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Motus, Zepp Unveil New Wearable Baseball Tech at CES 2016

Motus Global and Zepp announced new additions to their existing lineup of baseball-specific wearable devices at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Motus Global’s system, called motusBASEBALL, is driven by a single IMU sensor. The new system can be used in a compression sleeve to track pitching, comparable to the mThrow, their existing offering. But the motusBASEBALL system can also be clipped on to a batting glove, providing feedback on a player’s swing.

“Our unique approach to the space, rooted in years of biomechanics services for MLB teams, along with the most powerful sports sensor on the market, gives our users the best chance at improving their mechanics and monitoring workloads on their joints,” said vice president for application development Ryan Holstad.

Preliminary information about the system is available on Motus Global’s website. The pitching metrics offered are very similar to the mThrow: both include throw limits based on workload, elbow and shoulder kinematics based on the single IMU worn over the ulnar collateral ligament, and a “bullpen mode” to help pitchers train.

The webpage also suggests that six metrics will be tracked for hitters: bat speed, hand speed, swing time, swing length (in inches), attack angle, and vertical angle. Metrics will be calculated separately for each region of the strike zone, to help hitters identify “hot” and “cold” regions. (Pitch locations will presumably be entered manually.)

To this point, not much has been revealed about the sensor driving the new system, other than that it has been “upgraded” over the current mThrow sensor. We can say for sure that the new sensor is less rounded than the current one. There is also a micro USB port for charging the sensor, a change from the induction charging previously used. More details will be revealed in the weeks leading up to the device launch (currently scheduled for February).

The company emphasized that motusBASEBALL was a consumer system, contrasting it with the motusPRO system unveiled during last month’s Winter Meetings. A full-body, five-sensor system, the motusPRO also transmits data via Bluetooth to a mobile phone or tablet for analysis. The system describes hitting and pitching motions through a wide range of angles, forces, rotations, and timing parameters. The motusPRO is currently available only to professional organizations, but Motus Global plans to roll the device out to select training facilities in the future.

Also this week, Zepp announced the next evolution of their bat sensor: an as yet unnamed offering embedded directly into the handle of the bat. As seen in the image above, the sensor will lock into a retention sleeve, which in turn will be fitted into the hollowed-out knob of a bat. Current offerings, which fit into flexible sleeves that slide over the knob, can move around or be knocked off by especially violent swings. Moving the sensor inside the bat should mitigate this problem.

The new design is still in the prototype phase, and no price point or release date have yet been announced. But Zepp claims to be in talks with a number of bat manufacturers to make a commercial version. In addition, Zepp announced a partnernship with New Balance, who unveiled a new digital sport division at CES.

Meanwhile, Zepp also has representatives at the annual convention of the American Baseball Coaches Association in Nashville. The goal there is to advance Zepp’s new design as an “open-source” industry standard for wearable sensors. To that end, the company will be hosting a roundtable discussion on this topic Friday.

Currently, devices like Motus Global’s and Zepp’s are not approved by MLB for in-game use. But MLB has said they are updating their wearables policy before the 2016 season. Until then, these devices can be used in practices and specific events: Zepp’s existing sensor has been used during game action at Perfect Game showcases, and an early version of the mThrow was used during 2014 fall instructs.


GPS-Based Athlete Tracking Systems: A Primer

If you’re following the rise of player tracking technology, most of what’s being discussed are in-game systems. Whether the system is camera-based, like SportVu in the NBA or Statcast in MLB, or sensor-based, like Zebra’s RFID tracking of NFL players or the Sportvision’s partnership with the NHL, the goal is similar: track how pro athletes in the heat of competition, with the hope of gaining a competitive advantage by the shaving of a fraction of a second here or optimizing a route there.

But there’s another way for teams to use technology to gain an edge: by keeping their best players healthy and in those big games. This requires a separate system, especially on large squads like football teams where it would be impractical to collect and process the amount of optical data needed to capture everyone’s movements across all activities. As a result, systems based on global positioning system (GPS) technology are used in practices and rehab by a wide range of teams across all major sports.

Most of the designs center around a sports-bra looking harness worn by the athlete under his or her shirt. The harness holds a device containing a GPS chip, along with additional components like accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers, to track how and where an athlete moves. The GPS device is often paired with a heart rate monitor, allowing the system to estimate exertion.

Because the device relies on satellites to track the athletes, most companies that market a GPS system also market a complementary indoor system, typically based off a technology such as RFID that is better suited to the indoor environment. If a basketball or hockey team is working with one of these companies, chances are that they’re using indoor technology.

For now, these devices are predominantly used in practices, as none of the major leagues currently allow on-field wearable sensors for safety reasons. But FIFA just relaxed their ban, following successful runs at the Women’s World Cup and Under-23 World Cup over the summer. National federations are expected to follow suit shortly, and other sports leagues (such as MLB) are drawing up procedures to approve devices for in-game use.

Most readers are familiar with activity trackers like FitBit, which typically include a GPS component. But monitoring companies say that they aren’t designed to provide enough information to accurately track an athlete’s performance during competition or training.

“They offer very little insight into athlete’s performance,” said Richard Byrne, STATSports’s Business Administrator. “FitBit themselves are the first to admit they will show you patterns relating to your fitness levels as oppose to wholly accurate data.”

It might seem surprising to hear that teams are investing in GPS technology as camera-based systems proliferate across pro sports. STATS’ SportVu cameras are positioned in all 30 NBA arenas, and soccer teams have tracked distance traveled with systems like Matrics for years. But GPS companies argue their devices provide more in-depth information than camera-based systems.

