Accelerating Sports Technology Development And Innovation

Roughly 4 years ago, I wrote a post about crowdsourcing sports innovation – how sports companies and organisations were inviting people with ideas to step forward and pitch their innovations. Fast forward to 2017, the ways of generating new sports tech ideas have grown and evolved. From sports hackathons to accelerators, incubators, and Meetups, and online communities and invite-only/secret-squirrel investment funds or a mash-up of 2 or more of the above.  I am definitely no expert in this area but based on my very limited experience, here’s a look at a few of the possible ways to accelerate sports technology development and innovation.

Hackathons

One way of defining hackathons* (from HackathonAustralia) is this: “Hackathons are competitions that challenge people to create something over a set time period using technologies.”. So in the case of a sports hackathon, that “something” created would be an innovative sports tech solution that meets an existing need/pain. It could be a hardware solution or a software solution or both.

[Themes] Depending who is organising or sponsoring the hackathon, events could have a specific theme/focus like the Western Bulldogs hackathon that provided participants with their athletes’ GPS data to do further analysis or the Future Of Sports Tech Hackathon by Enflux that allowed participants to use their motion capture technology or the Hack4Sports that had a focus on building sports tech startups.

[Needs Assessment] Whichever the theme, the participants would require some guidance/directions on real needs vs good-to-haves. That’s where industry experts and end-users (sports clinicians/analysts/coaches etc) who are at the event, can offer that perspective. This could be through talks or interactive workshops on specific areas such as improving performance or injury prevention or increasing participation etc.

[Forming teams] Following that, teams need to be formed to design the solutions. Some participants might have already formed teams prior to signing up to hackathons. But it is quite common for people to rock up by themselves. So hackathons might dedicate a session for team-forming. Typically people who have a passion in the same area would team up. Other than that, it is also helpful to have a good mix of hackers, hipsters and hustlers in the team.

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Hustler, Hipster and Hacker

[Pitching Comp] Most hackathons involve a pitching competition which means the solution (created within that 1 or 2 days of hacking) has to be validated with real life users/customers and has a potential market fit. The team with the winning pitch usually wins something that can help them take their idea further. That could be prize money or often they get to be part of an accelerator program to develop that Lo-fi prototype into a minimum viable product (MVP). Else they at least have bragging rights.

[If you are interested in a sports hackathon, please complete this SURVEY]

Meetups

Sports Tech Meetups (literally on the Meetup site) are to some extent scaled down versions of hackathons and/or pitching competitions. It is usually a local group of sports tech-minded people getting together once in a while to do stuff such as pitch nights or show-and-tell or have people already in the industry sharing their insights and experience. There are no fixed rules and format which makes it quite casual and there are no barriers to joining a meetup other than geography. All you need is an interest in sports technology.

[Here’s a couple of examples: Melbourne Sports Analytics Meetup, Seattle Sports Tech Meetup]

This makes Meetups a good platform for people who are new to sports tech to come explore the field, network and learn more.  It is also good for people who have developed a concept or MVP to come and get feedback from others (through pitch nights or show-and-tells). The next steps for these people could be to take part in a hackathon or join an accelerator program or incubator.

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Online Communities

I believe this is quite plain and doesn’t require much explanation. There are quite a number of online platforms that allow people with an interest or a stake in sports technology to be a part of. From Google Groups to LinkedIn Groups to Facebook Pages. But what I observed (at least on LinkedIn Groups) is that there are very little open discussions within the groups/pages. In most cases, article posts get “Likes” or 1 or 2 Comments. Sometimes the posts are just companies trying to promote their products and services which often gets no “Reactions” whatsoever. So I am not sure if these groups are any good at promoting or even accelerating innovations in sports tech.

There is another online platform that has been growing in popularity (in the last few years) especially in the startup community – it is an invite only platform called Slack. Basically, it is meant to be an internal chat system for team members of an organisation to have work/project discussions. But one sports technology startup group that call themselves Starters decided to jump on this platform and allowed anyone who is in a sports tech startup (or trying to build one) to sign up to be part of the group. Though there is a fee to get in, it’s mostly to ensure that only people who are seriously interested join.

