World Cup: How to Bend It Like Beckham
Nowadays, it's hard to tell the jocks from the geeks. Athletes capitalize on advances from engineering, material science, biomechanics, communication and information technologies to maximize training and performance. And brainiacs develop technologies that are transforming every aspect of sport, including coaching, judging, even the design of sports arenas and spectator experience. To date, most advances in sports technology have been in material science and design. Aerospace engineer Kim B. Blair, founder of the Sports Innovation Group LLC, an affiliate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks the playbook is changing. "We've hit a plateau," he says. "The next big thing is the information revolution." These advances will move all developments into the computer era, where everything will be tracked, monitored, optimized, refined and disseminated in ways that athletes can't possibly imagine. Here, in alphabetical order, is our list of 10 technologies that are changing the way sports are practiced, played, scored and watched:
1. Ingestible Computers
Heat exhaustion is the second-leading cause of death in athletes. Until now, core body temperature has been monitored through observation, but athletes can ignore signs of heat exhaustion and trainers may be too far away to make accurate observations. A "thermometer pill" may save lives. Initially developed by NASA and Johns Hopkins University to monitor astronauts from space, the pill contains a quartz crystal sensor and micro-battery wrapped in silicon. Once swallowed, a sensor transmits temperature and heart rate data to the trainer as it travels through the gastrointestinal tract. Athletes in field and track, auto racing, football, hockey, cycling and soccer have used a commercial spin-off based on NASA's version.
2. Wearable Computers
The best sports innovation, ever? Synthetic fibers that wick moisture, dry fast, and are anti-microbial and water- or wind- resistant: sweat-soaked cotton is so '70s. Perhaps the next best thing? "Smart" clothing that uses embedded microscopic sensors and wireless networks to monitor athletes' heart rate, body temperature, hydration and more. Applications extend far beyond the sports arena. Medical and military technicians are developing patient and soldier models to record and transmit real-time biometrics from blood pressure to a bullet wound, from any location.
Science is helping athletes set new records, but we lag far behind the quickest and strongest species on the planet. Increasingly, engineers are turning to nature for inspiration, an approach known as biomimicry. Textured fabrics inspired by dermal denticles or "toothlike" projections found on sharkskin were one of the many innovations that may have helped Michael Phelps and others dress for gold at the 2008 Summer Olympics. In another example, scientists have developed materials that increase in adhesive strength while in motion -- just like the feet of geckos. Coming soon, gecko-inspired nonskid grips and climbing shoes.
Alvin Quiambao, AFOSR
4. Carbon Nanotechnology
The secret to a material's strength lies in the properties of the atomic bonds connecting one atom to another. Carbon atoms have extremely strong bonds. Using nanotechnology, scientists manipulate carbon's atomic structure to form hollow, carbon-based tubes that are super small (approximately 100,000 times thinner than a human hair), super light and stronger than steel. Researchers at the University of Texas' Nanotech Institute have developed artificial muscles from carbon nanotubes that contract 30,000 percent per second (human muscles contract around 20 percent per second). They can operate at extreme temperatures, which makes them especially attractive for space applications and is one reason why the Air Force Office of Scientific Research is has teamed up in this area. So far, there are no human applications, but a "smart skin," on an aircraft would have the ability to change appearance in situations of danger.
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
5. Computational Fluid Dynamics
Thanks to supercomputers, the subfield of physics that focuses on the movement of air, water or gasses called computational fluid dynamics is indispensable to the design of anything that moves -- including cars, oars, bicycles, helmets and swimsuits -- even human athletes. Using 3-D body scanners, computers, visualization and fluid dynamics software, engineers can analyze skin friction. "In the last five years aerodynamic technology has become very prevalent in the development of equipment and clothing for speed-based sports," says Blair. "In competitive cycling, bikers use 90 percent of their power to overcome wind. Even a 5 percent improvement in drag can be the difference between a podium and no podium." Speedo's AQUALAB used computerized scans of hundreds of athletes to pin-point areas of high friction on the athlete's body. With this information, swimsuit designers were able to position low-friction fabric in the right locations to reduce drag.