“Camera systems essentially turn a match into moving dots on a screen,” said Catapult director of marketing Boden Westover. “You get speed and distance metrics, but they’re a tiny piece of the athlete tracking pie.”

There are a number of companies that offer similar GPS systems. For this introduction, I spoke with representatives from three — Catapult, STATSports, and VX Sport — but others (including GPSports and Zephyr) are also currently being used by pro organizations.

Catapult

With over 440 clients in 40 countries listed on their website, Catapult is the best-known and most prolific GPS company. Based in Australia, their OptimEye S5 (and the goalkeeper-specific G5) use GNSS, a combination of the American GPS system and the Russian GLONASS system. The result, according to Catapult, is a system accurate to within 50 cm; an older system that uses GPS only has a stated accuracy of 100 cm. The OptimEye devices include an inertial measurement analysis (IMA) chip, an accelerometer/gyroscope combination that measures an athlete’s finer movements. For indoor clients, Catapult produces ClearSky, an RFID-based system.

Westover said that Catapult’s distinguishing characteristic was independent validation of the technology published in peer-reviewed journals.

“There are around 100 such articles that have been published on Catapult, which prove that our technology measures what we say it does,” he said. “Other systems out there being used by teams have never been scientifically proven.”

STATSports

Headquartered in Ireland, STATSports’ offering is the Viper Pod, a combination GPS and MARG device with a stated accuracy of at least one meter. The inclusion of accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer components allows the Viper Pod to track accelerations and decelerations, along with athlete direction and turning. The MARG components also contribute to the scrum analysis used by their rugby clients.

Although their current indoor solution works off accelerometry data, STATSports’ upcoming Viper 3 system (due out this year) will incorporate ultra-wideband technology for accuracy up to 10 cm. The new system will also use low-energy Bluetooth to connect to other devices like heart rate monitors.

Business administrator Richard Byrne said that STATSports prides itself on its software platform in addition to accuracy.

“Our customers tell us our software is light years ahead of anything else they have experienced,” Byrne said. “We have a host of innovative metrics which allow coaches who use our system an incredibly in-depth look at their athlete’s performance.”

VX Sport

VX Sport, a New Zealand-based company, is focusing its efforts on collegiate sports teams. VX Sport’s system combines three satellite systems — GPS, GLONASS, and an analogous Chinese system — but unlike other companies, doesn’t claim that the additional satellites produces increased accuracy. Instead, managing director Richard Snow claimed that the “dark art” of GPS accuracy relied more on high-quality components and intense post-processing.

“It’s a bit like talking about a pro digital camera vs. a consumer model,” Snow said. “If you picked up a pro Nikon from ten years ago, it’s always gonna be better than the 20 megapixel thing that you buy for $75 from an electronics store. And that’s the reality with GPS.”

VX Sport also offers an IMU-based indoor tracking system that caters to volleyball and basketball clients. Incorporating an accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer, the device can track leg and hip biometrics based on the steps an athlete takes. The system includes software to summarize these biometrics into injury predictors.

Given the gameday motion capture systems currently in place, these GPS-based systems might seem superfluous. But Snow emphasized the importance of his system as a way to quantify players’ effort during the daily grind of training sessions.

“It used to be someone talking with the athletes in the morning, working out how are you feeling, what’s your readiness,” Snow said. “And then at the end of the training, how did you rate that? The only way they’re going to change that is with proper monitoring.”


MLB Teams Demo New Tech During Fall Instructs

After quietly toiling away all summer, they travel to the complexes in Arizona and Florida just after the minor league seasons end. Now is the time to impress the higher-ups that will decide their future with the organization.

It seems the startups traveling to the Arizona Fall League and fall instructional leagues have more in common with the prospects they work with after all.

MLB teams use the fall instructional leagues (“instructs”) to try out new technologies they are considering purchasing. Organizations get to use their minor league talent as guinea pigs, rather than their stars. And tech companies get more access to players than they would during spring training or the regular season, when their schedules are much more regimented.

The result is a who’s who of baseball-related companies making their way to the Arizona and Florida. Over the past year, deCervo, Motus Global, SmartKage, and Zepp all reported spending time at fall instructs, and that’s just the companies I’ve personally written about. Motus brought their pitching sleeve — later officially christened the mThrow — to last year’s fall instructs, where they reported metrics such as arm slot, arm speed, and elbow torque to coaches during game action.

“Fall instructs serves as a great platform for Motus to work with our existing lab partners on new developments while we transition our biomechanics lab experience to the field,” chief technology officer Ben Hansen said.

Teams are always looking for new products to test out. Suggestions for new devices can come from anywhere: training staffs reading about a new technology, or front office members suggesting products they or their colleagues have used before. But there’s a significant effort needed to try new devices, so organizations have to narrow their choices down to the most promising options.

“In almost all cases, the decision to evaluate technology involves more than one department buying in,” said Rangers’ director of baseball information services Todd Slavinsky.

Once a decision to work with a particular technology is made, the technology is evaluated on a number of fronts. Slavinsky said the Rangers pay special attention to making sure the device is unobtrusive for the players who use it and produces clear, actionable information for coaches and trainers.

“Ease of use is key,” he said. “And the ability to import results into our internal systems is important.”