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But what is happening within this Starters Slack group is quite phenomenal. Ideas are exchanged, there are open discussions, Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions, connections and introductions are made online, followed with meet-ups in real life, actual events (hackathons, accelerator programs & meetups) are organised and promoted, and I am sure there is more happening between individuals through direct messages (DMs). What’s amazing is that though it’s mainly based in the US, there are individuals and companies participating from all over the world.

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Starters – a global sports tech startup community

Slightly similar to Starters is a SportsBiz slack group started by the SportsGeek from Melbourne.The main difference is that there is slightly less emphasis on startups or sports technology and more on sports business in general. But the objective is not that different – to use the platform for sharing ideas, finding collaborators and opportunities, and ultimately pushing the sports industry forward.

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Some Key Points

So there are a few key points that I take out of this. One of it is, we need to collaborate. No one can build anything great on their own. Not only do we need a diverse team with different skill sets, we need input from other people (locally & globally) or run the risk of tunnel vision. Secondly, competition spurs innovation. Which is quite apt since we are talking about sports technology here, where one of the aims of it is to help athletes perform better and win the competition. Lastly, none of the avenues on its own can be the be-all, end-all of this topic. Especially if we are talking about building successful long-term sports tech enterprises. People at different stages of their ideas or development would probably go through a different process. What may work for some may not work for others. We may need to change from something that doesn’t work anymore (e.g. LinkedIn Groups) to something else that does (e.g. Slack).

I know I haven’t commented much about accelerators and incubators. That’s mainly because I have not had any personal experience with them. What I do know is that you need to at least have a team (and not just a great idea) to be part of an accelerator and preferably an MVP to join an incubator.

Finally, I think for someone who: has a few good ideas, is passionate about  (or has some exposure to) sports technology and doesn’t quite have a clear direction or built a team yet, a sports hackathon can be a good place to start. This is something I would like to explore a little more. So if you think the same way and would like to take part in a sports hackathon (or not), or if you have other thoughts on accelerating sports technology innovation, do help me out and complete this SURVEY or leave a comment or drop me a message on Twitter or LinkedIn. With that, thanks for reading!

Other related readings:

This post can also be found here


*Hackathons have also been known as hack days, hackfests, startup weekends, makeathons, design-athons etc.

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A Look at Smart Balls

Tracking how fast a ball was kicked or thrown used to be done with an external device – it could be a speed radar or a high speed camera or maybe even a very trained (and experienced) eye. However in the last 5-6 years, more and more engineers and scientists have tried to put some form of sensors inside the balls to measure linear velocity, spin velocity, spin axis. This has mostly been made possible with advanced developments in microelectromechanical sensors (MEMS), where accuracy and measurement range have increased significantly (while still keeping the small form factor). Another 2 tech contributions that helped keep the sensors (more permanently) in the balls are wireless connectivity (Bluetooth or Wifi) with the micro-controllers and wireless charging.

Smart Ball Construction

Although the electronics is key to measuring movement signals and processing, there is still the very important task of holding those components (sensors + micro-controller + wireless modules + battery) inside the ball. Let’s call all those components the core. So while designing a method to secure the core within the ball, one has to consider the weight and position of the core and how it affects the centre of mass of the ball. The method has to be robust enough since the ball will take lots of impacts as it’s kicked or thrown or bounced. The method of securing the core will also affect or determine how the ball is constructed. Here’s a look at some of the different type of “smart” balls and their construction:

Smart Basketball: 94Fifty

94Fifty

Patent image – position of sensors

The way that the 9DOF sensor is built into the 94Fifty ball is rather unique (thus the patent). According to their patent application, there is an inner cavity on the surface of the inside of the ball, which is purposed for a casing to house the electronic components (core). The casing is built with flexible material such that the walls can flex with pressure difference between the inside of the bladder and the inside of the housing. The patent application also mentions providing access for battery charging but that was probably the early version. The new version is built with bluetooth connectivity and wireless charging.

