalances between right and left sides of the body.
Just as body-fat percentage gives a better picture of health than weight alone, the ability to quantify g-forces during acceleration and monitor aerobic recovery provides a more comprehensive athletic analysis than simply clocking a player’s 40-yard-dash time. Kevin Haley, Under Armour’s vice president of innovation, says that with the E39, scouts at the Combine could quantify not only how fast a player runs, but how quickly they recover aerobically and how much power they generate.
Consider 2011 Heisman Trophy winner and overall No. 1 NFL draft pick, Auburn University quarterback Cam Newton. At the Combine he ran a 4.59-second 40-yard dash—far from the best time. But the six foot four, 248-pound QB generated an eye-popping 9.48 g’s when he accelerated out of the blocks. To put that in perspective, many of the top players at the Combine logged about 6 g’s of force in the 40. That power is an important trait for coaches and athletes to know, track and build upon, because it has on-field implications. “When you see other QBs hit by a SEC linebacker, they go backward, but when Cam hits one of them, the linebacker goes backward,” Haley says.
Under Armour teamed with Zephyr to develop the technology because the company had a track record of developing reliable biofeedback gear. “The U.S. Special Forces uses them, so we know their tech works,” Haley says. The E39 bug can connect wirelessly via Bluetooth to smartphones, Macs and PCs to log, analyze and share data. The bug also removes from the shirt and can plug into other shirts or link to a computer or charger. Haley says Under Armour is still working on an accurate ground speed measure for the E39 technology, because GPS didn’t provide sufficiently accurate readings when used inside. For now the company is letting some college teams like Auburn and Maryland use E39 during training for this year’s football season and getting more feedback from athletes and trainers before they make the product available to the public in the second half of 2012.
Cycling has a long history of attaching computers to bikes to monitor a rider’s performance. The original editions from three decades ago merely clocked speed, which is a crude measurement of effort from the rider, but better than no info at all. The next innovation measured heart rate, trying to get closer to understanding a cyclist’s exertion. Twenty years ago, riders began to receive a more precise measurement of their overall effort from computers that measured power in watts. Still, for the average rider, fitting a bike with sensors was an expensive proposition. But now Velocomp has taken advantage of the ubiquity of digital devices to offer a more affordable option—its iBike Dash+Power, a computer that mounts to a bike and uses an iPhone or iPod Touch as a display.
The iBike Dash shows riders their cadence, distance, time, map and weather, and can display workout stats like bikes at the gym do. You can upload all that information to a Mac or PC, and use iBike’s free software to chart and analyze the ride.
To create an inexpensive way to measure a rider’s power output, Velocomp looked to Newton’s third law of motion, according to CEO John Hamann. “The conventional measurement of force and power is to put strain gauges on the rear wheel, pedal or cranks,” he says. “Those cost thousands of dollars, and they work very well, but they all work on the theory of applied force.” So instead of creating a sensor that measured applied force, Velocomp created one that measured the forces opposing the cyclist, because Newton’s law asserts that the applied and opposing will be equal (equal and opposite reactions.). For iBike, Velocomp combined a wind port, accelerometers to measure hill slope and bike acceleration, and a processor to compile those forces. “We just have a small computer head and we’re using sensors that are produced by the tens of millions and put into Nintendo Wiis and automotive applications,” Hamann says. “So we have very high quality with very low cost.”
Combine that data with the iPhone’s user-friendly interface, Hamann says, and you’ve got useful data riders can relate to immediately. “If I can tell how hard I am working then I can learn how to train my body better,” Hamann says. “And I’ll learn how to manage my body better so I don’t overdo it, but also so I don’t leave effort on the table.”
Nokia Push Snowboarding
At this year’s U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships in Vermont, Nokia let the American public use its data-tracking project, Push Snowboarding, for the first time. So as the world’s best snowboarders competed in the half pipe and slope-style events, amateurs could use Push to see a breakdown of their run on a Nokia phone app.
