Kim Blair, ISEA past president hits the spot for sport in Switzerland, May 2018

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Good friend of SABEL and former president of the Internationa Sports Engineering Association Kim Blair is a guest speaker at ThinkSport’s the SPOT in Lausanne, May 2018.

Kim’s unique perspective as the founder of MIT’s sports enterprise and long time sports engineering affectionardo is speaking on the rise of digital information in sport. Jay from think sport and Kim recently had a bit of a chat about it……. (Read the full interview here)

When Winning Is A Drag

We all know the advantages that innovation has brought to athletes in many sports with ways to enhance performance through technology. It has often been about reducing drag, from the skin suits worn by skaters to the dimples on golf balls to the latest in cycling technology.

In the early 2000s, working seriously to improve the aerodynamics of cycling was still a bit of a novelty, remembers Doctor Kim Blair formerly of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has been at the forefront of sports innovation. “Using wind tunnels like the one we have at MIT was not something that everyone did. That changed as more people became aware that a five percent difference in aerodynamics can mean the difference between getting a place on the podium or not.”

A former NASA engineer, Blair first made the connection between technology and sport as a graduate student who was also a passionate triathlete and saw that aerospace design and sporting success had lots in common. Now he serves as an external advisor for the new sports innovation program based in MIT’s department of mechanical engineering.

“Sports organisations might not be the lead developers in new technologies, but they are often the first adapters,” he says. “That’s partly because there are low regulatory hurdles to introducing innovations, if you compare sport with the health sector, for example. And also because people in sports are willing to try new things that might give them an edge.” 

 

The SPOT, a pioneering new event launched by ThinkSport, aims to stimulate progress in sport by bringing together bright minds and fresh innovations inside and outside the industry. The inaugural edition of the annual two-day event will take place from 15 to 16 May 2018 at the SwissTech Convention Center in Lausanne and will focus on the themes of connected sport, new sports including E-sports, performance & health, and media & marketing. Presented in an untraditional format, The SPOT will provide for an engaging conference and workshop programme, a Marketplace and Demo Zone featuring innovative products and solutions, numerous networking opportunities and an international start-up contest to promote and award new business ideas.

 

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Technologies Used To Monitor Training In Sprint Kayaking [Survey]

What is Sprint (or Flatwater) Kayaking

In case you are haven’t heard of the sport, Sprint Kayaking isn’t the most popular sport in the world. In fact, it isn’t a very easy sport to get into. For example, if I am new to the sport, I might need to join a club to get access to the equipment and training programs. Then I would sign up for an introductory course of sorts to learn the basics of kayaking on the water and safety in the water. After I sort out the basics, which is probably done on more stable kayaks, I will try to move into the kayaks designed for sprints. These sprint kayaks will be a lot more tippy but they allow the trained paddler to go on the water really quickly – hence the name sprint kayak. The length of the process from being new to the sport to being able to comfortably paddle on a sprint kayak will vary between individuals but I would say it is between a few months to a year. Then to be really good in the sport will take years of training or 10,000 hours as Malcolm Gladwell popularised in his book Outliers. [There are many debates on the actual number of hours (to become an expert in anything) but the point is: it’s hard work.]

My own brief experience in the sport

Years ago when I was in the sport as a teenager, the only technology we used was the stop-watch that took the time of our 200m/500m/1000m sprints or it was used as a timer for doing interval sessions. Back then, I only competed at the national level and never went further. Work and life commitments took over and I even moved to a different city. Now with a young family, having time to go flatwater kayaking is quite the luxury.

 

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my first kayaking session of 2018

 

Here comes the “tech” bit

But being a sports engineer, I recently revisited the use of technology in sprint kayaking training and was thinking of a couple of ideas of adopting technologies that are available in the market to help with training. I did a bit of research and it seems like most kayaking people use products that were designed for runners or cyclists to track their training. A commonly used product is the running/cycling app Strava. I know a handful of people who secure their Garmin (or other fitness) watches onto their boat and simply start a “run” to track the session. The data then goes onto the Strava platform or any other platform they use.

 

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my “run” on Strava

 

Nelo has a training app that paddlers can use by securing their Android phone onto their kayaks and it uses GPS and the motion sensors on their phone to track their training. The great thing about their app is that it incorporates a Coach’s app that monitors up to 6 different paddlers. There are also a couple of iOS apps on the market that tracks water sports of various kinds including waterspeed app or paddle logger. These ones are a bit more generic.