The ball is constructed according to the official size and weight which is 29.5 inches (749.3mm) and 22 ounces (623.7g). So with the extra weight added from the core, the designers made adjustments to the enclosure material so that the overall weight is close to the standard weight, and more importantly the weight distribution is compensated so it spins like a standard ball. For example, if the core is positioned at the top of the ball (see image above), and the valve is placed 180 degrees from the core, extra weight would be added around the valve until balance is achieved.

Smart Soccer ball: adidas micoach

adidas miCoach Smartball

adidas’ smart ball is designed with it’s core positioned within the ball and held there by what looks like 12 sets of supports. The core is positioned or suspended right in the centre of the ball, and the supports are meant to be rigid so that the core is always in the dead centre. There doesn’t seem to be any patent related to the method of supporting the core but there was a patent with regards to the electrical wiring within the ball. The patent basically describes how wiring is arranged along the bladder wall to interconnect two electronic devices. It also mentions that the electronic components are arranged in such as way that the ball is balanced and doesn’t affect playing properties of the ball. According to the adidas page, the core consists of only a tri-axial accelerometer. There is also wireless charging with their custom induction-charging stand. The induction coils would likely be placed along the bladder wall instead of in the core.

Smart Cricket ball

The Sportzedge group at RMIT developed an instrumented cricket ball for measuring spin rate and calculating the position and movement of the spin axis (link to the conference paper). Due to the high spin rates of wrist spinners (up to 42 rps or 15,120 deg/s), typical off the shelf gyroscope sensors can’t manage that measurement range. What this smart cricket ball has are three high speed gyros that can measure +/- 20,000 deg/s, one for each axis. This ball is not built in the typical manufacturing process. In order to house the electronics, meet weight requirements, and keep it balanced, 2 solid halves of the ball was designed and CNC machined from the material Ureol or RenShape® BM 5460 which had the right density and hardness. Eight holes within the ball allowed for additional masses to be inserted to balance the ball. According to the paper, this design is an initial prototype and it is still not robust enough to be hit by a cricket bat. But it is fully capable for measuring spin rates during fast bowling. Subsequent versions will be more sturdy and also include wireless charging.

Instrumented cricket ball  (source: Fig 1 of the research paper)

Smart Oval Ball

The same team that built the smart cricket ball also developed a smart AFL ball to assess angular flight dynamics and precision of kick execution. The same electronics (high speed gyros) that were built into the smart cricket ball was also incorporated into this smart oval ball. The main difference is, this oval ball is made with two bladders that sandwich the core electronics, keeping them right in the middle of the ball. The bladders were inflated simultaneously to ensure a more even distribution of pressure.  It was noted in their paper that the advantage of using an inflatable bladder (instead of replacing it with expanded polystyrene beads) is that it allows for realistic kicking whereas the foam beads will absorb too much energy thus dampening the performance. Other than the smart AFL ball, a recent patent search found another American style football that is built with an electronic circuit coupled to an inflatable bladder. Interestingly, the football in this patent is designed intentionally with the electronics causing imbalance, unlike the above designs where the creators made sure their balls are balanced. Even though Wilson Sporting Goods has been granted this patent, there has yet to be any news of them releasing an instrumented oval ball. This might be something to look out for?

Instrumented AFL ball (source: Fig 2 of research paper)

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American Football – Wilson Sporting Goods

Ball Movement Measurements

No smart ball is complete if there are no “smarts” involved. The acceleration and/or angular velocity that is measured do not mean much if they are not processed and analysed. So firstly, the inertia sensors would require calibration – to ensure that the measurements are linear and accurate or at least corrected based on a benchmark device. Then mathematical models would be derived to determine the parameters for analysis; parameters such as spin rate, spin axis, speed, timing, ball flight path, angles, point of kick, bounces etc.

