Today we have all kinds of ways to count our steps, track our heartbeats, and monitor how well we’re sleeping.

But it wasn’t always this easy to get this kind of personal data.

There was a time where the closest thing we had to a wearable was plugging your sneaker into a computer. Seriously.

Manufacturers have been making efforts for some time now to accumulate data for sports and athletic performance. The collected information can be used to both prevent injury and enhance performance — and the technology has advanced far beyond a plug-in sneaker.

But now that we’re so connected and have the ability to gather a treasure trove of data, what do we do with it?

In this episode, we explore how sensors are being used to detect concussions, track player performance, and even provide new opportunities to bet.

Listen to the episode below.

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Episode Highlights:

  • (2:07) In the early 1980s, Puma owner Armin Dassler challenged his sports science advisor Dr. Peter Cavanagh to create something that would make his sneaker company a true technology leader. Dr. Cavanagh's idea: Turn the shoe into a computer.
  • (8:53) Steve Rowson, director of Virginia Tech's Helmet Lab, is using accelerometers to measure head impacts — and to design more effective equipment to prevent concussions. (Read about Virginia Tech's youth football ratings.)
  • (14:04) John Shoop, former offensive coordinator at Purdue University, saw how accelerometers and sensors were being used to track head injury. He thought the technology could save the game of football — and still does.
  • (18:44) In 2015, Chris Borland, a first-year San Francisco 49er in the National Football League, saw concussion data and decided to retire. He tells Tech Briefs his story and explains what tech can (and cannot) do to protect players.
  • (27:25) For the NHL, there are all new kinds of wearables and technologies to track their players. But it’s not about safety necessarily. Senior NHL Writer at ESPN Greg Wyshynski explains NHL's new tech setup and the different motives at play.

Greg Wyshynski, on player tracking in professional hockey:

“There’s a combination of the sensor on the shoulder pads and the sensor inside the puck and then a series of antennas around the rink that track the puck 2000 times per second.

There's obviously wearable tech now that you can put on your body during practices and during games to check everything from your heart rate to muscle movement. But in the NHL's case and in the case of it being a fast-moving sport, player tracking and puck tracking is used to glean data and information from the game itself. Now, with this puck and player tracking, we understand exactly how long the team has the puck and things of that nature.

And it goes well beyond that. We're talking about stats like shot velocity. We're talking about being able to track the puck through traffic to know the velocity of the players. It's a treasure trove of new information that the league is looking to get through this technology, and it's not only to help the teams better understand their players and it's not only to help the media tell different stories around games and really go deeper and more nuanced than they've ever been before in covering hockey, but obviously it's also because you can bet on it.”

Steve Rowson, on the use of technology to detect concussions:

"We're instrumenting the Virginia Tech football team with accelerometer rays that get installed inside the helmets of players. And these accelerometer rays continuously buffer data, and whenever it senses a head impact it records it sends it wirelessly to a computer we have on the sideline. So it's kind of unique in that we get some real-time feedback into how the players are hitting their heads, but at the same time we're capturing a very large data set that characterize how these players are hitting their heads.

At the end of the day we're trying to essentially engineer safer sport. And as an athlete I think they look forward to being able to participate in the research and help us achieve that goal."

Chris Borland, on the growing use of accelerometers in football helmets:

“They're encouraging in a sense, I think. I don't think we're going to use technology to completely solve this problem of people repeatedly hitting their heads at a high velocity. The problem is inertia, and your brain sits unfastened within your skull. So, whatever the outside of the helmet is, at best, I think it will mitigate the issue at least in the short term.

I applaud that work, but there are some challenges. I think shearing injury is one. You can have a shearing injury where it's more about rotational force, and there isn't a tremendous amount of Gs involved, so it may not capture the damage that's going on.

I think about it more broadly. I think a ton of money is going to be poured in this, money that could go elsewhere, and ultimately it won't be solved. It will be improved. But I think in five or ten years, we'll still have a problem at hand, and have spent a lot of time, money, and energy making safer helmets when you could have just decided not to play a sport where you repeatedly hit your head."

 John Shoop, on technology's ability to save football:

“I think people are fearful that football is going away. Fewer and fewer people are playing football, and if this data reveals that these micro-concussions are a real thing, it will send more people away from football, and open up lawsuits to coaches and administrators in football. I happen to think, though, just the opposite would occur. If you develop methods and can absolutely prove to people that we're doing this safer than anybody else, we're holding coaches accountable, I think it'll make all the difference in the world. I'm not doing this because I hate football. I'm doing this because I absolutely love football and think this could be one of the things that saves it.

The first prototype of Puma's RS Computer Shoe. A plexiglass casing houses the electronics. (Image Credit: Cavanagh)

 What do you think? Share your questions and comments below.

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