Then there’s also sensor products specific for paddling sports such as the Vaaka Cadence sensor, the Motionize sensor, and the Kayak Power Meter.

There might be some more that I haven’t come across or they are only used in research labs at the moment. But even with what seems like a good range of training products, I still feel that there is something missing with all these different products. Maybe it is just the sports engineer in me that thinks that way. I am keen to speak to other canoeists/kayakers/paddlers out there who may or may not use technology in their training and get some feedback.

So if you are a canoeist/kayaker/paddler, could you please fill out this survey: link. Your time and input will be much appreciated and will help shape the future of any tech that’s developed! If what I talked about here interests you, leave your email at the end of the survey and I will keep you posted on future developments. Lastly, please also forward this to your fellow canoeist/kayaker/paddler friends. Thank you and thanks for reading!

 

Wearable Technology at the top end of down under

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Here’s a little piece from SABEL Labs, NT on wearable technology (Looking good Jim!). Find out about post graduate opportunities in sport, cattle monitoring and urban transport too. More on Jim’s Sports Lab or download an information pack from Charles Darwin University http://study.cdu.edu.au/jim-lee

 

The Force Shoe by Xsens

Do Force Platforms, Pressure Sensors And Smart Insoles Do The Same Thing?

Force platforms, pressure sensors and smart insoles are all devices that a person can step on and get some insight related to their weight or the pressure they are exerting on those devices with each step. Other than that, they are quite different and can have very different applications. This post is just an attempt to break that down. Feel free to jump to the different sections that are of interest:

[Force PlatformsPressure SensorsSmart InsolesSummaryMore on Smart Insoles]

Force platforms

A Force Platform (FP) is an equipment that you would typically find in a lab – an engineering lab, a biomechanics lab, gait analysis lab, ergonomics lab.. you get the idea. They are great for measuring forces applied directly onto its surface. So when a force platform is placed on the ground, you could step on it to find out how much force you are exerting on the platform. For those platforms that measure multiple axes, you could also slide an object across the platform to measure resistance forces between the surfaces. In sports engineering, FPs enable studies in walking/running gait, jumping (and landing), friction measurements in water polo balls or shoes or gloves, the coefficient of restitution of balls, aerodynamic drag (when placed in a wind tunnel), and more.

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An example of a Kistler Force Platform (blue) set up in a wind tunnel

For anyone keen to explore what else is done with force platforms in sports engineering, feel free to do a quick search on these journals: Sports Engineering JournalSports Technology Journal or Journal of Sports Engineering & Technology.

Inside Force Platforms

The majority of Force Platforms in the market are set up with multiple Strain gauges or Piezoelectric sensors/elements that deform proportionally to the applied load. There is also the not so common Hall Effect sensing Force Platform which doesn’t require an external signal amplifier/conditioner like the strain gauges and piezoelectric sensors do. They are typically quite expensive and their prices vary with the number of sensors, size, construction, and additional data acquisition (or signal amplifier) systems.

For those who can’t afford the expensive systems and is adventurous enough to try and build something, a sports physics researcher from the University of Sydney wrote a paper providing details of a cheaper home made force plate. Essentially he used Piezos that were manufactured for sonar applications and they cost $25 each. A quick search on Instructables also showed one DIY instruction on making a strain gage force plate. For the slightly less adventurous, there is also the option of the Wii Balance Board as a cheap force plate alternative. There have been some validations of the gaming platform as a standing balance assessment tool, a golf swing analysis tool, and for use in other medical applications. The only downsides of the Wii Balance Board are the user weight limitation and that a custom software is required to access and read the data.

Pressure sensors

There are three main differences between Pressure sensors and Force platforms. Pressure sensors are typically flexible and can be placed on flat or curved surfaces, unlike Force platforms that have to be mounted rigidly. The other difference is pressure sensors do not measure force vectors. Thirdly (or a slight extension of the second), Pressure sensors only quantify pressure that is perpendicular to it (single axis) so it cannot determine shear forces or friction between two surfaces. Due to their flexibility, pressure sensors have been used to determine comfort and fit in aircraft seats for Paralympians, analyse medical mattresses, measure the pressure of grip during a golf swing, pressure distribution on bicycle handlebars, and more.

