A revolutionary unobtrusive sensor that collects and immediately transmits data from the human body could boost an athlete's sporting success in future.
Cufflink-sized and clipped behind the wearer's ear, the sensor is unique in two key respects. First, it does not hinder performance, yet can gather unprecedentedly wide-ranging and useful data about posture, stride length, step frequency, acceleration, response to shock waves travelling through the body etc.
Second, when worn by an athlete during training, it can transmit the information for immediate visual display on a handheld device or laptop used by their coach at the trackside. The coach can then harness the data to shape the on-the-spot advice and instruction they give the athlete regarding technique. By instantly adding to the value of every training session, the sensor can therefore deliver better sporting performance.
Currently under development at Imperial College London with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Government's Technology Programme, the new sensor and its potential contribution not just to sport but also to wider healthcare will be outlined at this year's BA Festival of Science in York.
"The sensor we're working on is inspired by the semicircular canals of the inner ear, which play a key role in controlling our motion and balance," says Professor Guang Zhong Yang, who is leading the project and will deliver the presentation on 13th September. Professor Yang is a world-renowned pioneer in the field of Body Sensor Networks (BSN). His multidisciplinary project team is utilising a range of expertise, including computer science, electronics, engineering and biomechanics*.
Crucially, the new sensor does not cause discomfort and, because it is worn behind the ear, does not adversely affect aerodynamics. The data it generates therefore provides an authentic and realistic indication of how the wearer's body would behave if performing without the sensor. This makes the information extremely valuable.
By contrast, body sensors currently available are cumbersome to wear and so affect technique and performance, making the information they produce less useful. Moreover, their data cannot be displayed in real time, but requires processing before being viewed after the training session. "Having biomechanical data available there and then, during a training session, can make the whole process of improving sporting technique much quicker and easier," says Professor Yang.
The new sensor is now undergoing trials with elite UK athletes, with a view to entering widespread use within 12-18 months initially for sprinters but eventually for rowers and other athletes.
The sensor could also have significant potential for use in monitoring patients suffering from a range of injuries and illnesses, and even in helping to preserve good health and to promote quality of life generally. It has scope, for example, to be used to monitor patients with degenerative arthritis or neurological gait abnormalities, as well as those who have undergone orthopaedic surgery. In the field of human/computer interfacing, the device could also make a unique contribution to translating body movement and physical exercise into computer games as well as into virtual reality-based sports training.
Professor Yang comments: "I believe it's really important to ensure that sports-related research like ours will have a genuine legacy in wider fields and a positive impact on society at large."
The project 'Sports Body Sensor Networks (Sports-BSN)' will last 18 months and receive EPSRC funding of nearly £163,000. Funding for the Government's Technology Programme is allocated by the Technology Strategy Board, a business-focused Non-Departmental Public Body set up by Government to drive forward innovation and applied technology to benefit the UK economy.
* Biomechanics is the study of body movements and the forces acting on the body during activity.
Materials provided by Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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