Is motion capture technology set to revolutionise sports performance? – Dr. Kim Duffy

The use of motion capture in sport exploded over the last decade and it is now hard to find a sport that’s not using the technology in some capacity. With sport being increasingly data-driven, motion capture has become an extension of the interest in and acceptance of performance analytics.

Sports scientists and tech vendors have worked hard to embed the technology within training programmes. The most rapid progress has taken place in sports where ‘wear and tear’ is a fact of life – especially at the elite level and in truly global sports. Injury prevention and recovery has been one of the main drivers behind the adoption of motion capture technology.

While injury and return to play might be the entry point for motion capture, the last 10 years has also witnessed the increased use of the technology to support talent improvement, training techniques and player performance analytics. In the next five it is set to become more present than ever.


Making wearable sensors mainstream

Wearable inertial measurement units — or also known as IMUs — remain relatively young technologies, however they have been moving from the fringes of sport to the mainstream.

These IMU sensors tick all the accessibility boxes – they are much more affordable than full optical systems and, in combination with intuitive apps, they make it easy for anyone to understand the data. The addition of inertial sensors takes wearable sensors beyond the basic speed and distance tracking capabilities of current running apps, instead providing users with more detailed and insightful biomechanical data.

However, for adoption of these sensors to continue to grow it is vital that the advanced measurement that inertial systems enable must be made as accessible and digestible as possible. Rather than simply serving up raw data, app developers need to develop solutions that enable athletes at all levels to benefit from the advanced data offered by inertial sensors – without needing to be experts in biomechanical science.

For the technology to be deployed successfully in training and rehab regimens, tablet or smartphone-based app solutions need to seamlessly integrate data capture from wearable inertial devices with video overlays and other inputs. The data analysis needs to be automated and remain ‘hidden’ from users for the most part – instead giving them simple feedback that can be easily understood by users that are not experts in either motion capture or biomechanics.

It is only by enabling these sort of use cases that athletes and coaches will be empowered to conduct real-time analysis of a wide range of actions and movements and build motion tracking into core coaching programs.


Real-time data

There is another huge potential plus point to tracking sensors. While lab-based systems still provide the gold standard in precision, capturing data in the lab remains inherently ‘unnatural’.

As a controlled environment, it is impossible for lab-based motion capture to factor in the more chaotic nature of sporting movements and the differing surfaces that respond in a variety of ways, depending on outdoor conditions and weather.

To minimise the risk of re-injury – or to optimise performance – sports scientists, biomechanists, physios and physical therapists, coaches and athletes need detailed information on specific limb- loading and joint angles in the moment while they are ‘on the field’. It is the only way they can assess an athlete’s natural performance in real-time, monitor progress, assess improvements, make adjustments or even to stop a session or make substitution if loading suggests a heightened risk.

This is why wearable inertial sensors can play an incredibly vital role. They offer the only route to accessing detailed biomechanical data live, in a natural situation.


Making the vision a reality

With the advances in technology that we see today we are on the cusp of this vision becoming a reality. As sensor technology becomes more sophisticated, supported by more intuitive apps and real-time wireless data uploads from sensors, it is reasonable to predict that by 2025 motion tracking will be firmly embedded in the fabric of sport.

Crucially, this growth in adoption will also be seen across various levels of sport and not just exclusively to the top level. Indeed, for athletes lower down the pyramid – potentially even your average park run enthusiast – this technology offers even more significant gains in minimising the risk of serious injury or improving technique than at the elite level. By giving athletes access to data and insights previously only exclusive to professionals, this will help elevate grassroot sports and could potentially help thousands of athletes elevate their performance.

It is fair to say that motion capture technology is here to stay on the sports field.