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Wearable tech was the real winner of the Winter Olympics

By Chelsea McCullough / February 26, 2014


Wearable tech was the real winner of the Winter Olympics

Whether you were casually watching the Sochi Olympics from your living room sofa or live streaming every second on a mobile device, I’m willing to bet there’s one aspect of the winter games you completely overlooked — wearable tech. And no, I’m not referring to the various helmets and aerodynamic suits that were readily apparent. I’m talking about the tiny pieces of mobile technology that gave the world’s greatest winter athletes a competitive edge.

When one-tenth of a second makes the difference between the color of a medal – or no medal at all – athletes and their coaches turn to gadgets to close the gap. Of course, Olympians have been closely monitoring their performance through technology since the dawn of the first stopwatch, but advancements in wearable technology have given them the opportunity to learn more about their form and abilities than ever before.

To the victor goes the analytics

Catapult Sports is the self-proclaimed “global leader in athlete analytics,” and they proved it during the Sochi Olympics by strapping their Minimax S4 device to snowboards and boots to help the US Olympic Snowboard team evaluate the performance of their jumps and landings. The discrete sensors contain an accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer that records the speed, air time and even the g-force of each boarder. When paired with video recordings, this information can help riders figure out where they fell short on certain tricks and how they can maximize hangtime throughout their run.

Minimax S4

Snowboarders aren’t the only athletes leaning on wearables to sway the judges. The US figure skating team is using on-body sensors, developed by researcher James Richards, to create 3D models of the skaters in real time. The computer renderings give coaches, physical trainers and the Olympians themselves insight into the athlete’s movements, which can improve performance and decrease injuries. In the following video, Dr. Richards uses the renderings to show Olympic hopeful Mariah Bell that tucking her arms tighter to her body would accelerate her spin rate, making her more likely to land her jumps and avoid a painful fall.

Another wearable manufacturer focused on keeping athletes healthy is the Dallas-based company, MedHab. MedHab is responsible for a shoe insert called RPM2 (Remote Performance Measurement/Monitoring), that provides detailed, real-time analytics for athletes who put a lot of strain on their feet. The technology was the result of a knee injury suffered by MedHab founder, Johnny Ross. Ross’s tear forced him to undergo months of painful physical therapy without any hard data about how he was progressing. Finding the lack of information almost more unbearable than the pain, Ross set out on a mission to make sure recovering athletes would never be kept in the dark again.

“RPM2 is a device that helps athletes and coaches determine bi-lateral equivalence of the legs. Bi-lateral equivalence has been an important part of training for many athletes, but measuring it has been very expensive in the past. Our technology combines absolute evaluative data in regard to range of motion and force, running gait analysis and cycling training modes complete with a built in power meter, all at an affordable cost. We are extremely proud of the value RPM2 technology offers our customers,” said Ross.

In addition to all the specialized sports equipment being showcased at Sochi, general market fitness trackers are also helping our competitors achieve optimum fitness. Olympic mogul skier Heather McPhie turned to an off-the-shelf Fitbit to track her daily activity while training in Russia. And while McPhie was able to track the number of calories she burned, the results weren’t always reliable. At one point, her three-hour workout was only recorded as 20 active minutes. These kind of inaccuracies are exactly what competing wearable manufacturers need to sweep in and steal FitBit’s market share.

Wearables for the casual athlete

Heather McPhie may spend three hours a day slicing through moguls, but the average exerciser has simpler fitness-tracking needs, and there are plenty of companies out there trying to fill that void. One of these companies is Athos, who recently released a new fitness-tracking clothing line that promises to “rethink the way you see fitness.” Unlike the fitness bands and shoe trackers that have currently ruled the market, Athos sensors are actually embedded into the wearer’s workout clothes, providing more accurate measurements of muscle exertion, heart rate, and respiratory rhythms.

Athos

Although Athos promises to give more dependable and useful exercise data, there’s one major obstacle standing in its way — price. For the full Athos fitness system — shirt, pants and a Core sensor unit for each — consumers will have to shell out $596. Compared to a $99.95 Fitbit Flex, which can be worn during a workout or while running your daily errands, Athos will have a tough time convincing the general public that their wearable tech is worth almost $500 more than a traditional fitness band.

What it takes

Wearable tech is spurring an entire category of new connected devices that require strong, fast broadband to deliver real-time results. Without a high-speed wireless connection, these fitness trackers are nothing more than another outfit or piece of jewelry. Like many things in our modern world, these tools depend on ubiquitous access to the Internet to deliver value. The good news is, significant investments are being made in wireless availability.

In 2011 alone, the wireless industry put approximately $27 billion into mobile networks. Infrastructure investment of this magnitude is the key to giving consumers what they want while also pushing innovators further, faster. Make no mistake, the communities with the most potential for economic growth will be the ones granted access to high-speed broadband networks, substantial private sector investment and tech-savvy policy makers who embrace the opportunity of modern technology. The FCC is at the forefront of this revolution.

Earlier this month, leaders at the FCC moved forward on a three-phased trial to beta test an all-digital network in designated areas of the country, beginning the switch to the next-generation of connectivity. Once carriers provide their plans, and receive FCC approval, the government can move forward in the next step to nationwide all-broadband networks.

As our phones, cars, home appliances, and now shoes and workout clothes get “smarter,” the pressure is mounting to ensure that modern policies are in place to provide an infrastructure that keeps our devices well-connected. After all, our future Olympians depend on it.

Chelsea McCullough serves as Executive Director of Texans for Economic Progress, a statewide coalition that advocates greater access to tech education, entrepreneurship and infrastructure.