More sensors are coming to professional sports, but research outpaces business models

Surf for a little while on the growing internet of things, and you’ll inevitably come across wearable computing hits such as the Fitbit (see disclosure), Jawbone’s UP and the Nike+ FuelBand. (s nke) They’ve gotten plenty of interest from consumers. But the use of sensors hasn’t caught on much in professional sports.

A few interesting products are on the horizon, though. A forthcoming “smart” helmet from the sports-gear maker Riddell can send alerts to a coach on the sidelines using a device when one of his football players gets hit in the head with a certain degree of severity. The system can keep track of each player’s hits over time for review on a laptop.

A sensor from startup Brain Sentry can be applied to a helmet and cause an LED to flash red on the helmet whenever there’s it detects sudden acceleration. Reebok and MC10 have come up with the CheckLight skullcap with sensing technology and LEDs for use under a helmet in any sport.

The National Football League has been putting up money for research to better diagnose brain injuries, so devices like these could get beyond amateur use and go pro in the near future.

Big data could be coming to soccer soon, too. A German company has deployed sensors to track player and ball movement on a soccer field in Nuremberg, and data scientists got to work on the data at a Cloudera event in February. The winners, from Pythian, used Cloudera Impala to make a neat heat map showing where players and the ball were on the field during the game.

Quantifying the slam dunk

Look to basketball and baseball for a couple of other applications in sensors that aren’t so far off. Think of a slam dunk, and then think about seeing just how hard a basketball player is slamming the ball through the hoop. Researchers at MIT removed the nylon core from a basketball net, dropped conductive silicone with sensors in its place and came up with a way to measure force, quantify it on a connected circuit board and transmit it to a computer. Working with TNT, the researchers deployed the Slam Force Net system at the 2012 All-Star Game’s slam-dunk contest, said Michael Bove, a professor at the MIT Media Lab. Readings were displayed on for everyone watching the contest on television.

Source: Flickr user terren in Virginia

Source: Flickr user terren in Virginia

The system doesn’t generate a ton of data, and it costs within the “tens of dollars” to build, Bove said. But that’s not the problem in getting the system to be used.

“The business model is more, ‘Does it make sense to show it (the data on screen)?’ And, if you’re going to show it, how graphically sophisticated do you want it to be?” Bove said.

But that’s not the only possible application of the sensor-laden net. It could also stop the clock when the ball goes through the net. The system would be more reliable than controlling the clock by hand, Bove said.

The connected baseball

Meanwhile, he can see the same material deployed in a net for training pitchers to throw at a certain speed inside a strike zone. “It would be tens of dollars, and it wouldn’t require the amount of setup you would need with a radar gun,” Bove said.

Then again, the baseball itself could be stuffed with sensors. A few years ago Bove worked with a student who designed a ball that could recognize the pitcher’s grip and figure out the difference between a fastball and a sinker. The ball had capacitive sensors and an accelerometer under the leather. “It actually learns the particular grip patterns the pitcher has for those particular pitches, and we can use that to train somebody else,” Bove said, adding that coaches could use this, although it could also be incorporated into video games. The technology could be used for the grip of a golf club, too, he said.

The curveball of monetization

The common theme here is that we’re still in the early innings for commercializing professional uses of sensors in sports. Researchers at the CambridgeSens group at the University of Cambridge, the Centre for Pervasive Sensing at Imperial College in London and many other academic institutions are experimenting with materials, transmitters and data-analysis methods. Surely athletes will end up using some of this technology. The bottleneck at the moment seems to be the creation of systems that can deliver value to players, teams, leagues and fans on an ongoing basis.

A good example comes from the world of running. Research into sensor-rich insoles focused on clocking how long shoes touched the ground during a sprint. That data could be processed right after a run and displayed to runners, so they can adjust their performance based on muscle memory.

“The big decision is what sort of information you want to give to people and what sort of processing algorithms you would use to do this in real time,” said one of the researchers, Marcelo Pias. “That’s what we spent quite a lot of time developing.”

But the technology might be years away from commercialization. Pias’ group did market research and came to the conclusion that it would address “a niche market — very, very small compared to what you would achieve with something like Fitbit,” said Pias, who is now running Globosense, a startup focusing on the connected home.

Dealing with data

The dearth of sensible go-to-market strategies right now might be all right, because IT executives are still scrambling to figure out what to do as more data sets become available for analysis. The topic will certainly be up for discussion when my colleague Barb Darrow talks with the CIOs of the Pabst Brewing Co. and the Clorox Co. at GigaOM’s Structure conference in San Francisco on June 19.

So as companies and organizations go forward with new ways to compute and store increasing amounts of data, entrepreneurs have some time to pencil out business models that could make money off sensor technology that many people in sports would be willing to pay for.

Until that happens, good old processed film will remain a viable option for analyzing player performance. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it sure would be nice to go a few steps further.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user khawkins04.

Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.