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Sports wearables are the wave of the future

As he stretched and twisted the clear, plastic Band-Aid-like patch, Grant Hill marveled at the way its embedded, gold-colored sensor contorted. He wondered aloud how this budding technology might have changed his 18-year NBA career.

Hill was visiting MC10, a tech start-up in Cambridge, and playing with a prototype of its Biostamp. The device, a barely visible 2-square-inch patch, is designed to stick on any body part like a second skin and record biometric data from heart rate and hydration levels to muscle activity and sleep patterns.

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With Biostamp monitoring, the patch might have saved the retired forward from overtraining and injuries, and its scientific feedback might have improved his preparation for games.

“To touch [the Biostamp], to go through a demonstration, you realize this is pretty amazing stuff,” said Hill, one of nine athletes on MC10’s Sports Advisory Board. “You almost wish you were a rookie again so you could take advantage of what the future has in store.”

If all goes as planned, the Biostamp will make its public debut next year and become commercially available. MC10 is one of roughly a dozen companies reimagining wearable, body-tracking technology, developing less-intrusive devices, and expanding the capabilities of current products.

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All of this signals what Dr. Kim Blair, founding director of MIT’s sports innovation program, calls “a wearable revolution.” Bulky chest straps and large wristbands may soon be part of the past, looked upon like flip cellphones among smart phones. In the near future, it may be commonplace for athletes to wear Biostamps or smart T-shirts with embedded sensors during practices, games, and even sleep.

Engineers, athletes, and others invested in the world of competitive sports believe that revolution will radically change how players train and compete, how coaches plan practices and strategize during games, and potentially how fans view all the action.

‘You almost wish you were a rookie again so you could take advantage of what the future has in store.’

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Given the hypercompetitive nature of tech start-ups, MC10 will not divulge exactly what the first commercially available Biostamp will monitor. But inside a conference room at MC10’s offices, company leaders throw out the possibility of a field goal kicker with a Biostamp tracking his heart rate. Moments before a big kick, his heart rate could be broadcast on a stadium Jumbotron and television screens. It’s not as fanciful or faraway as it might seem. Last season, television broadcasts of Australian Rules Football featured heart rate and distance-traveled data gathered from a wearable technology system developed by Melbourne-based Catapult Sports.

For smaller-scale use of the data, dashboard-like screens on phones, tablets, and computers give real-time feedback on how a player is functioning. An athlete dashboard can display heart rate in the conventional beats per minute, but also potentially feature a fuel gauge that indicates when an athlete runs low on fluids and a check engine light that flashes red when an athlete is overworked and at risk for injury.

“We’re at the start of what’s possible here,” said Blair, who also serves as president of the International Sports Engineering Association and vice president at technology development firm Cooper Perkins in Lexington. “As we move forward, we’ll see better refinement in user experience and better refinement in application and better integration with apparel or, as is the case with MC10, sticking it on the body. When wearables become ubiquitous and part of our lives, that’s when they’ve really arrived.”

At the moment, sports wearables are more prevalent in Australia and Europe. Every player on every team in Australian Rules Football and in professional Australian rugby uses Catapult’s product in every game. European soccer clubs were early adopters, too, starting to measure the overall workload placed on players more than five years ago.

Simultaneously summing up what MC10 learned from Hill’s visit and articulating a guiding philosophy for sports wearables, Isaiah Kacyvenski, who played seven seasons in the NFL and runs the company’s sports division, said, “Let’s get away from feeling our way through the day and put hard metrics to some of these things [in an athlete’s daily routine] and guide us through our day.”

Input from athletes

Today’s data-driven sports world craves more in-depth information about athletes, the kind of statistical feedback that increasingly comes most reliably and most conveniently from wearable devices. Teams in the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL are exploring wearable technology options, recognizing the value of tracking a player’s fitness around the clock and throughout a season.

Paul Robbins, director of elite performance for Stats LLC, which tracks data from wearable devices for 12 NBA teams and two NFL organizations, says, “We’d love to get as many hours of the day as we can monitored by wearable devices and collect more data.”

Companies such as MC10 with its Biostamp, Catapult with its beeper-sized monitor sewn into apparel or attached to compression tops resembling sports bras, Basis with its wristband, and Athos with its smart shirts and shorts coming out this summer, are eager to make that happen. They are pushing the evolution of wearables way beyond popular, fitness-oriented products such as FuelBands and Fitbits and GPS watches, and thinking more about what serious athletes want.

Bharat Vasan, Basis cofounder, said sports wearables are “going to be driven by the ground up,” meaning that the wish lists of athletes, coaches, and teams will largely determine how products develop.

To figure out what athletes want from wearable technology and design better devices, MC10 hosts brainstorming sessions with its Sports Advisory Board members. Last Monday, that brought Hill and Georgetown men’s basketball coach John Thompson III to Cambridge. In late February, a larger gathering included Indianapolis Colts quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Matt Hasselbeck, women’s soccer great Kristine Lilly, and four-time Olympic women’s ice hockey medalist Angela Ruggiero.

Against a backdrop of cluttered whiteboards, the athletes and college coach, who all have equity stakes in MC10, detailed daily routines and tossed out product ideas. Company engineers, designers, and investors asked questions and took notes. Nothing was out of bounds.

“With the athletes, we want to leverage the thought processes around how they prepare and take care of their bodies,” said Kacyvenski. “We want to have that collective mindshare. We’re using their entire body of knowledge to really innovate and think differently about how we deploy technology and use that to change behavior, approaches to training, and games. It’s unique not to use the athletes for their bodies the way they do in sports, but to use their minds and translate their experience to what we do.”