AP Photo/Philip Scott Andrews
6. Digital Imaging and Video
It's impossible to imagine a multibillion-dollar global sports industry without television to play (and replay) stunning moments, show us legends in the making -- and generate advertising revenue. And media technology has, in turn, shaped sports. Phil Orlins, senior coordinating producer of ESPN's X Games and Winter X Games, says miniature, wireless and handheld digital cameras that "give viewers unbelievable proximity, put them in the action and take them just about any place so that they can see just about anything" have transformed the sports-viewing experience. Others might argue that these technologies have had a more profound impact, creating a fan base and popularizing new sports and new superstars, seemingly overnight. The United States Olympic Committee and Comcast are partnering to launch an Olympic sports cable channel, while NBC, which won the bid to broadcast the Olympics, has its own 24-hour sports channel, Universal Sports.
7. Information Technologies
Across industries, the trend is toward mobile, rich and instant data. Sports are no exception. Mix radio frequency identification tags, global positioning system devices, remote cameras and broadband networks, and then synchronize and display and what do you get? More information than you'll want to know, guaranteed. Sounds big league, but information technology is infusing sports at all levels. "The sports world is on the cusp of changing into a whole new paradigm because of information technologies," says 94 Fifty's CEO and founder, Mike Crowley. 94Fifty's system captures up to 6,000 pieces of information a second and is designed to be embedded in a moving object like a basketball, soccer ball or hockey puck. Once collected, the data is uploaded to an off-site server and analyzed in seconds. Want to know how your top player is performing compared to last month or year? That's possible. So is comparing one athlete to other athletes her age, across the country. When scores are posted, kids treat it like a video game and become more competitive, reports Crowley. He thinks his system will motivate kids to work on skills they'll need to become great athletes.
8. Reactive Materials
High-speed sports put athletes at risk. Until recently, protective clothing that could absorb impact was often bulky and restrictive. That's changing with the development of materials such as U.K.-based d30 and Dow Corning's Active Protection System materials. Both are made from materials that flex and move with a body in action but immediately harden upon impact. Researchers at the University of Delaware have embedded materials with nanoparticles that become instantly rigid as soon as a kinetic energy threshold is crossed. That can come in handy for athletes, who could seriously hurt themselves if they fell and for people in the military or in law enforcement, who come into bodily harm unexpectedly on the job. And as a benefit, many of these products are washable. Recent applications include gear for downhill skiers and dirt bike racers, as well as ballet shoes, soccer balls, shorts for equestrians, and protective gear for soldiers and law enforcement agents.
AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye
Robots offer scientists many benefits. They don't complain, get sick, charge overtime or take vacation. And they can be programmed to repeat the same motion over and over. Commonly used in automobile and other manufacturing settings, robots programmed to simulate sports movements such as tennis or golf swings can help engineers test equipment and surfaces. Robots can even be programmed to sweat. Using robots, researchers can do more tests in less time, under highly controlled settings. A team of researchers from Kanazawa University in Japan has developed an experimental system using a skiing robot to investigate the effects of joint motions on ski turns. Such a system could ultimately serve as a model to help skiers improve their own movements. And a team from the the University of Tokyo has developed two robots, one that can pitch and one that can bat, to study the physics of baseball.
10. Tool-less Manufacturing
Henry Ford's early customers could have any color car, so long as it was black. In the marketplace, the greatest barrier to choice is cost. Elite athletes can drop thousands of dollars on custom-fit equipment, but for most players, it's just a dream. Now, affordable, in-store diagnostics, including 3-D body scanners that analyze body geometry and kinematics, coupled with "tool-less" or direct digital manufacturing in place of molded dies or templates, are making custom-fit a true possibility. University research labs are helping to make the technology a reality. Scientists at Cornell University's College of Human Ecology are using 3D body scanners that image about 300,000 points on the body to develop virtual try-on systems and clothes that can be custom-made on the spot. Caine is guardedly optimistic: "This will happen, but I'm not sure when."
