NBA: Training With ‘Wearable’ Technology (Part 1)

You already know about ‘smart watches’ and wrist-bound activity trackers, like Fitbit and UP by Jawbone — but professional athletes today have more futuristic ‘wearables’ at their disposal, for collecting even more detailed data about their workouts. We’re taking a look at how the NBA’s biggest stars are using some of these new technologies on the horizon. (Click here to read part two.)

Stephen Curry: Athos Gear

A few years ago, it seemed like any discussion about Stephen Curry’s game required some mention of his fragile ankles. After his miraculous fourth-quarter comeback from down 20 points against the New Orleans Pelicans last week, nobody was talking about his injury history. The Golden State Warriors’ medical staff has been taking good care of the “Human Torch“. As part of their efforts to better monitor players’ health, the Warriors have begun beta-testing a suite of high-tech ‘smart clothing’ manufactured by Redwood City-based Athos. Chamath Palihapitiya, Athos’ co-founder and part-owner of the Warriors, said he hoped the apparel would provide a “more precise way to train athletes, allowing them to be more efficient and see fatigue before injury occurs.” Of course, these ‘wearables’ aren’t the reason for Curry’s good health and magical MVP season…but they give us an idea of the future of fitness tracking technology.

Typical wrist-bound activity trackers only measure steps taken, speed, and pulse, using motion sensors that are also found in your normal smartphone hardware. Athos Gear combines motion sensors and breathing sensors with electromyography (EMG), to collect information about electrical activity in the skeletal muscles. Motor neurons transmit electrical signals that cause muscles to contract, and an electromyograph translates these signals into numerical values that can be charted and interpreted. Typically, EMGs are performed by inserting a needle directly into the muscle, or by taping electrodes to the surface of the skin; Athos is totally wireless. Because of its design, data from its breathing sensors isn’t as detailed as some other, more bulky sensors — but it seems the trade-off was made so the material feels as close as possible to regular workout clothing.

Athos Gear comes in three pieces: a top, a pair of pants, and a plastic core. The top has sixteen sets of sensors: one for heart rate, another for breathing, and seven pairs for seven major muscle groups. The pants have twelve more sets of sensors for six major muscle groups. The core, which fits in a small pocket, relays information from the sensors to a smartphone app, where users can see which muscle groups are activated in real time. You can buy the set, but it ain’t cheap: the core alone costs $200, and each piece of apparel is an additional $100. Obviously, Athos won’t transform you into a Splash Brother overnight — their partnership with the Warriors is an effective marketing tactic, but playing in the NBA requires a lot more than high-tech clothing. Still, if you’re looking for more insight into your squats and lifts (and you have cash to burn), give them a try; we’ll work on ways to make that data more useful.

Athos Gear commercial

Jason Kidd: Catapult OptimEye

Today, Jason Kidd will be coaching a young Milwaukee Bucks team on the brink of elimination against a championship-hopeful Chicago Bulls. But it wasn’t long ago — only two years, in fact — that he was a forty-year-old veteran returning from injury to a disappointing New York Knicks squad. To help confirm that he was healthy and game-ready, Knicks trainers attached a matchbook-sized motion-sensing device to Kidd’s jersey and compared his performance to benchmark readings set in the preseason; he ‘passed,’ and was cleared to play. The ‘OptimEye,’ manufactured by the Australian firm Catapult Sports, is taking off in American professional leagues; Catapult has secured contracts with five NBA teams and six NFL teams, providing a suite of wearable hardware and analytics software for $100,000 per year. The spread of biometric analysis in American pro sports has invited comparisons to Orwell’s 1984 — but in reality, these tools are just a logical progression of existing methods of analyzing athletes’ performance.

The OptimEye system works by inserting a sensor unit in a player’s jersey, between the shoulder blades (near the T1 vertebra). It contains the typical motion sensors found in your run-of-the-mill fitness trackers — accelerometers, magnetometers, and gyroscopes — but it also uses GPS to track players’ movements in three-dimensional space (or special antennas, for indoor arenas and stadiums). Catapult sees their technology as complementary with the high-tech SportVU cameras that are installed in every NBA arena; these cameras were initially developed by the Israeli military as an optical missile-tracking system, and were adapted to precisely track players’ movements in athletic events. The cameras are extremely effective at analyzing in-game tactics, but they can only track visible movement — they have difficulty collecting information on the acceleration on a jab step, the force exerted in a charging foul, or changes in cardiovascular activity, for example.

Nearly two-dozen NBA teams use the OptimEye (and similar technology) during practices, and the NBA Development League has begun incorporating the devices into all regular league play; for the time being, however, the sensors remain prohibited in real NBA games. Even in the NBA, there are concerns over the ownership of data. Right now, the teams own the hardware, and general managers make personnel decisions based on information it collects. But because insights into players’ long-term health and injury tendencies could significantly influence their future contracts, the National Basketball Players’ Association wants players’ agents to be able to see the data as well. This will become a hot issue when it comes time to negotiate the league’s next collective bargaining agreement in 2017. By then, it will likely be much cheaper to mass-produce devices like the OptimEye, and they’ll eventually trickle down to the average ‘weekend warrior.’

Catapult OptimEye in action


Originally published at www.sherbit.io.