When it comes to form, it’s an easy call for athletes: They unanimously prefer smaller, flexible devices such as the Biostamp. The less they notice wearables, the better. The more unobtrusive the product, the more likely they will wear it during competition, practice, and recovery. The more they wear a device, the more data they generate.

MC10 believes part of the Biostamp’s appeal will be that it can stick anywhere — arms, legs, chest, back, face — all depending on what data an athlete wants and what body part can produce the most accurate read. To collect a variety of feedback, players can wear multiple Biostamps at the same time. Or, one Biostamp can hold multiple sensors.

With function, the board members all saw value in monitoring heart rate, hydration, sleep patterns, movement, and muscle activity. They also wanted better ways to track recovery from workouts and from injuries. And companies already sell products offering much of that data.

Catapult, the biggest presence in sports wearables worldwide with clients on six continents including in the NFL, NBA, NHL, and college ranks, invented GPS wearable technology for team sports. Basis prides itself on the extensive sleep analysis provided by its wristbands. The Athos smart shirts and shorts track muscle activity, letting wearers know if they favor one side over another and, in the process, helping self-correct form. MC10 is best known for developing the Reebok CHECKLIGHT, a wearable head impact indicator.

Given CHECKLIGHT’s ability to alert athletes to potential head injuries, it’s clear why the medical field and military also have a strong interest in wearables. The same body monitoring that helps athletes can also assist patients dealing with chronic conditions and soldiers training for war.

As the sports side of the technology progresses and athletes enjoy a wider selection of wearable devices with more functions, Athos cofounder Dhananja Jayalath predicts that “everything is going to become more personalized” and that products “will be geared toward giving athletes a more personalized training experience.”

What the future holds

In his MC10 brainstorming session, Luck saw that future quite clearly.

When asked what data he would find most valuable, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft imagined a wearable device that could accurately count practice throws and help quarterbacks better manage their workloads outside of games. Someday, Luck could place a Biostamp on his throwing shoulder that does exactly that. At this stage in the sports wearables game, anything is possible.

After spending last Monday at MC10 headquarters, Thompson called the Biostamp “a game-changer that’s going to improve real-time analysis of the body.” He found its ability to quickly, easily establish physical baselines for players most intriguing. Thompson figured those baselines and the biofeedback that followed could help him better coach players back from injury.

“Everyone is looking for an edge and the wearable products will help give us an edge,” said Thompson. “It’s so versatile that I need to go back with the experts I have at home and figure out what we need. We’re going to be able to use these products, but what’s the best way to do that?”

Despite all the information sports wearables provide, the technology often presents more questions than answers. Beyond smaller, thinner products and more granular data, it’s uncertain exactly what shape the wearable revolution will take in the years ahead.

Athletes on the MC10 Sports Advisory Board voiced concern about who owns the information that wearable devices collect. Will the data be employed in trade and contract negotiations? And what about the field goal kicker with his heart rate potentially broadcast to millions of viewers? When it comes to very personal, biometric data, where are the lines between fan engagement and player improvement and privacy? And who draws those lines?

Consider this: To promote more competition among his players, an Australian Rules Football coach posted athlete data gathered by the Catapult system on the Jumbotron at his team’s training facility.

“There are some really cool applications, but it’s going to take a conversation about who owns the data,” said Ruggiero. “There’s definitely going to be some debate.”

Additionally, some athletes might find wearable technology gives them too much feedback. While Lilly found the Biostamp “cool” and “amazing” compared with the chest straps she wore as a player, the two-time World Cup champion doesn’t want data relayed to her in real time because too much information might take away from her soccer instincts or dictate practice habits.

“There should be a balance with what you share with the athlete and when you share it,” said Lilly. “You don’t want to say to an athlete, ‘Oh, you’re not working hard because your heart rate is this.’ ”

Ultimately, fans may be the biggest beneficiaries, gaining true inside access to professional athletes.

“I’d love to see what is going on with LeBron James during games and I’m sure the rest of the fans would, too,” said Hill. “I think that’s the wave of the future. You have in-game interviews with coaches, access with cameras in locker rooms. Fans want more . . . the more you can take them into the world of the athlete the better.”

Catapult marketing manager Boden Westover sees opportunities to take fantasy sports to a new level with data from wearables, as well as “compare what you did playing pickup with your friends with what Tony Parker is doing in the NBA playoffs.”

But before helping fans match up with Parker, companies need to keep figuring out the most useful information for athletes like the Spurs point guard and the best way to deliver that information. If wearable devices don’t provide meaningful, easily interpreted data to users, then they lose their value. It’s a lesson from the past. Although heart rate monitors debuted in the mid-1980s they did not gain widespread acceptance until a book that explained heart rate training was published several years later.

By comparison, the adoption of wearable technology at all levels of sports is proceeding at warp speed. In the next two to five years, Robbins believes all NBA, NFL, and NHL teams will be using some form of wearable training system. Growing up with the technology, young athletes might not think twice about wearables when they reach the top ranks. A smart T-shirt may be simply called a T-shirt.

“We’re in early days,” said MC10 cofounder Benjamin Schlatka of the wearable revolution in sports. “The quality of the device, the quality of data, and the experience with both the device and the data is going to evolve in the same way you saw the mobile trend evolve . . . [Devices] will become more comfortable to wear. They’ll produce insight and not just data. Ultimately, they’ll blend into the context of your life. We’re not there, but that’s where the future will take us.”

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.
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