January 23, 2017
The sensor technology that helps athletes avoid injury and improve performance can bring benefits to the enterprise.
Professional football in the United States is reaching a fever pitch, with the playoffs concluded and fans looking to the Super Bowl next month. When you hear the crush of helmets while you’re watching, think sensors. On the football field, in the enterprise, and beyond, organizations are using sensors to keep employees safe, to enhance their performance, and to improve employee satisfaction.
For example, a team doctor could know that a player has a concussion before the player even hits the ground. Heavy manufacturing equipment could shut down when it detects an employee isn’t properly trained. A factory could connect sensors to smart watches, so it could warn employees in real time and en masse when hazardous chemicals reach dangerous levels.
In the near future, real-time insights like these will become commonplace in business, and the sports industry is leading the charge.
A well-documented revamp of professional and collegiate sports concussion policies has catapulted safety concerns into the spotlight recently, but injuries have plagued athletes from every sport for decades. Doctors and team physicians rely on patient feedback, X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans, and people are often reacting to injuries rather than preventing them. League and association policies make their best efforts to provide safety guidelines, but these are hardly personalized.
Outfitting helmets with sensors is a growing trend on the football field and the battlefield. The sensors the Army uses to analyze head injuries that result from an explosive impact are the same sensors football teams are using to detect how hard a player is hit and where. Six sensors placed in the padding of the helmet can wirelessly transmit a reading to a laptop, where data is collected and analyzed.
Acute injuries: Recovery becomes a thing of the past
The goal right now for sensors in helmets is to understand head injuries so people can reduce them. But sports teams are already using and planning to expand their use of sensors to improve the health and performance of players by accounting for changes in overall fatigue, changes in heart rate, the favoring of one leg over another, or a drop in hydration levels—all factors that contribute to acute sports injuries. The head of fitness for Argentina’s hockey team credits sensors for boosting overall performance, saying the team was able to evaluate its players during different training and game situations and identify each player’s thresholds and markers of fatigue.
Sensors can help personalize injury prevention by proactively sending signals, unique to the individual wearing the sensors, to trainers, coaches, and doctors. For example, baseball teams can use sensor-enabled video games to track the neural activity in players’ brains to measure their pitching, switching, and hitting skills. Coaches then use the data to identify and address weaknesses that make players vulnerable to injury.
Adopting and adapting sensor technology for enterprise workers
Monitoring the micro movements of muscle groups, joints, and tendons is useful beyond the sports arena. There are nearly 3 million nonfatal workplace injuries every year. One way employers can reduce those injuries is to use sensors to monitor the musculoskeletal activities of workers and identify improper movements that can cause immediate injury or lead to the development of injuries through repetition over time. According to The Human Cloud At Work study, “Wearing devices such as brain activity sensors, motion monitors, and posture coaches can signiﬁcantly increase employees’ productivity while also improving their job satisfaction.”
The possibilities of sensors are boundless. For example, sensors and sports technology also are being used to optimize the accuracy of sports. Major League Baseball is considering using a robotic umpire to increase the accuracy of calling balls and strikes. And the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) has already implemented a chip in its soccer balls that alerts referees when a ball has completely crossed the goal line.
Currently, all professional sports leagues in the United States limit the use of most sensors and wearables to practices and prevent their use in games. However, as sensor technology advances and its accuracy increases, and as the data becomes more useful, rules will likely be developed to embrace and support the technology to enhance both player safety and enjoyment of the game. The more sensors are used, the more data the industry will collect and the more accurate and actionable the information will be.
Beyond the playing field
Now, think beyond a sports field to the wide-open expanse of virtual reality, and consider the possibilities of using sensors to immerse employees in a virtual world where they can train in a hyper-realistic environment without the risk of failure. Virtual reality uses sensors embedded in a headset to create a 4-D world. The time is coming when employees will use virtual reality to train for that big speech or to negotiate that big deal or to empathize with their co-workers. Think beyond injuries to the development of emotional intelligence.
The bottom line is that the potential of sensors for business applications that reduce costs, increase employee satisfaction, and improve performance will be limited only by the imaginations of executives and workers in the enterprise. The even better news is that sensors are inexpensive and easy to experiment with. Begin by exploring the inputs and outputs. Run experiments to understand the full scope of the undertaking. How frequently will you access the data? How will you store it, process it, and analyze it? How many and what kind of sensors do you need? Who do you need to share the information with, and does that person’s team have the bandwidth to capitalize on what’s learned?
A world is not too far off where sensors will be embedded in the padding of protective equipment, stitched into the cloth of a jersey, and printed on a football. Employers will use sensors to save the lives of employees and to improve the quality of work life by reducing injuries and aches and pains. And that world is being created right now.