In future NFL seasons, players may think twice before spiking the ball after scoring a touchdown. With all the sensors currently under works in R&D departments across the world, it’s not far fetched to think we may see wide receivers and running backs clutching pig skin capable of alerting them when defenders are near. Sports technology is set to remake training, practice, coaching and how professional sports are ultimately played.
Forbes estimates that the sports industry in North America will grow from $53.6 billion in 2012 to $67.7 billion by 2017. Technology is propelling much of this growth. Stadiums are investing in massive new video displays, adding Wi-Fi throughout the stands, selling tickets via online exchanges, delivering exclusive content to smartphones and leveraging social media to bridge the divide between player and fan. These technologies are intended to extend the fan base and make following your favorite team or player a deeper, more ongoing experience.
Sports technology, however, goes a bit further than e-ticketing. It’s the technologies and services that are enabling elite athletes to improve their skills, enhance their workouts and better prepare against the competition. Think of sports technology as the intersection of big data, wearable devices and the latest advances in sportswear and equipment.
Imagine a device that tells a major league batter exactly when to swing, or alerts the NFL receiver when the ball is just above his head. Think of all the data to be recorded and analyzed by the professional tennis player practicing swing after swing after swing. That’s just the beginning.
Mobile tech analyst Ben Bajarin noted the prevalence of “connected sports” devices at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Examples include a basketball and a tennis racket with built-in sensors and microchips. The basketball can measure the backspin, arc and contact point on the rim or backboard of a shot. Wannabe-Shaqs will no doubt love this ball, yet its potential to remake practice and coaching for professionals is where such devices will truly excel.
For example, the Babolat Play tennis racket tracks the user’s ratio of forehands to backhands, as well as the ball’s rotation rate, speed and hitting area of each stroke. Measurements are recorded by the gyroscopes, accelerometers and piezoelectric sensors embedded within the handle of the rackets and then sent to smartphones and tablets via Bluetooth or USB connection. By analyzing the data in near real-time, players and their trainers can make the appropriate adjustments, even during a match.
Think that’s far off? Wrong. The International Tennis Federation (ITF) has modified its rules to allow some player analysis technologies during official competitions, including the Babolat racket. Don’t be surprised if the data from these rackets is eventually shown on the television screen, making coaches out of every viewer.
Not all major sports leagues are ready to embrace connected gear during an actual game. Nonetheless, such devices — including balls, uniforms and helmets — are sure to have a significant impact on professional athletes’ training regimes. The information that sports technologies offer players will simply prove too useful to ignore. For example, 94Fifty’s Smart Sensor Basketball measures shot arc, speed, dribble force and hand strength. Like the Babolat Play racket, the 94Fifty’s recordings can instantly be sent to the player’s (or coach’s) smartphone app for further analysis.
As you may have guessed, there’s a pretty steep price to be paid for this competitive advantage. The 94Fifty basketball costs $295, second only to the Babolat Play Pure Drive racket, which costs a whopping $399. This technology might be out of reach for recreational athletes, but it could be worth every penny for NCAA hopefuls and future pros. Bill Self, who coached the University of Kansas to an NCAA championship in 2008, lauds the computerized basketball for helping recruits develop their skills.
When activated, the micro-sensor measures the motion of the ball during a shot and emits immediate audible feedback when shot correctly, just like a professional shooting coach would. Users will only hear the audible tone when the ball is shot correctly.
Remove the external micro-sensor and the ball becomes a regulation basketball. The company met its Kickstarter goal and plans to offer the EVO ONE for under $100 each.
Every sport and league will be impacted by technology. Take the FWD Powershot hockey-stick insert, for example, which includes six motion detectors that track stick speed, puck speed and other measures. The data is then sent to a smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth. Best of all, the FWD Powershot sells for a reasonable $150. Sure, it’s still a pretty penny, but when you consider the sensor’s ability to be transferred from stick to stick — unlike the Babolat Play Pure Drive — its longevity makes up for the upfront expense.
Tech giant SAP is the official sponsor of the German Budesliga football club, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim. SAP is collaborating with Fraunhofer IIS to assess player movements via wearable sensors in their clothing and shin guards. For now, these are used only during training. Perhaps more exciting are the sensor-filled soccer balls the team practices with, which also send data to coaches and players in real-time.
Sports technology won’t just be used to enhance performance or present fans with a more data-driven experience. It can also be used to protect our beloved athletes from bodily injury. As Mashable recently reported, a new technology called smart foam could soon replace the current foam lining inside players’ helmets.
According to its inventor, Jake Merrell, this smart foam — which he has branded Xonano — incorporates nano-particles that generate electrical signals when the foam is compressed. This could happen following a particularly nasty hit, for example, transmitting the electrical signals to a nearby tablet for further analysis. Coaches, trainers or the team doctor can immediately be alerted to possible concussions. Merrell thinks his smart foam could also be used in other sporting gear like running shoes that can record how much strain wearers are putting on their joints.
Computers are everywhere, and big-time sports are not immune. How far might technology alter our nation’s favorite pastimes? We simply can’t know yet. We could see eyewear that gives TV viewers a true first-person perspective of their favorite player or sensor feeds that tell sports fans how their team is actually performing. The extent of the innovation can only be limited by the minds behind it.
At one of its recent hackathons, Mutual Mobile tasked its engineers to incorporate low-priced sensors into readily available sports equipment to create new games or enhance existing ones. In the course of one evening, the teams managed to get everything they could out of $25 TI sensor kits that come with six different sensors capable of measuring temperature, pressure, movement, speed and other variables that could come in handy during a sporting event.
The hackathon led to a knock-out dummy game, a Nerf football that helps you throw the perfect spiral and boxing gloves that measure the force of each punch. With mobile computers, wearable devices, the rise of the Internet of Things and humanity’s passion for athletic competition, the possibilities for smart equipment are almost endless. Let’s just hope players, coaches and rule makers embrace them as much as the fans.