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Single force sensitive resistor (FSR) from interlink electronics

Pressure sensors are mostly made out of either resistive sensors or capacitive sensors. The main differences between them are the sensing material used and their electrodes. They can be constructed as single sensing nodes or they can also be constructed in a row-column array fashion. The advantage of the array or matrix construction (over single nodes) is that it requires fewer connections. In an array, the intersection between each row and column is a sensing node. So a 3 by 3 array creates 9 sensing nodes while only needing 6 connections.  On the other hand, 9 single sensing nodes will need 9+1 connections where the +1 is the common ground. The difference becomes much bigger as the number of sensing nodes increases (For example 100 sensing nodes can be achieved using a 10 by 10 array that needs 20 connections or 100 single sensing nodes that need 101 connections).

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A simple illustration of Single sensing node Vs Sensor Matrix/Array

However, the matrix construction is not without its challenges. The matrix sensor circuit is prone to parasitic crosstalk (capacitive or resistive). This means when pressure is applied on one node or multiple nodes, the electrical readings for other (unactivated) nodes might be affected. This is also known as “ghosting”. Unless some correction is applied, the measurements/readings become inaccurate and potentially useless. Also, the bigger the matrix, the more complex the correction. But if accurate absolute readings are not required, then it’s fine.

A related side story

I have been following the development of this smart yoga mat that was successfully crowdfunded on Indiegogo back in Dec 2014. Fast forward to 2017, they are still struggling to deliver the product. Looking through their updates, we can see they had to deal with sensor accuracy (possibly the crosstalk or ghosting issue); and on top that, some other issues they had include sensor durability, mat materials suitability, and accuracy of their tracking algorithms (which they are using some form of AI). Having prototyped a smart exercise mat around the same time they started, I can fully understand the challenges and why it is taking that long. Then again I am not sure it is worth all that effort. Personally, I think that simply relying on a pressure sensing mat to monitor and give (technique) feedback on yoga poses (or any exercises) has its limitations. Adding camera tracking (possibly utilising the camera on the tablet) might help. That saying, it is not stopping others from developing similar products as seen in this video.

Smart Insoles

Smart Insoles or Instrumented Insoles are essentially pressure sensors made in the shape of a shoe sole. The sensors are usually made in a similar fashion described earlier. Most of the Smart Insoles are also built with IMUs so that it adds a bit more context to the pressure data such as whether the wearers are standing, walking, running or jumping. The greatest advantage of Smart Insoles is they allow feet pressure mapping and measurement on-the-go. Things like continual gait analysis and activity monitoring, and it even has medical application likes foot ulcer prevention and falls prevention.

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Source: Footlogger.com

There are a couple of shoemakers that designed their shoes with the Smart Insole embedded within the shoe like the Altra IQ for running and the Iofit for tracking golf swing stance. The good thing about them is they have designed everything to fit properly into a shoe, made for a specific function. So users don’t run the risk of their Smart Insole not fitting properly into their shoes and collecting inaccurate measurements. On the other hand, users are restricted with specific shoes for pressure monitoring or activity analysis.  But at the end of the day, the pros and cons are really dependent on the individual.

Brief Summary

Going back to the question: “Do Force Platforms, Pressure Sensors and Smart Insoles do the same thing?”; there are some things that they are all capable of performing (e.g. gait analysis), but they all do it in a different way.  Also, there are certain measurements or monitoring that are unique for each sensor. Here’s a simple table that sums it up:

Sensors Measures shear force Measures Pressure Doesn’t require rigid mounting Portable Tracks Motion
Force Plates X X ✔/X
Pressure Sensors X ✔/X X
Smart Insoles X


More about Smart Insoles

Personally, I feel that Smart Insoles is a great idea, with many useful applications in sports and health. Over the last few years, there has been an increase in research and development in this area with many patents generated in the process; and companies around the world have come up with commercial products around the concept of Smart Insoles. It is definitely still in its early stages and I am not sure if it has even reached Early Adopters yet. Sadly, one company that I followed (Kinematix) has already closed shop due to a lack of funding. Perhaps it is ahead of its time like the adidas intelligent running shoe with intelligent active cushioning. Nevertheless, I believe the potential (of Smart Insoles) is there and I think targeting specific niches/problems will probably have a better outcome than designing for a generic application.

