6 ways how Sensors are transforming sports

6 great ways how sensors are positively transforming sports

Sensors in sports are conquering the world by storm. They do not only provide useful information for athletes, but are also instrumental in areas such as health, fan engagement, analytics, venues, media, textiles and wearables.

Sensors are taking our lives by storm

Grip, stroke, impact, temperature, motion, acceleration, posture, touch, humidity, heart rate, altitude. What do all these have in common you may wonder. Well, you can measure them! You can measure them with the help of sensors! Sensors and microchips are taking our lives by storm and they are definitely here to stay! Why? Because they make our life a hell of a lot easier.  Think for example of smoke detectors, temperature meters, infra red sensors, light sensors etc etc. You won’t want to do without them do you?

how sensors are transforming the world of sports

What is a sensor?

But what is a sensor? The best definition is probably “ a device that detects and responds to some type of input from the physical environment.” These specific inputs could be light, heat, motion, moisture, pressure, or any one of a great number of other environmental phenomena. It’s nothing more than translating some kind of sensory input into a signal suitable for processing into data!

Not surprisingly, sports is and will be at the forefront of many new applications related to sensors. Clearly most of us are well aware of wearables such as the Fitbits, Garmins, Nike and Apple watches of this world. These devices measure where we are, what our heart rate is, our speed and much much more. The related data provide useful information on how we can perform better in a healthy way. But it is only the beginning. Sensors can and are already integrated in items such as headbands, balls, golfclubs, wristbands, necklaces, textiles, belts etc and many more applications will be introduced in the future as technology is rapidly advancing.

Making the difference

Let’s dig in a little deeper. Think of it! An athlete wants to perform to the max and needs all his or her senses in order to realise this. It’s all about that extra one percent that can make the difference and he or she will use anything to realise this. If, in some way, he can improve his senses by measurement, he will hugely benefit sooner rather than later. It can just be the difference between a medal and no medal.

In this perspective sport can also lead the way for alternative uses of sensors in our society. Information about body functions during heavy physical exercise gives an athlete useful medical information on where and when he can perform best. Undoubtedly such information will give scientists useful input which you and I can use in our daily lifes.

Muti bln market

In sports the sensor market is already a multi billion dollar industry which will become even bigger. Sensors are the future and athletes cannot do without them if they want to improve themselves.

The athlete will be and is already playing a pivotal role in the further development of the sensor market. The fact is that many different industries depend on him or more specifically on the data he generates. What to think of the media, the data analysis industry and the textile and fan engagement industries etc. All of these inustries generate big bucks from those data. No doubt, the (brand)value of the athlete will increase big time given this dependence.

Let’s look at this a little closer. A sensor is basically nothing more than a device that is generating data. These date are generated by for example athletes who are carrying these devices (the generators), they are transmitted or carried by these devices (the carriers) and finally received for data analysis (the receivers).

1. The data generator…..

In the case of sports the athlete is clearly in the middle. He or she is the generator of data. With the output and analysis of the data, he or she hopes to improve him/herself in order to realise peak performance. Of course it’s a win win here, because he/she is not the only beneficiary as I stated before. The industry will benefit as much as it can use these data to improve for example products. At the moment the athlete is generally not being paid for generating the data, but I would not be surprised if that will change in the future as these data are very valuable for several parties involved.

Also interesting to read: the evolving modern athlete

2. The data carriers…..

The device is here the carrier of the data. There are different ways how to do this, either directly or indirectly. The direct way is to put sensors on the athlete’s skin or even implant it in his body. Mind you, there are already people walking around with implanted sensors. Alternatively, the indirect way makes use of smart textiles (shorts, shirts, shoes), wearables (watches, necklaces, wristbands) and equipment (sensors in golfclubs, balls, baseball bats etc.). As said I consider these as data carriers or transmitters. Let’s look at some interesting industries here, which are active in this segment.

A. The textile and wearable industry

Textiles are becoming increasingly smart as they carry all kind of different sensors. It is a matter of time before you and I will wear these textiles and use it in day to day life. Smart clothing? Huhh?! Well think of shirts that analyse and give feedback on your sweat during your performance. This way you can prevent dehydration for example.

But there is much more! Of course we know wearables that measure your heartrate or your breathing but soon you won’t have to carry a waist belt any longer as sensors will be integrated in textiles or shoes. The same counts for sensors giving you info on your speed, distance, strain, temperature, posture, body movement, grip and technique assessment. These will not only provide extremely useful data for training but also for healthpurposes in your daily life.

B. The sports equipment industry

Increasingly the sports equipment industry is integrating sensors to its products in order to add value. For example, for a baseball player it is extremely useful to know how hard he can smash a baseball and what speed he can generate. A sensor in a baseball bat can measure this. This way the player can improve his hitting skills. The same counts for golfequipment. Cobra is already bringing golfclubs with integrated sensors and software on the market in order to immediately getting feedback on your swing.

The opportunities are endless. Sensors can be integrated in nearly everything. Think of sensors in helmets which can measure hits (providing data on potential concussions), golfballs (smashfactor, rotation, flight etc), balls in general (measuring speed and impact), starting blocks in athletics or swimming, skis,vests, racing saddles, boats, race cars. Think of it and you can fantasize yourself! All these applications may give incredibly useful info to the person using it.

3. The receivers….

The last group involved are the receivers of the data, the parties that are using or exploiting the data in order to create a product out of it. Of course there is overlap with the textiles/wearables and sports equipment producers, which often offer software combined with their products, that analyses the data. However, there will also be several industries that use the data for their own purposes. Below we will give several examples of useful content generated from data of the athlete. Watch the diferent Youtube videos in this post to get a feel of what is and what will be possible.

