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  • Troy Flanagan

Are we moving on from wearable technology?

Updated: Mar 26, 2023

Are wearables in elite sport dead? What’s their future? In order to answer this, it is important to look at how they originated and what the potential future technology solutions are for measuring human performance.

Over 20 years ago, I worked on a project with a few colleagues to design one of the first working prototypes of a wearable for sport. The project aimed to miniaturize an inertial navigation system down so it could be worn by an athlete to measure what the limbs were doing in space. We used some math to determine how limbs were moving in space. It was one of the first, if not the first of its kind at the time. I used a systems engineering approach to work out what needed to be measured to analyze human performance and what technology hardware could be designed to capture it. Below is a figure that I developed for analyzing soccer players. This figure considers what movements should be measured, how should they be analyzed, how to measure the movements and the requirements of the future technology design for measuring the physical performance of soccer players on the field.

The brief for the technology was that it had to be portable, miniature, reliable, robust, noninvasive and works indoors (inside a stadium). The ultimate solution was a noninvasive optical solution. The camera and image processing technology, however, was not good enough at the time. Optical tracking technology had far more potential for measuring full body 3D kinematics. So, creating a wearable was the next best thing. It was a compromise. It was not the ultimate solution because ideally you need multiple wearables all over the body if you really want to comprehensively measure performance and what the body is doing in space. In addition, it was invasive. Wearing a piece of new technology near the body's center of gravity or on a limb took some getting used to. In addition, in those days, the sensors were less accurate and were subject to various errors. So the wearable solution was only supposed to be a temporary solution.

A group of companies, primarily in Australia, simultaneously developed commercial wearable technology for sport in the early 2000’s. They released them for sale and the rest was history. Inertial and magnetic tracking systems with GPS tracking capabilities are now quite commonly worn by athletes in practice and sometimes in competition to analyze performance. As expected, it seems like a new one pops up regularly, since they use off-the-shelf components and are easily manufactured.

The writing has recently been on the wall for wearables in professional sport since companies like Second Spectrum and Hawkeye have burst onto the scene. They finally offer optical tracking techniques in professional leagues such as the MLB and the NBA. They have developed a completely uninvasive optical tracking solution that uses camera and image processing technology to do a full body 3D kinematic analysis. It's the holy grail that I had hoped for when we started the original tracking project.

The question now is - what's the future for wearable technology? Will it be completely superseded by optical tracking technology? Will video capture, image processing and pose recognition be the next big thing? Will AI play a role in the analysis? Are wearables going to be a thing of the past? Perhaps they will continue to have a minor role role in some situations.

Wearables were only supposed to be a temporary solution until the optical tracking technology caught up and could be implemented in an easy and robust way. Wearables have, however, become widely used and have taught us a lot. However, optical tracking technology has the potential to really take performance analysis to a new level with the ability to do full body 3D kinematic analysis. Will it be the industrial revolution for sport that we have been waiting for? Time will tell!

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