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 Platforms – Pressure Sensors – Smart Insoles – Summary – More on Smart Insoles]
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.
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 Journal, Sports 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.
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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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:
||Measures shear force
||Doesn’t require rigid mounting
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: