“That’s the trend in both medicine and sports,” says Russell. “Because you can measure it, you can personalize it.” For example, the device can tell the coach if the wearer is above or below anaerobic threshold, when muscles start producing lactic acid and therefore take longer to recover. “You can put them in the tight training zone for peak fitness and no injury,” says Russell.
However, the technology is new enough that scientists and coaches are still figuring out how to use the data. “No one knows what a normal basketball game looks like,” says Mitch Hauschildt, a strength and conditioning coach at Missouri State University who uses Zephyr’s device on his players.
Saxon, a cardiologist, aims to use the technology to better understand how an elite athlete’s heart behaves under the stress of playing the game. “We want to create a safer playing field for everyone, to be able to prolong athletes’ careers and understand how to train them better,” she says. “We know from sudden cardiac death there is something of a perfect storm in game play.”
Last month, Saxon put wireless electrocardiograph patches on USC’s football team for a week, including games. The endeavor was a proof of principle demonstration for a larger project funded by the NFL. “This type of study has never been done, not on a whole team,” says Saxon. Researchers plan to analyze, for example, what happens to a player’s physiological signs when he’s tackled.
Beyond safety and training, wearable sensors make it possible to broadcast a player’s physiological stats in real time, and that could add a new dimension to watching games, betting, and creating fantasy teams.
“Fans do really want to be engaged with players,” said Asim Pasha, chief information officer of a Kansas City soccer team that plays in the highly wired Livestrong Sporting Park, at the body computing conference. “Anytime they can get more information, it’s a definite plus.”
“It could have a huge impact in driving sponsorships,” adds David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute. But there’s still a debate about who owns that data—the athlete, the team, the league, or the sponsor.
So far, athletes seem excited about the possibility. “Players know that if they share data, they get better television coverage and a better contract,” says Russell. It doesn’t hurt that the shirt, with its futuristic puck centered on the chest, looks good. “They say they feel like Iron Man,” he says.
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