23 Nov Embedded Wearables: Enhancing Sports Performance

Many companies are experimenting with wearable computing that is going beyond more traditional wearable devices like a band or smartwatch. Embedding sensors and compute into everyday apparel like shirts, shoes, and socks is the next wave. Most athletes do not want more stuff to wear so embedding in apparel athletes already wear is the next logical step. This will not be an easy task and will likely take a few more years to perfect since athletes will not be willing to compromise on things like comfort, style, or performance. The benefit though will provide a major impact on enhancing sports performance. This will provide major opportunity for athletic brands to shift from companies that make you feel like you perform better with their gear to companies that actually make you perform better with their intelligent gear.

Market Experimentation

There are number of new technology companies & existing athletic brands experimenting with embedded sensors in clothing today.

Both Nike and Under Armour have already produced apparel with integrated sensor technology. Nike has been embedding sensors in shoes with their Nike+ platform since back in 2006. They have also experimented in the sport of basketball with Nike+ Basketball where sensored shoes can tell a player how high they have jumped, how fast they go, etc. Under Armour launched their E39 compression shirt with Ironman looking chest sensor used by NFL pro football players which measures heart rate, anaerobic threshold, aerobic capacity, muscle heat, GPS positioning and more.

New technology companies are also getting into the mix. While it seems a bit clunky today, Indiegogo start-up Heapsylon has created the Sensoria smart-sock with embedded microelectronics and sensors. Sensoria measures stride type, stride length, & foot strike and helps runners optimize performance and prevent injuries. Heapsylon hopes to take its e-textile sensor technology and apply to other sports becoming the “Gore-Tex” of sensor technology. Another new company out of Germany has a sensored shirt called FitnessSHIRT. The shirt looks completely ordinary but contains sensors that monitor cardiac activity, including breathing, pulse, and changes in heart rate. Finally, health technology company mc10 has built a flexible sensor solution that can be applied on the body like a temporary tattoo.

All of these are good starts and will provide good baseline for future innovation.

Enhancing Sport Performance

Connected compute & sensor technology in athletic apparel will revolutionize performance enhancement for a sport. This is turn is major opportunity for companies to build higher a position on the value chain with its customers by being becoming a company that truly helps make players better.

Players in sports from baseball, football, basketball, tennis, golf, gymnastics, and more will benefit from real-time data feedback from sensored apparel. Interacting with other sensored equipment will provide added detail on behavior. Sensors in a ball, on a wrist, in a shirt, or in a foot can measure things like arc, spin, velocity, speed, force, height, etc. As such, pitchers and coaches could better analyze a throwing motion. Golfers can get instant feedback on swing plane. A football layer can notice patterns in their stride that impacts their speed. The potential is end-less.

I could even see companies like Nike licensing algorithms on elite professionals that allow every-day athletes to mimic their motions and help them how to perform at their best. Imagine being able to buy Michael Jordon’s perfect 3 point shot or Tiger Wood’s drive. This would take the old “Be like Mike” campaign to a new level. Top athletes could even choose to sell their characteristics direct to consumers.

Keys to Success When Embedding

Embedding sensor technology is everyday apparel will require companies to address a number of issues such as:

  • Comfort – adding sensors cannot be uncomfortable to wear and cause athlete to notice they are there. They need to blend seamlessly into the fabric and not even be noticed.
  • Durability – Sensored apparel needs to stand-up to the normal wear and tear athletes put them through like contact, sweat, rain, etc. They also need to allow them to be washed and cared for like normal clothes.
  • Style – Athletes still want to wear cool looking gear. Just see huge trend on unique uniforms in college football. Adding a technology cannot impact style and technologies companies looking to enter should not under-estimate this. There could even be opportunity to highlight technology like Under Armour E39 shirt by making shirt look futuristic.
  • Performance – Athletic brands have spent tons of R&D advancing fabrics to wick away sweat and optimize performance. They have also worked extremely hard to make shoes as light as possible with every tenth of an ounce counting. As such, it’s critical that sensors and microelectronics not impact this performance or be bulky or weigh down the athlete down.
  • Battery/charging & Wireless Synching – Keeping the technology powered is also a top consideration. No one will want to plug in a shirt or shoe. Ideally, these apparel solutions will come will lifetime batter solutions that never need to be charged. With state of battery technology and power for these chips, this is unlikely though in near-term. As such, batteries need to last as long as possible and companies need to look at solutions where sensor or battery can be removed and charged separate from the apparel. Like-wise these apparel solutions need to provide simple wireless solutions to synch/transmit content.

These hurdles will likely take 3-5 years to address properly for mass market adoption. In addition, these requirements put existing athletic apparel companies in an advantaged position given their strong knowledge and R&D in apparel and fabrics. Technology based companies should not under-estimate this and should look to partnerships to address. Evolving to be the technology that powers the apparel (like Sensoria’s goal to be “Gore-Tex” of sensors) seems like a more successful path.

Finally, with these considerations on how to embed in hand, they key to this new source of information will be the analytics it will provide that help athletes to optimize their performance. Companies will need to invest in Big Data analytics to help identify patterns and correlations that lead to coaching advice. With this, they need to build compelling user experiences on how to deliver this whether it’s during practice, during the game, or afterwards. Simple alerts and signals during practice or game are critical to provide simple cues to optimize performance.

Conclusion

Embedding microelectronics & sensors into apparel is truly the next evolution of wearables in the fitness and sport industries. This is the ideal state since it will eliminate extra gear for athletes and provide a seamless experience where the technology disappears and you don’t even know it’s there. With these new sensored apparel solutions, athletes will be provided will new tools & data never available before allowing them to propel at their sport. “Just Do It” inspired millions of people to become athletes and want to perform at their best. With advances in equipment and apparel, brands like Nike have made athletes feel like they can perform at their best with their gear. Now with sensored apparel, they can truly make you better as an athlete.

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