If you have an idea or project needing a smart insole or custom pressure sensor, feel free to contact us or leave a comment. We might be able to help you with it or at least point you in the right direction. As always, thanks for reading!


Other related articles:

Accelerating Sports Technology Development And Innovation

Roughly 4 years ago, I wrote a post about crowdsourcing sports innovation – how sports companies and organisations were inviting people with ideas to step forward and pitch their innovations. Fast forward to 2017, the ways of generating new sports tech ideas have grown and evolved. From sports hackathons to accelerators, incubators, and Meetups, and online communities and invite-only/secret-squirrel investment funds or a mash-up of 2 or more of the above.  I am definitely no expert in this area but based on my very limited experience, here’s a look at a few of the possible ways to accelerate sports technology development and innovation.

Hackathons

One way of defining hackathons* (from HackathonAustralia) is this: “Hackathons are competitions that challenge people to create something over a set time period using technologies.”. So in the case of a sports hackathon, that “something” created would be an innovative sports tech solution that meets an existing need/pain. It could be a hardware solution or a software solution or both.

[Themes] Depending who is organising or sponsoring the hackathon, events could have a specific theme/focus like the Western Bulldogs hackathon that provided participants with their athletes’ GPS data to do further analysis or the Future Of Sports Tech Hackathon by Enflux that allowed participants to use their motion capture technology or the Hack4Sports that had a focus on building sports tech startups.

[Needs Assessment] Whichever the theme, the participants would require some guidance/directions on real needs vs good-to-haves. That’s where industry experts and end-users (sports clinicians/analysts/coaches etc) who are at the event, can offer that perspective. This could be through talks or interactive workshops on specific areas such as improving performance or injury prevention or increasing participation etc.

[Forming teams] Following that, teams need to be formed to design the solutions. Some participants might have already formed teams prior to signing up to hackathons. But it is quite common for people to rock up by themselves. So hackathons might dedicate a session for team-forming. Typically people who have a passion in the same area would team up. Other than that, it is also helpful to have a good mix of hackers, hipsters and hustlers in the team.

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Hustler, Hipster and Hacker

[Pitching Comp] Most hackathons involve a pitching competition which means the solution (created within that 1 or 2 days of hacking) has to be validated with real life users/customers and has a potential market fit. The team with the winning pitch usually wins something that can help them take their idea further. That could be prize money or often they get to be part of an accelerator program to develop that Lo-fi prototype into a minimum viable product (MVP). Else they at least have bragging rights.

[If you are interested in a sports hackathon, please complete this SURVEY]

Meetups

Sports Tech Meetups (literally on the Meetup site) are to some extent scaled down versions of hackathons and/or pitching competitions. It is usually a local group of sports tech-minded people getting together once in a while to do stuff such as pitch nights or show-and-tell or have people already in the industry sharing their insights and experience. There are no fixed rules and format which makes it quite casual and there are no barriers to joining a meetup other than geography. All you need is an interest in sports technology.

[Here’s a couple of examples: Melbourne Sports Analytics Meetup, Seattle Sports Tech Meetup]

This makes Meetups a good platform for people who are new to sports tech to come explore the field, network and learn more.  It is also good for people who have developed a concept or MVP to come and get feedback from others (through pitch nights or show-and-tells). The next steps for these people could be to take part in a hackathon or join an accelerator program or incubator.

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Online Communities

I believe this is quite plain and doesn’t require much explanation. There are quite a number of online platforms that allow people with an interest or a stake in sports technology to be a part of. From Google Groups to LinkedIn Groups to Facebook Pages. But what I observed (at least on LinkedIn Groups) is that there are very little open discussions within the groups/pages. In most cases, article posts get “Likes” or 1 or 2 Comments. Sometimes the posts are just companies trying to promote their products and services which often gets no “Reactions” whatsoever. So I am not sure if these groups are any good at promoting or even accelerating innovations in sports tech.

There is another online platform that has been growing in popularity (in the last few years) especially in the startup community – it is an invite only platform called Slack. Basically, it is meant to be an internal chat system for team members of an organisation to have work/project discussions. But one sports technology startup group that call themselves Starters decided to jump on this platform and allowed anyone who is in a sports tech startup (or trying to build one) to sign up to be part of the group. Though there is a fee to get in, it’s mostly to ensure that only people who are seriously interested join.

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But what is happening within this Starters Slack group is quite phenomenal. Ideas are exchanged, there are open discussions, Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions, connections and introductions are made online, followed with meet-ups in real life, actual events (hackathons, accelerator programs & meetups) are organised and promoted, and I am sure there is more happening between individuals through direct messages (DMs). What’s amazing is that though it’s mainly based in the US, there are individuals and companies participating from all over the world.

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Starters – a global sports tech startup community

Slightly similar to Starters is a SportsBiz slack group started by the SportsGeek from Melbourne. The main difference is that there is slightly less emphasis on startups or sports technology and more on sports business in general. But the objective is not that different – to use the platform for sharing ideas, finding collaborators and opportunities, and ultimately pushing the sports industry forward.

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Some Key Points

So there are a few key points that I take out of this. One of it is, we need to collaborate. No one can build anything great on their own. Not only do we need a diverse team with different skill sets, we need input from other people (locally & globally) or run the risk of tunnel vision. Secondly, competition spurs innovation. Which is quite apt since we are talking about sports technology here, where one of the aims of it is to help athletes perform better and win the competition. Lastly, none of the avenues on its own can be the be-all, end-all of this topic. Especially if we are talking about building successful long-term sports tech enterprises. People at different stages of their ideas or development would probably go through a different process. What may work for some may not work for others. We may need to change from something that doesn’t work anymore (e.g. LinkedIn Groups) to something else that does (e.g. Slack).

I know I haven’t commented much about accelerators and incubators. That’s mainly because I have not had any personal experience with them. What I do know is that you need to at least have a team (and not just a great idea) to be part of an accelerator and preferably an MVP to join an incubator.

Finally, I think for someone who: has a few good ideas, is passionate about  (or has some exposure to) sports technology and doesn’t quite have a clear direction or built a team yet, a Sports Hackathon can be a good place to start. So this is something I would like to explore a little more. If you think the same way and would like to take part in a sports hackathon (or not), or if you have other thoughts on accelerating sports technology innovation, do help me out and complete this SURVEY or leave a comment or drop me a message on Twitter or LinkedIn. With that, thanks for reading!

Other related readings:


*Hackathons have also been known as hack days, hackfests, startup weekends, makeathons, design-athons etc.

A new Journal, the rise and rise of sport technology

journal of advanced sport technology.jpgCongratulations to Abbas Meamarbashi and colleagues on the founding of the Journal of Advanced Sports Technology, servicing the middle east as well as the international community, it so exciting to see it developing everywhere. Sports Technology really has exploded in the past decade becoming a mainstream role in many sporting organisations and popular through consumer devices. It also offers unparalleled opportunities for sports scientists and allied health researchers and professionals to ask and answer many more interesting research questions that can ultimately benefit humanity.

 

Its a delight to see Griffith SABEL director David Rowlands amongst the editorial board too. Thanks for the invitation to publish the guest piece “Wearable Technology in sport, a convergence of trends” as well. I quite enjoyed exploring the underlying trends that have created the opportunities today and some pointers for the way forward.

 

You can read the entire first issue here

Design Tech and coding – How I got owned by high school students!

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Joining the Cavendish Road SHS year 10 coding class with Mr. Thomson

Well I got to be a school boy again earlier this week. Having had something of a collaboration with the Head of Business and Technology – David Thomson at Cavendish Road High School I was delighted to be invited to share some of of the joys of working with coding, sensors and more recently wearable technologies with STEM students. Sport is a great hook for engagement and SABEL’s success in a wide range of elite sports made for some great conversation. It was a great opportunity to interact with his Yr10 Digital Technology and the Yr 11 Technology Studies students under the watchful eye of Don Markovic. I was impressed with the coding abilities of the students and the delivery of the programme though a mixture of fun, experimentation to build real skills.

The Tech Studies students who are undertaking a project of their choice were an inquisitive bunch often getting the gist of why we might want to measure stroke rate in a rower or jump height of a snowboarder and asking so many insightful questions. Under Don’s tutelage I was able to talk about the importance of lowing project risk, getting that early win (which we call MVP- minimum viable product in the game) rather than creating the dream feature rich technology straight up. I’m looking forward to seeing how their projects progress over the break and through term 2. Well done Cavendish Rd SHS I could clearly see where their motto of tradition meets innovation at work.

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Talking about the value of iteration in the design and execution process

This article also appears as an Advance Queensland Community Digital Champion article