Part of the evaluation process is determining how, if a device is designed for in-game use, data collected outside of a game environment relates to data collected during competition. And this is where fall instructs provide a unique opportunity for organizations: In contrast to the regular season, there are relatively few barriers to in-game use during instructs. MLB currently prohibits the on-field use of technologies like bat sensors during games (though a new policy is in the works for next season). But unlike spring training or even the Arizona Fall League, fall instructs are not sanctioned by Major or Minor League Baseball. And since these games are more of a very organized scrimmage than their officially sanctioned counterparts, rules about things like on-field technology are made by the participating clubs without the involvement of MLB.

Startups are understandably excited to get an invite to fall instructs. Jason Sherwin, founder and CEO of deCervo, worked with four teams this fall: two teams with whom he had an existing relationship, and two new organizations. A veteran of spring training, Sherwin said the less stringent schedules of fall instructs makes life easier for people like him, who need to grab players between games and workouts and batting practices.

“During the season, the schedule’s more set … and the priority is on the players being ready for the game,” Sherwin said. “So there’s a lot less room for us to fit in there.”

But in the spare moments at instructs, Sherwin and his colleagues had a chance to test the minor leaguers available to them using their full EEG system. Naturally, most of the players had never heard of deCervo’s brain training techniques. But Sherwin said he was encouraged by the feedback his group collected from the users.

“It was a very positive response from the players,” he said. “They’d like to use it on their phone, they thought it was cool, that sort of thing.”

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for deCervo. Sherwin said his group witnessed “sparring” within organizations between those who were excited about the technology, and those who hadn’t heard of it and were more skeptical.

“Because what we’re doing is such a different approach to hitting, the process is more by exposure,” Sherwin said. “So there is a little bit of a hump to get over in terms of willingness to change or work it into the already busy schedule.”

Now that the instructs season is over, the technology companies are back in the lab, analyzing the data they collected from the pros to see how they can improve their products. And front offices are gathering too, poring over their new data sources and trying to determine if they are worth a longer look.

“In the end the decision to move from evaluation to adoption would be based on positive feedback … along with strong buy-in from multiple departments that the results will yield a real competitive advantage,” Slavinsky said.


CoachMePlus Completes Fundraising for Athlete Management System

CoachMePlus, a Buffalo-based company behind an eponymous athlete management system, recently completed a $600,000 round of venture capital fundraising, according to the company. The latest round followed a $1 million round of fundraising in October 2013.

The CoachMePlus software aggregates data from disparate sources into a single dashboard, making it easier for coaches and training staffs to combine the data from different wearable sensors, camera-based systems, and other sources. As such, they draw comparisons to Kinduct and Kitman Labs, which TechGraphs has recently covered. The difference, according to president and co-founder Kevin Dawidowicz, is that CoachMePlus was developed by “software guys,” rather than people with a physiology background. As a result, he argues, the company’s software is agnostic to a trainer’s methodology, which can mean a lot in a field as contentious as injury prevention.

“If I’m an industry expert, I’m going to shape my ideas and my software around my thought process,” Dawidowicz said. “But if you don’t believe in that methodology, then the software doesn’t work.”

This can be an advantage for teams with established sports science programs, who subscribe to their own theories on what keeps their athletes healthy. CoachMePlus also combines raw data with the outputs of algorithms produced by device companies to give front offices more options when working with data.

“We have universities that will use raw force plate data, put their own algorithms on top of it, and come up with their own indicators,” Dawidowicz said. “Nobody else is doing that.”

But not every organization is quite that advanced. For those cases, CoachMePlus has a network of consultants in place that teams can hire to help them analyze their data. The network, which Dawidowicz said was built entirely by word of mouth, keeps CoachMePlus from being influenced by a specific methodology.

“Everything that we’ve done is kind of through word of mouth, trade show attendance, and networking through different channels,” Dawidowicz said. “If you build these longstanding trust relationships, these coaching trees and these sport science trees open up because you’ve actually delivered for somebody.”

In addition to its data management tools, CoachMePlus also features workflow management tools, which Dawidowicz believes to be unique among his competitors. The tools allow coaches and training staffs to perform repetitive tasks like weigh-ins quickly and efficiently, even for large teams. The workflow tools also allow staffs to more effectively communicate with their athletes, so that athletes coming off the field can be quickly routed to the appropriate recovery therapy.

“We’ve created these workflows in our system that display this information throughout facilities and it lets people know ‘Something’s wrong,’ or ‘Go do something'” Dawidowicz said.

The origins of the company date back to the early 2000s, when Dawidowicz was running a software consulting company. The Buffalo Sabres’ strength and conditioning coach came to Dawidowicz to make an interactive version of the team’s workout book. But Dawidowicz, whose interest in strength and conditioning came out of his days as a self-described “bro-science gym rat,” saw the potential for something much more interesting.

“I get down to the locker room and I go, ‘You don’t want that, you want a calendar, and you want to put your periodiziation model on there, and you want to track your sets and reps, and you want to put your body fat percentages…’ and I’m just going on and on about all the stuff that it could be instead,” he said.

This relationship continued for a few years until the Sabres increased their budget, giving CoachMePlus the money to develop a prototype system. In 2011, CoachMePlus brought the prototype to the NHL combine in Toronto and signed deals with the Edmonton Oilers and Columbus Blue Jackets. The company still counts those organizations among their 48 customers.

“We’ve never lost a team, we’ve never gotten to the point where a team’s not going to renew with us,” Dawidowicz said.

In addition to their athlete management system, CoachMePlus has begun working with wearable device manufacturers to develop software that teams can use to take advantage of the new technologies.