Despite the overwhelming odds of getting a penalty kick past a goalkeeper, many soccer kickers fail during big games. For fans of England, penalties evoke a sense of dread. The team has lost six of seven matches in major tournaments during penalty shoot-outs, including three in the World Cup. In contrast, the Germans have won four Cup matches in shoot-outs since 1990, and are five for six in big games.
So what’s going on here? Not enough practice? Bad karma? A one-way trip to choke city?
Actually sports scientists say it’s a combination of physics and psychology that some players have mastered, and others seem to fail to understand time and time again.
“Most of these (soccer) players can pass a ball to a teammate 30 to 50 yards with pinpoint accuracy,” said Greg Wood, a lecturer in sport psychology at Liverpool (U.K.) Hope University who has studied the psychological factors of taking penalty kicks. “But when it comes to hitting a ball 12 yards in top corner, they can’t do it. It’s because of the emotions they feel. Regulating this is key aspect to penalty taking. They’ve already got the skills.”
Wood and other researchers have found out some interesting things about penalty kicks:
First, don’t look at the goalkeeper. Studies show that either focusing on or purposely avoiding the goalkeeper indicates stress. In fact, that’s why goalkeepers yell, wave their arms and sometimes do other things to make the kicker choke.
“When players are anxious, instead of looking where they are going to shoot, players focus on the goalkeeper,” Wood said. “There’s a tight link between where we look and where we shoot. Anxiety makes you focus on things that are threatening.”
Wood developed a method of “quiet-eye” training for soccer players that gave them ways to regulate their anxiety by focusing on aiming location in the seconds before striking the ball. After a seven-week training, the players had 50 percent fewer shots save by the goalie. Of course, none of the elite soccer teams in England adopted Woods’ training. “It takes a while,” he said.
Don’t turn your back either. It seems that players who purposely avoid the goalkeeper by turning their back before spotting the ball fare worse than those who face the goal.
Steven Gerrard of England takes a free kick.Catherine Ivill/AMA/Corbis
Celebrating is contagious. Studies in recent years have shown that players who score a goal and then celebrate by raising their arms actually pass on their enthusiasm to the next guy to take a shot. Same thing when a player misses and slumps back over to the sideline.
Take your time. Players who kick the ball within a second of placing it usually miss. Those who take longer to set and aim do better.
Physics also plays a role in both penalty kicks, and free kicks from the corners or other parts of the field. This year at the World Cup in Brazil, a newly-designed soccer ball may even the playing field for bigger, stronger players and those who are smaller.
John Eric Goff, professor of physics at Lynchburg College and author of "Gold Medal Physics: The Science of Sports," teamed up with two Japanese scientists to study the motion of Adidas’ new soccer ball, known as the Brazuca (Brazilian for national pride, or a native of Brazil).
Wind tunnel tests were used to study the new ball and the one Adidas used in South Africa in 2010 known as the Jabalani. It turns out that the new ball is likely to be more predictable, and flies through the air with less drag at lower speeds. That could help some of the underdog teams who kick the ball at 40 to 45 miles per hour, compared to the 60 to 70 mile per hour shots by the top players, Goff explained.
This year’s ball is also less erratic. That’s because the ball has more roughness on the surface, which causes a slight amount of turbulence on the surface and reduces drag. A similar principal is at work in a dimpled golf ball, Goff said.
Good penalty kickers, in addition to getting their heads straight, also have mastered the art of spinning a soccer ball while kicking it forward. This counter-clockwise spin (for right footed players) gives the ball a slight arc on its way to the goal -- often confusing the goalkeeper.
“It requires skill,” Goff said. “You have to spin the ball just right.”
Using spin, the best players can curve the ball right around a wall of players and into the goal. That’s because they’ve harnessed the Magnus force, a principal of physics initially discovered by a 19th century scientist who noticed it while studying the trajectory of Civil War bullets.
When the World Cup opens Thursday afternoon with Brazil taking on Croatia, Goff said he’ll be watching.
“These are golden opportunities for scorers,” he said about the combination of physical forces in play on the field. “I’m going to be looking at these trajectories quite closely to see what kind of spin and speed they can develop.”