A. Health

If there is one important area where sports can lead the way and make a difference, it is health. Remember the AC Milan Lab at the beginning of this millenium? It aimed on extending the careers of its soccerplayers and on improving their performance. This was done by gathering tonnes of information on each player. This way injuries could be foreseen and prevented. It went as far as collecting data on whether the player had have sex or not and what the impact was. Milan was hugely successful with this concept. Nowadays many clubs and institutions are tracking their players and athletes by analysing the data generated by sensors.

Athletes require a lot of their bodies and try to optimize their performances. Health is a prerequisite to realise this peak performance. Not surprisingly, there are many sensors that can measure body functions and biomechanics whether it is heart rate , breathing, lung capacity and perspiration or the movement of muscles and joints. This information provides extremely useful data to the athlete. Avoiding injuries is also an interesting field. Sensors can for example help monitoring concussions in high contact sports, so that either better headgear can be developed or coaches can substitute a player when receiving an extraordinary severe hit.

Riddel smart helmet

Also interesting to read: 6 ways how sports benefits from motion capture

Not only for athletes…..

However, you and I will benefit as much as scientists will obtain more info on what is possible and what is not. Similar to formula 1 being an incubator for new technology used in cars, athletes may be instrumental in finding solutions for health issues. This should reduce costs for society in the longer term.

Take for example the company ImeasureU. This company provides a platform that quantifies body movement and workload. The Philadelphia 76ers use this platform to track the load of every step players take, from the time they are injured to their return to play. The Raptors experienced the highest number of injuries in 2012. After the introduction of sensors this number was turned around to the team with the least injuries! Or what about the NBA requiring players and some staff to wear sensors for Covid 19 contact tracing. It comes to show how important sensors now also can be important for you and me. I am sure you can imagine the vast potential of opportunities related to health.

B. The venue

Sensors are also entering the venue big time. What to think of monitoring the turf via underground sensors. The Amsterdam Arena is already doing this. Stadiums are becoming ever more expensive (see also my blog article The top 10 features of future stadiums) because of all technology involved. Motion and sound sensors may be connected to light in order to reflect the mood of the crowd and crowd noise.

But there is much more. A wireless sensor network can monitor sound, pressure and temperature. This paves the way for a more comfortable environment. Moreover smoke and fire can be detected and energy reduced. Last but not least, an optimal environment should be created for the athlete. We all know hawkeye in tennis, but also football has introduced goalline technology. What to think of electronic fencing in the future, so that your golfball cannot go out of bounds. The possibilities are endless.

C. Analytics and sports info

This youtube video from Kinexon says it all. Virtually everything can be measured and analyzed with sensors. Recently the golf player Bryson de Chambeau, who is famous for his innovative approach in golf, started experimenting with sensors and Artificial Intelligence in order to measure his optimal and personalised grip pressure, which he argued is different for everybody. This is how the future of sports will evolve and how athletes and players will become better, fans more engaged and media delivering a better product.

D. Fan engagement

Sensors should be increasingly used for the engagement of fans. For instance, there are jerseys which let you experience haptic vibrations in order to feel the excitement of every highlight in the game. It is already there! Wearablex has come up with Jersey X. But more is coming.

The same company is having the Alert Shirt where fans can feel what the player experiences during a game. Auch! Imagine you have the same sensation which a player has when he gets hit or tackled or taking a penalty shot in front of 40,000 people. You will feel it as it happens. This should bring you definitely a lot closer to your favorite player or athlete I can imagine. Immersion levels no doubt will be higher. It is a bit like your steering wheel termbling in a race sim game.

In the future expect sensors with little cameras which give you the live experience of af how a player experiences the game. See also my blog on fan engagement in the future.

E. Media

More and more you see it being displayed on tv! Heartrates from top athletes , speed of cyclists etc. It is what new generations want. Just sports won’t do the trick any longer. Gen Alpha and GenZ want to have tech involved as they want to be entertained. Don’t you love to see the tracking of your golf ball being displayed on your TV set or laptops? It is what golfers want to see. They want all the available info.

Similarly, sailors want to see which yacht is leading, which is the perfect angle of approach, what is the wind speed etc. This is just the beginning. Player statistics and info will become far more important in the future as it will enhance the experience of the viewer.Expect info on speed of the ball, smashfactors, hitrates, spinrates, heatmaps, biometrics etc. Live real time analysis backed up by data! Viewers don’t want anything less. Tracked data can be displayed on social media channels to bring users closer to the game than ever before. Can you see envisage the future? I am sure you can!

F. Training and coaching

Training and coaching are the last fields I would like to discuss. Sensors are and will become increasingly important. Posture, biometrics, heart rate etc, etc. Measuring is knowing and athletes and trainers will make use of it to improve. Me and you also will benefit. Watch the movie below. Smart yoga clothing tell you wether your posture is right or not. Expect similar smart clothing in other sports like golf. Sensors may measure your posture, arm and bodymovement live as it happens! Combine it with Artificial Intelligence and you will have your golfteacher in your shirt. Talking about disruption.

As far as the coach is concerned, the opportunities are endless. Sensors are measuring the performance of each individual player or athlete. During a game, a coach can see player fatigue etc. He may choose to substitute a player that is not performing to the max as far as his data is concerned. Sports will increasingly become data science in the future where coaching is concerned.

This post was originally published on 13 December 2019 and has been updated

Published by Jan Kees Mons

I am Jan Kees Mons. Just call me JK, that’s easier I guess. I am a Dutchman living in the heart of the city of Amsterdam. Right now I am living on my own. However, not for much longer, as I plan to live together with my lovely girlfriend.