“There are actual device companies right now that have given up on being software companies and instead pump their data into our system,” Dawidowicz said. “We’re finding more and more device companies looking to focus on just the hardware, and then we help them by focusing on the software.”

The additional venture capital funding will allow CoachMePlus to support the data management needs of even more organizations. Dawidowicz says the company will continue its focus on building software to the needs of its clients.

“It’s such a noisy market out there,” he said. “We’re playing the long game of, ‘Get the next customer, make them happy, continue.'”


Scoutee Pairs Handheld Radar Gun with Smartphone App

Slovenia probably isn’t the first country you’d expect new baseball technology to come from. But they do have a baseball league and a national team (trounced by such powerhouses at Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Slovakia at this summer’s European championship qualifiers). And it’s this Balkan country that’s produced the Scoutee, a handheld radar that its creators hope will help those just learning the game measure themselves.

According to Scoutee, the first prototype of the device was created last summer. Design was completed over the past year, and the device is now available for pre-order through a Kickstarter campaign. Of the four co-founders, only chief executive officer Miha Uhan came into the project with experience playing baseball. I asked if his fellow Scoutee developers even knew about baseball when they started the project.

“They sort of knew,” he said. “The hardest thing for our team was actually the technical point, not the baseball point.”

Naturally, the product is small, weighing around half a pound. The Scoutee can attach to a tripod or be clipped to a fence, but also ships with a magnetic sticker so users can attach the device directly to their smartphone. Inside is a Doppler radar transceiver, hardware to perform amplification and other signal processing, and a low-energy Bluetooth transmitter to send the readings to the user’s phone or tablet. Scoutee also claims a battery life of up to six hours, and a range of up to 130 feet. For most amateur games (which seems to be Scoutee’s target demographic), that should be just enough for someone positioned just behind the backstop, which is supposed to be 60 feet from home plate (or about 120 feet from the pitching rubber).

The most common question Scoutee fields is related to the device’s accuracy. Scoutee claims to be accurate to within one mile per hour, based on side-by-side tests with traditional radar guns. Tests have been performed with both human pitchers and (because the pitchers available during testing never broke 90 mph), with a high-velocity pitching machine to test the device’s accuracy at speeds over 100 mph. Additional ballistic tests are planned by Scoutee’s technical team to establish the device’s accuracy for objects moving at a known speed.

Though designed with baseball applications in mind, the Scoutee is at heart a radar gun, and thus has a number of other potential applications. Scoutee’s Kickstarter comments page is filled with suggestions for other uses, all of which Uhan claims are possible with the existing hardware but may require additional algorithm and app development.

“We got requests from national ski associations, they want to measure how fast their skiiers go,” Uhan said. “We even got requests or emails from people who want to measure the speed of cars in their neighborhood.”

Uhan, along with Scoutee’s chief marketing officer Majda Dodevska, have been touring the United States since early September to spread the word about the product. Scoutee has made appearances at TechCrunch Disrupt’s Hardware Alley, and will be present at this week’s Hashtag Sports Fest. Scoutee is also making contacts with companies interesting in importing Scoutee measurements into their existing apps (though Dodevska wouldn’t mention any specific organizations at this time).

“We’re definitely open to any type of cooperation,” Dodevska said. “If anyone wants to talk to us about anything, we’re here.”

Any down time the team has is spent meeting with coaches, scouts, players, and parents, demonstrating their product and collecting feedback. Uhan said prospective users are always surprised when first introduced to the technology.

“It seemed really strange that if it is technically possible then nobody has done it before, and that’s what we heard over the last 12 months,” Uhan said. “Everybody we talked to and we showed our prototype was like, ‘Okay, you must be kidding me right? This thing exists already,’ and we’re like, ‘No! No!'”

Uhan’s moment of inspiration was a long time coming. His first introduction to baseball came on a 1997 trip to the United States, when he went with his family to a game at Jacobs Field. That was the Indians team that lost in Game 7 to the Florida Marlins, facing a Mariners team that included Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, and Ken Griffey, Jr. Uhan pestered his American relatives with questions, and brought a love of the game back home with him.

“It was so, so nice to be there in the stadium and to watch the game and to experience that all,” he said.

Once back in Slovenia, Uhan began playing with a local team. Soon after, he was invited to join the national team (“You get noticed because there is not a lot of competition,” Uhan admitted) and became a pitcher. Within a year — and before he even understood all the rules of baseball — Uhan was traveling with the junior national team to a tournament in Switzerland.

By the time he was in high school, Uhan was sitting mid-80s, playing for the senior-level national team, and traveling with his coach to the MLB elite camps. One of his teammates played for a bit in the Mexican League, but Uhan wanted to play college ball in the U.S. He borrowed a directory of colleges from the American embassy and emailed every athletic department in the book. Of the thousands of emails he sent, only a handful got back to him. But the responses discouraged him further.

“Everybody said, ‘Yeah, sure, just send us some stats, send us some videos,'” Uhan said.

With no statistics available from his national team days, and no video or scouting reports available to him, Uhan couldn’t make an impression on his would-be college coaches. He ended up attending the University of Ljubjana in the Slovenian capital, and his baseball career ended. As a lecturer in the school’s faculty of economics, Uhan was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and found inspiration in his former passion. He soon after partnered with fellow faculty members who specialized in electrical engineering (especially radar systems), and they began developing what would become Scoutee.