Also, to ensure that relevant data is processed accurately, certain “markers” or references are put in place to indicate when ball movement needs to be analysed and how it should be analysed. For the smart cricket and AFL ball developed by RMIT, as they are still in the research stage, a lot of the sensor measurements, signal processing, calculations and analysis are done manually. However for the commercial products like 94Fifty and the micoach smart ball, they have developed algorithms as well as guided user interface and instructions to make sure that each throw or bounce or kick is analysed accurately. In both cases, the interfaces and algorithms come in the form of an iPhone or iPad app. Here’s a breakdown of how each ball does it:

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Basically to analyse a kick with the adidas micoach ball, the micoach app needs to be turned on and connected to the ball via bluetooth. Then after the ball is positioned stationary on the ground, the user has to select his/her kicking foot and tap on the ‘Kick it’ screen before executing the kick. One condition for getting the parameters measured is to kick the ball at least a metre off the ground and for it to travel at least 10m. No bouncing or rolling kicks. 

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Proper kicks that will be tracked

Similarly the 94Fifty ball requires its app to be turned on and connected via bluetooth for the shots to be measured. For measuring shots, the user’s height needs to be entered into the app as well as the distance where the user is shooting from. There are options in the app to utilise a shooting machine or a user can practice with a training partner who can pass the ball after each shot. The only condition is that the pass has to be a chest pass for the subsequent shot to be recognised by the app. There are also some workouts or skill trainings that allow users to practice on their own and ball handling tracking options.

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Using the 94Fifty with a shooting machine

The Coaching Element

All these sensor laden balls and their accompanying apps with smart algorithms aims to help users become better players – whether it is improved technique in kicking or shooting or training of muscle memory to perform proper mechanics over and over.

The 94Fifty app provides real-time audio feedback for each shot that a user makes, whether the focus is on shot arc angle or shot speed or shot backspin. Based on ideal stats (e.g. arc angle of 52 deg and backspin of 180rpm), the user can fine tune his/her technique to achieve the right angle/speed/backspin. This user shows how by utilising the app’s feedback and capturing his practice on video at the same time, he could analyse his shot mechanics and identify how he could correct his shooting technique.

Likewise, the adidas micoach smart ball app not only measures each kick with ball speed, spin, spin angle, ball strike location & flight path, it also provides “Coach Notes” with recommendations on how the user can boost each specific parameter. A video option within the app allows a second person to capture the user’s kick using the iPhone/iPad’s camera so that the user not only gets the kick statistics but also visual playback of the kick.

Bottom Line

Designing a smart ball that analyses a player’s performance is definitely a complicated process. Not only must the instrumented ball behave like a normal standard ball with proper balance, the electronics incorporated within the ball have to be held robustly so that they don’t break under impact and the sensor data remains repeatable and reliable. Then there is the task of working out what parameters can be determined from the sensor data, if constraints/markers/references should be put in place to ensure accurate measurements, and how those parameters are helpful for improving an athlete’s skills and techniques.

Even with a properly designed ball that measures all the critical performance parameters accurately , it’s probably still not a complete coaching system. What the ball (and app) lacks is the ability to know (and break down) what exactly the athlete did in his kick or shot to achieve the numbers as calculated by the app. For example, in football, what affects a kick include: foot speed, which part of the foot kicked the ball, and the amount of upper-body movement; and in basketball, a few things that influence a free throw include: the amount of trunk and knee flexion, shoulder flexion and elbow extension. These range of movements could be tracked with either video analysis (such as Kinovea which is markerless) or a 3D motion tracking system (such as Vicon which requires markers), or wearable sensors (such as SabelSenseXSens or this new sensor embedded compression suit).

In a nutshell, smart balls are definitely great coaching tools. But if combined with athlete movement tracking, it would give a lot more insight to improving the athlete’s shot performance.