SENSING A CHANGE

 

SCIENCE FOUNDATION IRELAND: Clarity has bridged the gap between the physical world and digital information by developing a revolutionary technology to measure athletes' performances using sensors, consequently improving their game

IMAGINE HAVING your golf swing digitally analysed and compared to Tiger Woods. It might be embarrassing at first, but it could help you make the adjustments to turn become a far better competitor at your sport.

It may seem a little far-fetched, but the technology to do it has already been developed and is in operation at Dublin City University(DCU).

The revolutionary technology has been developed by Clarity, a Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) centre for science, engineering and technology (CSET) which began work in July of this year. The ground-breaking research centre focuses on the so-called "sensor web", which captures the intersection between the two important research areas of adaptive sensing and information discovery.

Clarity is a partnership between University College Dublin (UCD) and DCU, supported by research at the Tyndall National Institute in Cork. Its core aim is "bringing information to life". It plans to use sensors to bridge the gap between the physical world and digital information.

"Sensors help us to learn more about ourselves and the world in which we live, and the next generation of sensor technologies will be cheap, connected and reliable, enabling exciting new application areas," says Noel O'Connor, principal researcher with Clarity and associate professor with the school of electronic engineering at DCU.

"Already we have developed wearable sensors which are built into clothes that can monitor the posture of the wearer, helping people prone to back-pain who spend long periods hunched over PCs to improve their seated posture," he explains. "We also have networks of sensors that are capable of monitoring water quality with a view to identifying and signalling potential pollution."

"The centre focuses on empowering citizens through new technologies to harvest, refine and make use of the deluge of different kinds of information in the modern world," says DCU's professor Alan Smeaton.

"Clarity will develop a new generation of smarter, simpler and more proactive information services as well as commercial products which are set to improve our quality of life, from monitoring the impact of exercise on health, new technologies to support our aging population, and innovative ways to protect the quality of our environment."

The key to Clarity's work is the revolution in sensor technology in recent years. "There has been an explosion in the availability of cheap and reliable devices for sensing in the physical world," O'Connor says. "These can be for sensing location with GPS devices or for sensing physiological status such as body temperature, galvanic skin response, heart rate and so on.

The interesting thing is that many of these devices are now internet enabled. This means that traditional internet data streams of text, audio, video and images are being supplemented by new data streams from these sensors and this is creating what we call the sensor web."

This sensor web will be even more information rich than the internet we experience today. "The sensor web will bring potentially huge benefits, but it also poses challenges," O'Connor says.

"Information overload is already a problem. The information is out there, but it is hard to get at it in amongst all the other information. Now with the sensor web, we are going to have even more information. The heart of the Clarity centre is to make sense of the new information for Irish citizens. Unless you can utilise the information it's useless.

"We are taking information from the real-world and bringing it to the online world; we then apply engineering and computer science techniques to it and bring it back into the real world in a manageable form."

This sounds highly theoretical and abstract, but Clarity is very much a real world initiative with practical applications already in development. "One example of applying the research in everyday life is the whole area of sports and we are working on projects for golf, Gaelic football and tennis at present," says O'Connor.

The golf application was developed in association with Dr Kieran Moran of the school of health and human performance at DCU. This involved taking a number of high and low handicap golfers and "capturing" their swings via a motion capture rig. Each golfer's swing was then digitised, visualised in three dimensions and broken down into its different components of take back, backswing, follow-through and so on.

This is where the technology comes into its own. "Each golfer is not only able to see their own swing and its different components, but is also able to overlay each component with that of the low handicap golfer in order to see what they are doing differently and then emulate it to improve," says O'Connor.

Eventually the swings of golfing greats such as Woods and Harrington might be available on the web for golfers everywhere to try to copy.

Another collaboration with the school of health and human performance, this time with its head professor Niall Moyna, involved Gaelic football. "One of the sensor devices we have developed is a vest which can be worn by athletes and which contains sensors to record data such as movement, location, heart rate, respiration and so on.

The vest is quite rugged and can be thrown in a washing machine after use so it is very suitable for use by athletes," O'Connor explains.

"Tipperary referee Paddy Russell and his linesmen wore the vests during the Wexford versus Armagh all-Ireland senior football quarter final this year," he adds.

"We collected all the information from the vests through wireless connections and we filmed the referee and linesmen as well to be able to give a full analysis of how long they spent standing, running, sprinting and so on during the course of the match. This helped them assess their performance and their fitness levels."

The plan here is to scale up the technology and adapt the vests for wear by athletes during competitive performance.

The other sports project is with Tennis Ireland and involved the development of a sensor environment to monitor the movement of players. The commercial potential of this particular application is clear, but there are already plans for Clarity to go further still.

"The next stage will see us go beyond the state of the art," O'Connor claims. "We are working with Prof Dermot Diamond in the chemistry department here in DCU on new applications. He has developed a new material which changes properties when it is stretched. That means that we can have vests or footwear which become sensors in themselves."

Another new application will see the development of a super-absorbent sweat patch which can sense the Ph of the wearer's sweat.

"This gives an indication of the wearer's hydration levels and can let coaches know when players need to rehydrate and when they don't," he says.

"Clarity is a five-year project and we are just at the start of what we can do," says O'Connor. "On a more commercial level, we will be able to bring exergaming technology like the Nintendo Wii out of the living-room and into the real world and make it a lot more healthy and fun as well. This really is just the beginning."