“Because we don’t have a technical background, we contacted some people who we knew in Slovenia that had the hardware knowledge,” Uhan said. “It was a challenge, but if it wasn’t a challenge then probably somebody would have done it before.”

Uhan recalled that, in his playing days, the radar gun was a rare sight. The only one available to the national team was old and on its last legs, so Uhan and his fellow pitchers didn’t have many opportunities to measure their progress. Scoutee’s goal is to make these sorts of metrics accessible to anyone with a smartphone, with the hope of growing baseball in fledgling markets like Slovenia.

“We’re actually crowdsourcing the scouting process, that’s the idea,” Uhan said.


SmartKage Helps Scouts, Teams Evaluate Players

SmartKage’s headquarters are in a remote office park, 36 miles and a couple dozen cows away from Boston. But in a batting cage inside, Kevin is warmed up and ready to audition before an audience of MLB scouts and college recruiters from across the country.

Kevin, a 14-year-old shortstop (whose name has been changed for this story), and his father are listening to SmartKage chief operating officer Larry Scannell describe the components of the infielder test. Scannell, a former Red Sox farmhand, runs through the sprinting, agility, throwing, and hitting portions of the test.

“It’s analogous to a physical SAT,” Scannell says. “And if you take it multiple times, just like the SAT, we combine your best scores in each area. It’s not about consistency, it’s about capability.

Once the explanation is over, a few taps on a touch screen start the automated measurement process. The system has been designed to be completely automated. Aside from tapping “next” on the touch screen, no human intervention is required, though Scannell adds the occasional explanatory detail or words of encouragement. And as Kevin takes his hacks against the pitching machine, Scannell and director of information technology Dennis Clemens starts talking about the collaboration with FungoMan that was required to making the pitching machine as consistent as possible.

“We changed out the legs and bolted the machine down,” Clemens said. “The side-to-side adjustment was removed, and we had the agitator adjusted so there were fewer jams.”

“And we swap the balls out every 30 days,” Scannell added. “We’re working with Rawlings and talking about the life of a baseball. And as a former facility owner myself, I mean, these are pearls! We would use these for an entire year, you know? Now …”

“Now the dog eats them,” CEO Corrine Vitolo said. “We take the premise of standardization very seriously.”

The fresh baseballs are more than just a way to give Merlin, a German Shepherd mix who was also on hand, new chew toys. Developing and running a standardized test requires SmartKage to constantly calibrate and maintain their equipment. It also means a significant effort to find the right kind of facilities to partner with, and Scannell said he spent five years evaluating prospective partners.

“I vetted these facilities out on location, years in business, member base and foot traffic, and then the size and the appearance,” he said. “But most importantly, are they going to bring in the business and support it?”

To date, SmartKage has reached agreements with 160 facilities across the country. They began their initial rollout earlier this year, and are currently up and running in about 20 facilities. The company owns the equipment and installs it in the facilities, who then advertise the product to their clients. The tests run around $150, and take around 30 minutes. Different tests exist for infielders, outfielders, catchers, and pitchers; the results are available to professional teams and college programs, with especially high marks forwarded directly to teams.

“We’re a filter and a pre-qualifier for teams,” Scannell said. “It’s about maximizing the time and productivity for scouts.”

Vitolo said her company also has more in-depth relationships with a number of MLB teams (though she refused to say which). These teams lease systems to gauge the fitness and health of their own players. Scannell said the teams also buy prepaid “scout cards” that area scouts give to amateur players they’d like more information on, and that professional players already in the organizations use in the offseason to track their workouts.

“And because we weigh them every single time, we’ll know if they come in overweight before they get into spring training,” Scannell said.

smartkage_sample

Sample speed and agility data from a SmartKage testing session (courtesy of SmartKage).

 

The batting cage where the test takes place looks a little unusual. Laser timers are stationed at regular intervals along the length of the cage to track the athlete during speed and agility tests (though these are removed, of course, before hitting begins). The area around home plate is slightly elevated: the platform contains pressure sensors to track things like how a hitter’s weight is distributed during the swing. And hanging from the ceiling are two cameras, evidence of an automated version of Sportvision’s PITCHf/x technology that tracks both incoming pitches and batted balls.

“What we’re doing is we’re bringing these technologies from the major league level, we’re trickling them down through the amateur and collegiate market,” Vitolo said.

Sportvision, of course, should be familiar to tech-savvy baseball fans; their PITCHf/x pitch tracking data have been publicly available since the system was first installed in 2007. And their HITf/x and FIELDf/x technologies have also been available to teams for several years. Soon after their founding, Vitolo said SmartKage began their partnership with Sportvision, ensuring that the same data sources front offices were using to evaluate their professional pitchers and hitters would also be available to judge prospective draftees.

“So when they’re making comparative analysis between players, it’s exact, it’s apples to apples,” Vitolo said. “[Sportvision is] the de facto standard in baseball, and we worked with them on adding metrics to their existing system.”

Even after only a few months, SmartKage is already finding interesting trends in their data. Scannell described how players, after years of counterclockwise baserunning, become almost universally faster going to their right than going to their left. And he also talked about how the technology helped find an injury from a pro pitcher’s plyometric pushup data.

“There was an abnormal kind of regression in one of the pitching shoulders,” Scannell said. “And it turned out that there was a slight tear, and it was enough to red flag an MRI.”

The team is busy completing its first 40 installations, and making plans to roll out to the other facilities they have agreements with. But look in the right places and you’ll see hints — like a Harvard football helmet perched on a filing cabinet — that the company is starting to expand their offerings.

“A lot of the facilities that Larry’s got under contract are multi-sport facilities,” Vitolo said. “So you’ll have a SmartKage baseball, and then you’ll have a SmartSports football.”

Just like the SmartKage, SmartSports Football will offer an automated evaluation tool — a “physical SAT” — to a sport known for its pre-draft scouting combine. But Scannell says the company will offer far more than the handful of metrics traditionally covered.

“We measure five times the amount of metrics as the NFL combine,” Scannell said. “We can do everything the NFL does plus another five times those metrics in addition.”

As more and more of the cages start to appear across the country, the technology that underpins them will improve. SmartKage already has plans to add even more data sources, from pressure sensors in the pitching mound to markerless biometrics to wearable sensor-based technologies. To an outside perspective, digging into a specific aspect of a player’s game from the all the information SmartKage makes available may seem like trying to drink from a fire hose. But Vitolo says her company is ready to adapt to any improvements in technology — and still meet teams’ growing demand for performance and biometric data.

“Leap and the net appears,” Vitolo said. “You have the technology, you’ve got the capacity, and all of a sudden the applications present themselves.”


How David Ortiz Keeps Hitting Homers

On September 12, David Ortiz led off the top of the fifth inning by turning on a Matt Moore curveball, depositing it into the Tropicana Field bleachers for his second home run of the day and the 500th of his career. Ortiz became the 27th MLB hitter to reach the 500-homer milestone, and (at 39 years and 298 days) the fifth-oldest.

Ortiz didn’t get regular at bats until his age 24 season with Minnesota, and when he first came to the Red Sox, he shared the DH role with the immortal Jeremy Giambi. Contrast that with fellow Dominican and 500-homer man Albert Pujols, who had already played three full seasons by that age and collected 114 home runs as the Cardinals’ everyday left fielder. How has Ortiz managed to overcome this late start and defy the aging curve to hit dingers long after other sluggers have seen their power decline?

We can glean some extra insights from Ortiz’s relationship with Zepp’s baseball sensor. Because Ortiz is one of nine MLB players who endorse the Zepp baseball sensor, Zepp includes data and video from a couple of his swings with their app. And even when compared to the other professionals they’ve worked with, Ortiz’s swing impresses the Zepp scientists.

“Most of the athletes we work with are 25 years old, in the prime of their career,” Trevor Stocking, Zepp’s product manager for baseball and softball, said. “For him to have the kind of bat speed he does at age 38, 39, 40, it’s really special.”

David Ortiz Data - Total

Looking at his swing data (pictured above), we see Ortiz’s swing speed is in line with other Zepp athletes like Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout, and Hunter Pence. Ortiz’s time to impact (how early before contact the hitter starts his swing) is just above league-average. According to Zepp, most professional hitters’ time to impact is between .14 and .18 seconds; Ortiz was clocked at .138 seconds.

David Ortiz Bat Speed Impact

Viewing his swing path in the three-dimensional representation above, we see that Ortiz focuses on keeping his hands close to his body, ensuring the bat stays on a direct path to the ball with a minimal amount of wasted energy. This helps keep his bat fast and his swing quick.

But Ortiz is a giant of a man, listed at 6’4″ and 230 pounds. For younger players who use this technology to compare their swings to that of their heroes, it might not be a great idea (or even possible) to mimic his strategy without his strength. But Stocking says there are still lessons to be learned from his data.

“What you come away with each time you work with David Ortiz is a respect for how hard he works,” Stocking said. “He understands his swing and has a plan when he gets in the batter’s box. That’s something we can all strive to do.”

Apart from Ortiz’s successes, Zepp has had a few accomplishments of their own this summer. The company inked deals with the Angels, Diamondbacks, Padres, and Rays to provide sensors and data to hitters throughout those organizations. CEO Jason Fass said the four teams are additions to Zepp’s existing stable of MLB organizations, but declined to divulge how many or which teams, citing non-disclosure agreements.

Zepp also strengthened their existing relationship with Perfect Game, providing sensors for in-game use at this summer’s showcase events like the PG All-American Classic. The in-game data from such high-level talent provided a novel database for Zepp’s research.

“It’s the first time ever this kind of data has been recorded with pro-level talent,” Stocking said.

The Perfect Game data also hinted at a relationship between attack angle (or swing plane) and success. In the admittedly small sample gathered at the showcase, the average hit was associated with a slight uppercut, an attack angle of 12 degrees. Most outs, on the other hand, were produced by a nearly flat or slightly downward swing, having an average attack angle of -2 degrees.

“This would back up a lot of our MLB data that tells us most line drives occur when the attack angle is between five and 20 degrees,” Stocking said.

The Zepp sensor is a square, neon green device held in place by a flexible strap that goes over the knob of the bat. The sensor contains two accelerometers and one gyroscope, allowing Zepp to track the bat’s path through six degrees of freedom. Having two accelerometers allows the sensor to track the large, high-frequency accelerations that happen around impact while still accurately tracking the lower-frequency accelerations as the bat moves through the zone. The sensor connects via Bluetooth to an Android or iOS phone or tablet, where swing data (and simultaneous video) can be captured, stored, and compared to friends and professionals like Ortiz, Stanton, Trout, and others.


Kinduct Sports Offering Featured in Dodgers Accelerator Program

Kinduct Technologies made waves in the sports tech world when they were selected as one of ten companies in the Dodgers Accelerator program. But CEO Travis McDonough admits that his company is more mature than many of his fellow participants.

“We have 40 employees, we’ve got many many different clients, we’re across different industries, we have a mature operating system,” he said. “We have now 50 professional sporting organizations that are using our tool and it changes every day.”

The tool, which is known as the Athlete Management System, aggregates data from wearable, camera-based, and even more subjective systems into a single environment. The system includes visualization tools so teams can search for correlations between the data themselves, and a machine learning component to further guide organization training plans. The system gives vital help to organizations trying to understand the massive amounts of data they collect from games and practices.

“There’s been an explosion of ancillary tracking tools on the market today, everything from camera systems to GPS trackers to heart rate monitors to smart phones,” McDonough said. “And all those data sources, as valuable as they are, reside in siloed pockets.”

In addition to the Athlete Management System, Kinduct offers similar services in the health care, wellness, and human performance market (which covers military and law enforcement applications). Their experience in these other fields informs the algorithms behind their athletic products.

“Because we have had the opportunity to start to figure the machine learning side out on the health side, we’re able to cross-pollinate and apply it to the sports market,” McDonough said.

But the operating system and machine learning tools are only as effective as the data they can handle. McDonough said Kinduct works with their clients to incorporate both new and existing sources of data. Their web page lists relationships with camera-based systems including the NBA’s SportVu system, as well as wearable trackers like Polar Global and Catapult, among others.

“We’re very agnostic, and we love to pull in data from as many sources as possible,” he said. “So we are absolutely delighted at the new technologies that are coming out, and all these emerging data sources are exactly what make us more powerful.”

Kinduct counts dozens of sports organizations among its clients — including “more than half the NBA,” according to McDonough — and is working with a few unnamed leagues to manage data across all teams. The obvious differences are there, of course: basketball teams have different expectations for their relationship with Kinduct than hockey teams or baseball clubs. But the varying levels of sophistication across organizations provides an additional challenge, and Kinduct has to ramp up or scale back their offerings according to the client’s experience and comfort level.

“The NBA teams, they put their arms right around technology so we adopt what they use,” McDonough said. “When it comes to other organizations … they’re looking for recommendations by us to suggest ancillary technologies that can do the best job of tracking their players.

From a researcher’s perspective, the fact that Kinduct works with such a large percentage of the NBA is exciting. Deep in their databases is tracking and data, across games and practices, on dozens of elite athletes. McDonough estimated that the average NBA team spent $10 million on players sidelined with “preventable” injuries, repetitive stress injuries arising from flawed biomechanics that he likened to a stone cutter chipping away at a rock. And while McDonough was more than happy to describe how an individual team could combine their various data sources to find potential injury markers, he also stressed his company’s respect for the “firewall” that protects not only each team’s raw data, but also any metrics they build on top to analyze those data.

“It’s almost like we provide a technological apartment building, but each and every team moves their specific furniture and wallpaper in it, and the keys to the front door are locked down so no one can go in it but that organization,” he said.

Still, he agreed that a league-wide approach would be more effective, allowing coaches and staff to spot trends in a wider sample of data that could keep players off the trainer’s table.

“The right thing in the future is for leagues to be able to analyze the data and intervene to make sure the players are playing at their best and reducing injury as best as they can,” McDonough said.

Nevertheless, Kinduct is still dealing with health care data, which is subject to a wide range of safeguards to protect patient confidentiality. On top of that, athletes and the players associations that represent them remain leery about biomechanical data being used against them during contract negotiations. Players associations also objected to earlier iterations of the system that tracked athlete workouts during the off-season as excessive. As a result, Kinduct has worked to produce a system that provides the data front offices are after while remaining as unobtrusive as possible to players.

“For a player, they just want to win games, they want to win a championship,” McDonough said. “And a level of surveillance [during the season] seems to be acceptable by both the players’ association, the players, and of course management and ownership.”

It was announced in August that Kinduct was one of the ten companies selected for the Dodgers’ first annual accelerator program, which will run through a “demo day” November 15. The Dodgers are running the accelerator in conjunction with advertising agency R/GA, who has successfully run a number of similar programs in the past. Described by McDonough as “almost like a business boot camp,” the program offers Kinduct mentoring from a who’s who of sports executives and a chance to get more exposure.

“What we have is a Ferrari in a garage,” he said. “This allows us to open the garage door and have more people see our Ferrari. And people want to drive it, and it’s exciting.”

For now, McDonough and his staff have moved to Los Angeles to participate in the accelerator, and plan to open an office in the U.S. after the program to expand into the American market, especially in the health care, fitness, and military areas that fall under the same “human performance” umbrella as the company’s Athlete Management System. Still, McDonough said the company would remain true to its Canadian roots regardless of its excursions south of the border.

“We’ll always have a home base in Halifax,” McDonough said. “But we need to have a bigger presence in the United States.”


Blast Motion, Easton Collaborate to Produce Easton Power Sensor

The Easton Power Sensor, produced through the partnership between wearable sensor manufacturer Blast Motion and baseball equipment manufacturer Easton, was recently released. The sensor was the result of a collaboration first announced in January 2014, and has been in the works since before the official launch of the Blast Baseball Replay.

The product, which will go on the market this fall, is largely a re-branding of the existing Blast Baseball Replay sensor. For the first time, however, Blast will expand its offerings to support Android devices. Donovan Prostrollo, Blast Motion’s senior director of marketing, says that current users will also benefit from future software changes that will come out of this partnership.