Before their runs, riders slapped sensors on themselves and their boards, including a heart monitor strap around their chest, an accelerometer on their board to measure rotation, pressure sensors beneath their feet to measure time off the ground and a wristband to measure galvanic skin response to measure “rush.” When you get a fright or a surge of adrenaline, your body reacts by sweating, even if it’s just a small amount. The wristband has two metal sensors that can measure the conductivity of your skin. So when you get a rush and sweat, the sensors can detect it immediately. All of this data is beamed via Bluetooth to the phone zipped into your pocket, which, with its GPS feature, also measures your speed. Push Snowboarding also tapped into the snowboarding ethos by taking a democratized approach to athlete-tracking technology. The app is open-source, and rider data goes up on Nokia’s website. So if you want to adapt the app for you, the code is there to play with.
If it weren’t blatantly obvious from speed, airtime and rate of spin that pro snowboarders are in a different league than the rest of us, the Nokia team discovered another difference in the data. “What we’ve found is that amateur riders tend to think about what they’re about to do, and their rush score goes up as they’re about to do it and it goes up as they do it, because they get a fright,” Push’s Stuart Wells says. “Pro riders are calm until they land something big and they get a rush because they’ve landed it—it’s kind of a measurement of a rider’s experience.” We got to slap some sensors on Popular Mechanics’ assistant photo editor and avid snowboarder Michele Ervin and send her barreling down the mountain. You can see the speed and rush scores part of the app at work in the video.
Unfortunately, Push is still in the prototype phase of its development, so Wells couldn’t say when sensors like the ones riders used at the U.S. Open would be available for sale to the public.
Pukas and Technalia Surfsens Project
Across the Atlantic, Spanish surfing company Pukas and applied research company Technalia have teamed up to make surfing safe for statistics. They outfitted a board with a gyroscope, accelerometer, pressure sensors, GPS, compass and strain gauges to measure flex in the board. Then these sensors send their readings to a Technalia-designed software interface to analyze the data recorded.
In this first incarnation of the technology, the companies are gathering data with the purpose of improving surfboard design. They’re letting some of the best surfers in the world ride the integrated board to see how changes in flexibility, torque and shape affect rider performance. The feedback should also help riders understand their strengths and weaknesses not just through feel and instinct, but also with data like speed, spin rate and board verticality.
And while most of the other technologies on our list are primarily concerned with smarter training ahead of competition, the two companies’ ambition is to make the tech part of surfing competitions themselves. They hope judges could use data from the board to evaluate surfers’ turns and tricks in competition—perhaps making the Surfsens technology as integral to surfing as the electronic line-calling system Hawk-Eye is to tennis.
In 2003, the company that would become Contour existed only as a business plan in a University of Washington entrepreneurship competition. Marc Barros and Jason Green were two UW business students, but they were also avid skiers who had the idea to create durable, easy-to-use, hands-free video cameras that people could use on the slopes. The pair took third in the competition, and with the $20,000 in seed money they won their company was born.
Eight years later, Barros and Greene are working with a 1080p HD camera for their system. It’s impact-resistant, encased in a brushed-aluminum water-resistant body. The rails are made of plastic and fiberglass to hold up to cold temperatures. There’s also a waterproof case available that allows camera use while wakeboarding, kayaking or surfing. While there are stabilizers in the camera to steady the shot, “stabilization relies heavily on your body as a dampener,” Barros says. “You’d be surprised how much your neck and body absorbs vibration.”
What really sets the camera apart is the GPS sensor inside that creates a track on the .mov file it records. So when editing videos in Contour’s software, users can display location, speed and elevation as part of the movie. That data can be saved to compare against future performance or shared for races against a friend. “We want people to show their friends what they’ve done,” Barros says. “To have that emotional connection of ‘let me show you.’”
The cameras are finding traction in the sports world beyond friends sharing clips of mountain biking. During this year’s University of Washington spring football game, the Huskies’ quarterback Keith Price wore a camera so when reviewing game film later, coaches could see what he saw as he drove the offense down the field. And the Huskies aren’t alone. College football stalwart Notre Dame also has a set of cameras, using new technology to make the Irish quarterbacks’ practices more productive.