With CES 2014 in full effect in Las Vegas, the latest and greatest gadgets are being shown off, from self-driving cars to the next phone that won't fit in your pocket.
It might seem a long way from the pocket protectors and product demos to the gridiron and ballparks, but it's a shorter journey than it used to be. Tech is invading sports and nowhere more so than in sports medicine.
There are many new technologies entering the marketplace. There are safety devices such as the Reebok Checklight, protective substances like Evoshield's Gel-2-Shell Technology and Unequal's Kevlar pads. Devices used by pro athletes are coming into consumer price ranges, like Normatec's fast-growing pneumatic recovery devices. Of course, there are also the shoes that Nike and Adidas improve each year, increasingly with app-based technologies.
However, this year's top tech improvements are coming from a new venue: crowdfunding. Instead of going to large manufacturers, websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo give entrepreneurs and inventors a chance to go directly to market. Millions of dollars can be raised for the right projects, some of which are finding their way into sports.
The Skulpt Aim wasn't intended for professional sports, but at the MLB winter meetings, several teams' medical staffs were excited about the possibility of that new technology. A Harvard-developed device might give them their Holy Grail in measuring fatigue.
Skulpt CEO Jose Bohorquez and his team were able to use the body's reactions to a small electrical pulse to measure muscle fitness and perhaps fatigue. While other devices, including many home scales, can give a body fat percentage, they tend to be very inaccurate. Since the handheld device can be used on multiple locations of the body, it can give a more accurate picture.
The Skulpt device measures both body fat and a metric it calls muscle quality quickly and accurately. This quality is affected by the muscle's density and the ability to generate force. While the company did not design the Aim to detect fatigue directly, it could be possible to use on a pitcher after he comes off the mound each inning, with an athletic trainer checking his arm in just seconds to obtain a real-time measure of muscle fatigue.
"That's always been something we have looked for," said one MLB pitching coach. I spoke with several teams at the baseball winter meetings in Orlando last month and while teams have relied on both hands-on measures and pitch counts, they've never been able to make it truly objective.
"The Red Sox tried to do that," he added, "but it relied on their ATs (athletic trainers) being able to remember how the arm worked before. As good as they are, it's not ideal."
The Aim is the first device with a real chance to give an objective measure of fatigue. Several teams are hoping to have a chance to look at a prototype of the device this spring. Skulpt is taking pre-orders and hopes to ship to the general public in April. The company has taken in three times its goal during the campaign, which is still open, making it one of the most successful openings in Indiegogo history.
Skulpt isn't the only technology currently being noticed around baseball that wasn't intended for sports at all. Just as motion capture technology has made video games more realistic, motion capture in sports has allowed biomechanical studies to take big steps forward.
Over the past few years, motion capture has gone to a "markerless" model, doing away with the silly suits and long setup previously needed to allow for capture and analysis. The next phase along those lines could be in using a suit like the PrioVR, which captures far more data and does so in real time.
PrioVR is a motion-capture solution intended for virtual reality video gaming. However, its ability to quickly and accurately capture full-body motion makes it even better than Microsoft's Kinect for simple, low-cost motion capture. Even with the updated Kinect that is a part of the new Xbox One system, it simply hasn't been accurate enough to use for baseball.
While the PrioVR currently isn't as accurate as some of the high-tech systems used at places like the American Sports Medicine Institute, it also costs significantly less. A top-of-the-line Ariel system, installed with cameras, will run around $200,000. PrioVR is expected to make its full-body system available for under $400 in February.
The company launched a Kickstarter campaign last year which was unsuccessful. It then revamped its efforts, improved the product and announced at CES that it will launch a new Kickstarter campaign in the near future.
While there is currently no direct way to use a device like the PrioVR for baseball or any other sport, many look to innovations like this as a starting point.
"Microsoft didn't intend for us to use the Kinect, but it came closer than anything before it," said one performance analyst from an MLB front office. "We hacked it and the technology evolved. I'm not sure something like (the PrioVR) will work, but we'd be stupid not to look. It's certainly getting closer."
This adaptation to sport and doing so by sport is a smart approach. Despite the ubiquity of sport and the billions of dollars available, it's a small market for a device company. PrioVR would have, at most, a few hundred possible customers in sports, versus millions as a gaming device. The same is true for Skulpt, where people trying to get in shape are a much bigger market than pro athletes.
That's not to say that new technologies designed for sports aren't changing things. This year is clearly the "Year of the Sensor." Nike, Fitbit and others have tried to bring this to the consumer market, but at the professional level, there's much more uptake.
The NBA is being turned on its head by the wealth of data generated by the SportVU system. Every movement, shot, dribble and rebound is being recorded and is creating mountains of data.
"Part of the problem is that we're not sure what all we can do with it," said one NBA analyst.
The NBA has SportVU cameras in all of its arenas, making this very useful. We're already seeing some sports sites use the data, but like MLB's FIELDf/x system, most of the data is out of reach of most fans.
Another technology along these lines is the Catapult tracker. A small device that is placed on each athlete allows the Catapult system to track their movements in incredible detail.
"It draws the plays out for you," said one NFL assistant coach whose team has tested the system. "You know instantly who was a step slow or out of place."
The system has been used much more in sports like soccer and rugby, but its use in the NFL and basketball is showing some increased uptake. While there's some overlap between technologies like Catapult and SportVU, the use case is different. SportVU and similar systems have a harder time with large areas, such as a soccer pitch or football field.
Catapult and similar systems work better in those larger areas, but come with their own issues. Most leagues won't currently allow players to wear the small tracker in games. As the technology develops, I expect leagues will allow it and the wearable device will be smaller.
There are more technologies coming to sports in 2014. Concussion sensors, protective helmets for baseball pitchers and other products adapted for use from consumer tech functions—yes, at least one NFL team is planning to use the Oculus Rift for practice when it comes out this summer—make it an exciting time to straddle the line between sports fan and geek.
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