“There has been a lot of infrastructure work that has gone on behind the scenes,” Prostrollo said. “We will be providing a free software upgrade to Blast Baseball Replay customers, allowing them to gain all the benefits of the Easton Power Sensor and the new features that are on the way.”

Now that the sensor has been officially released, Easton plans to incorporate it into its traveling Hit Lab, which combines video capture and Trackman radar systems to help players learn more about their swings.

“[The Hit Lab] offers an unmatched opportunity for players to experience the science of hitting,” said Henry Fitzgerald, a member of Easton’s performance sports group. “The Easton Power Sensor will have a central role in this.”

Plans to further improve sensor performance are currently being discussed, but Fitzgerald was understandably reluctant to divulge specific improvements.

“Our R&D department is always searching for ways to improve our bats and any relevant technology,” Fitzgerald said.

The announcement coincided with the start of the 2015 Little League World Series, which ended this past Sunday. As the official equipment sponsor of the event, Easton brought the Power Sensor to Williamsport (shown above) to demonstrate its capabilities for the second straight year.

“It’s exciting to see the kids when they get their hands on the sensor and see their metrics,” Prostrollo said. “By combining the science of hitting with innovative technology, we’re able to give players of all ages and skill levels the insights they need to improve their swing.”

Like Major League Baseball, Little League Baseball currently does not allow wearable senors like the Easton Power Sensor on the field during competitions. But Fitzpatrick says Easton has been lobbying for these groups to lift this ban.

“The sensor as it is today does not offer any sort of performance advantage,” he said. “It’s simply an attachment.”

Like the Blast Baseball Replay, the Easton Power sensor is driven by a “tactical-grade” inertial measurement unit (IMU), which combines more precise sensors, more processing power, and on-the-fly calibration to improves the device’s accuracy and consistency. Both the Blast and Easton apps revolve around video, typically captured by setting the device on a tripod and automatically clipped so that only the events of interest are included. Users can view their swings in adaptive slow-motion, which automatically adjusts the playback speed around key moments in the swing. In an earlier interview, Prostrollo said Blast Motion’s focus on video allows Blast’s Baseball Replay — now re-branded as the Easton Power Sensor — to give users insights into more than just bat path alone.

“Because we approached it from the natural motion capture side, we knew that it was going to be a lot more about what is your entire body doing,” Prostrollo said. “The metrics are really only half the story. You really need to put that in context, you need to make it personal.”


Heart Rate Sensor Assists U.S. Women’s National Team

The United States women’s national team won their third World Cup title this summer in Canada. That same Women’s World Cup, along with this summer’s Under 20 World Cup in New Zealand, marked the first time FIFA allowed players to wear tracking devices during game action. The success of the devices during these events led FIFA to greenlight the use of wearables in future competitions, subject to the approval of individual leagues.

Part of the team’s success was the players’ dedication to the training plans developed by strength and fitness coach Dawn Scott.

“I think it’s a testament to the players that they trusted us and stuck to the program, and did what they needed to even when they had their commitments with their [club] teams,” Scott said in a previous interview.

An earlier Wired article discussed the USWNT’s relationship with Polar Global devices. When reached for comment, Polar Global’s Josh Simonsen confirmed that the players were wearing the H7 heart rate monitor on the pitch, and using M400 GPS watches in training sessions. Simonsen, the company’s national training resource specialist for the U.S., said the Finnish company had worked with Scott and the USWNT since 2010.

“What that gave Dawn was the ability to track speed, distance, and activity of the athlete while they’re away,” Simonsen said. “And they were able to send it her in a much easier environment than the previous models.”

The H7, the heart rate monitor worn during the games, consists of a strap worn across the chest and a small transmitter a few inches wide. The strap contains an electrode that collects the ECG signal from the athlete; after some basic processing, the transmitter then sends out a Bluetooth signal. The system reports heart rate on a per-second basis, using only basic peak-to-peak measurements, which are less susceptible to the kind of movement artifacts you would expect with an athlete wearing the device during competitions.

Polar’s top-of-the-line system, the Team Pro, also includes a GPS and IMU sensor. Switching to Bluetooth Smart also allows the transmitters to communicate directly with a tablet. But Simonsen said the USWNT was still using the older Team2 solution this summer.

“They didn’t want to transition prior to the World Cup,” he said.

The company has a long history with heart rate sensors, having built the first monitor for an athlete in 1977. But it was not until the early 2000s that Polar began developing systems for whole teams, rather than for individuals.

“Essentially the coach would log into the software and each player would have their own page, but they really weren’t able to compare the team as a whole,” Simonsen said. “We couldn’t look at the big picture.”

This functionality would not become available until Polar’s Team2 system was introduced in 2009. Unlike their previous offerings, Team2 allowed coaches to collect and analyze data in much less time. The addition of Bluetooth transmitters also allowed coaches to monitor their players in real time.

“[Team2] was like a 50 percent cut in time that it took to do everything,” Simonsen said. “Everything was exponentially faster.”

The Team2 system is currently used by “about 450 teams” in the U.S., and Simonsen said new coaches are typically surprised by the feedback provided by the data.

“A lot of the time they’re just blown away at how long things were or how hard things truly are,” he said. “Or that their easy day really wasn’t that easy, or that their hard day was a lot harder than they really thought it was.”

Simonsen argues that this experience in the field is what separates Polar Global from the plethora of other companies offering heart rate monitors.

“We created heart rate,” Simonsen said. “And with us using HR from the beginning, accuracy is always our number one thing.”