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Electronics Embarks On The Sport


Some fantasize and believe that it will also serve to phone, “smiles Eric Babolat.The boss of the family SME that bears his name, specialist in tennis equipment, prepares in fever and secrecy his next innovation: the racket Play & Connect, which will be presented on the occasion of the next Roland-Garros tournament, seemingly banal, it will be riddled with sensors and will know everything about the game played by its owner: power and number of shots, quality of strikes … And she will be able, probably by sending her wireless data, to provide the player with a summary of her training session or match. “A kind of coach in the racket,” summarizes Eric Babolat.

A new illustration of the rise of electronic sensors in the world of sport. The National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance (Insep) has been using it for a long time with top athletes. In cycling, for example, pressure sensors placed on the pedals calculate the power developed by the trackers. And twenty years ago we measured the vibrations on the arcs of the shooters.

Since then, the general public has also tasted the joys of electronics with heart rate monitors. These watches measuring the heart rate were quickly added a GPS and sometimes an altimeter. As for the divers, it is about twenty years that they carry on the wrist a computer, now connected to the regulator, which records the characteristics of each dive: duration, depth, bearings, consumption of air …

Data collected and analyzed

Today, the activities involved are multiplying, and the measures tackle the actual sporting gesture. All thanks to the Mems. These very specific electronic chips, capable of measuring acceleration, direction or pressure, are now produced in industrial quantities: 2 billion units on the French counter STMicroelectronics, market leader in front of other players such as Analog Devices, Freescale or Inversense. Because after video game controllers, like the Wii, it’s the smartphones and tablets that absorb these chips with prices in free fall. “Sport is a great potential for development because it allows everyone to collect data during practice and analyze it, or even compare it with others, friends, competitors,” says Fabio Pasolini, who leads the Motion Mems division at STMicroelectronics.

Yet the chip is not enough to make a sport article “smart”. Mathematics, signal processing and advanced computer developments are needed to interpret the raw data provided by electronics.

For its MP3 player that attaches to the swimmer’s head thanks to the elastic glasses, the brand Nabaiji Group Oxylane (Decathlon) has devised an additional function: count the pool lengths and indicate the distance traveled. This is the young company Movea, a spin-off from CEA Leti, a specialist in MEMS who has developed the algorithms. “It was very complicated because the device behaves a bit like a compass. If it’s a problem, the crawl head is still moving and the signal given by the sensor is really disturbed, “says Yannis Caritu, co-founder and technical director of Movea. The next version of the product will even memorize the training plan and tell the swimmer where it is going.

Sport benefits in passing to be placed in the wake of social networks. A major evolution for Stéphane Marchioni, the head of Geonaute, the Oxylane group’s electronics specialist brand: “These technologies bring a number of dimensions to sports practice: motivation through support, valorization, sharing, safety and security. finally the playful aspect. ”

Integrated with jerseys

Nike quickly understood. The American firm, which has been marketing the NikeiPod system since 2006, will be launching two new versions this summer, NikeTraining and NikeBasketball, which will be able to compete with its “friends” on its speed and vertical relaxation. For its part, Geonaute already offers an application for iPhone (ONmove Mobile) that allows you to view your jogging path and communicate it to your family, and will soon be coupled with sensors and a heart rate monitor. Decathlon will also launch a small device counting the number of calories burned in the day, similar to the Fuelband bracelet already marketed by Nike in the United States. Other actors focus on golf or surfing by measuring the speed or height of the waves.

But these new tools still have limits. First in terms of power consumption. Because the sensors, even if they are more and more sober, need a battery. Monday e solutions envisaged is to recharge them using the movements of the sportsman, thanks to piezoelectric elements, which have the particularity of producing energy when they are deformed. Therefore, the tracks of evolution are multiple. Capable of emitting by giving their position, the sensors will be used to locate, by the meter, each member of a team of collective sport. And in five or ten years, they’ll even be … in our shirts. “Today, these sensors are like warts. Tomorrow, we will integrate them from the manufacturing stage, with electronic fibers equipped with sensors that will be woven “, predicts Sébastien Dauvé, head of a laboratory within CEA Leti, whose team is already working on the subject. Truffled with invisible sensors, a combination could even replace the expensive camera-based motion capture systems that are now used to study high-level athletes, and could also measure all kinds of parameters: body temperature, sweating, heart rate, blood pressure. And on this date, our banal smartphone will probably remain in the pocket: all this information will probably be displayed in our glasses.

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