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David Zax

A View from David Zax

3-D Tech Helps Runners Heal, Improve

Motion capture isn’t just for the movies anymore.

  • December 29, 2011

By now, those of us who follow entertainment technology are familiar the image: an actor covered with tiny biometric dots, which are used to transform the actor’s motion into a 3-D image. (It was the technology behind the recent Planet of the Apes movie, for example.) But here’s a novel idea: using the same technology not for entertainment, but for medicine. Runners from Britain will be using 3-D technology to assess their running technique and (hopefully) prevent injuries, reports The Engineer.

Behind the technology is Run3D, a “private running biomechanics service” located at the Oxford Gait Laboratory (which was profiled briefly in a BBC video in 2008). Run3D is a relatively new service, having opened shop in October. The service is open to anyone: A one-hour assessment will run you £280. It might well be worth it, if you’re a person who takes running seriously (and don’t find a trip to Oxford inconvenient): some half of elite-level runners are injured every year, according to Run3D.

The basic idea behind Run3D is this: heavy runners run a lot. And though they might think their technique is flawless, subtle idiosyncrasies in their running style might gradually cause injury over time. “The repetitive and demanding loads placed on the body mean that even very small differences in your running patterns might lead to the development of a running injury,” says Run3D. By zeroing in on a runner’s technique, and comparing the collected data with a database of uninjured runners, Run3D can help you improve your form and prevent injury.

An assessment involves attaching those small spherical markers to a runner’s body. The motion of these markers is measured with 12 infrared cameras at a frequency of 200Hz, or two hundred times per second. This data is then used to create a personalized computer model which calculates the runner’s joint angles in three planes of movement (the technical terms of these three planes are “the sagittal plane, the frontal plane and the transverse plane”). “For example,” explains Run3D, “we measure how much your knee extends and flexes as you run, how much it rotates and how much it moves sideways.”

A few metrics in particular are of interest to the Run3D team, among them what The Engineer calls “peak pronation, peak hip extension and heel-whip”–parameters correlated with running injuries. In just ten minutes, Run3D’s software can compare a given customer’s technique with its database of controls. This data can then be leveraged by a customer’s physiotherapist, who can optimize the runner’s treatment based on the findings. If the customer is not injured, the data can nonetheless be used to prevent injury before it happens, in theory.

Often medical technologies begin as therapy, and wind up as something else: a tool of the already-healthy to gain an edge. (It seems unlikely that the ancient surgeon Galen foresaw and era of widespread breast augmentation.) Might Run3D ever bring its own services “beyond therapy,” to borrow the President’s Council on Bioethics’s phrase? There may indeed come an era where 3-D tech is not only used medically, but is also used to give a leg up, so to speak, to competitive runners. Says The Engineer: “in partnership with the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Calgary, the Run3D team is currently working towards creating a performance database that would combine the key variables in injury prevention with those necessary for optimised performance and efficiency.”

If that ever happens, then those funny white markers will have transformed three fields: entertainment, medicine, and competitive sports.

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