U-M licenses transformative sensor technology

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ANN ARBOR—What started as a way for a frustrated fisherman to improve fly casting could soon be used by everyone from weekend athletes to professional tennis players under a deal between the University of Michigan and the Wilson Sporting Goods Co.

The Chicago-based athletic equipment manufacturer has licensed U-M-owned patents on wireless motion sensor technology from the lab of U-M mechanical engineering professor Noel Perkins. Financial terms were not disclosed.

Mike Dowse, Wilson president, said the company has a rich history of delivering innovations in the sporting equipment industry and the U-M sensor technology is the next step.

"We are in the midst of a digital onslaught that we believe will revolutionize training and the athlete's toolbox. We're focusing development on sensor-enabled products that deliver data to the athlete for analysis and training to help them play and perform better," Dowse said. "For the recreational athlete, this means enjoying a rich digital experience that creates more ways to compete and play. For the avid athlete, this means real-time training feedback that helps the athlete play better in competition."

Wilson is the sixth company to license the technology since 2005 and the largest. It has exclusive rights to use the technology in tennis and American football. The company has non-exclusive rights to use the system in inflatable balls.

The deal is expected to transform the sporting goods industry. Imagine buying a tennis racket that can transmit data to help you analyze precisely where your stroke needs improvement.

"Coaches and trainers are relying on their naked eye to improve performance," Perkins said. "Now you have technology that can measure motion to the nearest millisecond. No pun intended, but it's an eye-opening change."

Besides athletic training, the technology can help match sports equipment to the athlete and to evaluate athletes for scouting and recruiting purposes. Instead of just relying on game statistics, this technology could be used to quantify performance in an objective way.

"We've been on small islands on the map, but this deal puts us squarely on the continent," Perkins said. "We're delighted that this technology has been embraced by Wilson."

No matter which sport, the raw data is derived from the same sensors, referred to as inertial sensors. What is different for each sport is how the data is used and distilled into coaching tips. Software created by the Perkins lab to analyze the data is customized for each sport and other new applications.

It all started with fly fishing. Perkins used sensors to measure and chart the motion of his fly rod while casting. He could pinpoint what portion of his casting stroke was causing his problem.

Perkins found that by embedding wireless inertial sensors in sports equipment, he could record an enormous amount of useful information, often 6,000 pieces of data per second. His lab also developed algorithms that interpret those pieces of data that are of most interest to athletes and their coaches and to convey them in compelling formats.

"The data allows a rich understanding of performance that has never been achieved before," Perkins said. " Even when using high speed film and video, athletes and coaches lack some of the data this technology provides including important metrics of performance such as acceleration, spin axis and spin rate."

Perkins' company, Cast Analysis, has the license for fly fishing and other companies are licensed to use the technology in basketball, golf, bowling, softball and baseball.

Perkins doesn't expect the applications to stop at sports, as his lab is already pursuing applications to soldier performance, human health and rehabilitation and more.

"I think it's fair to say it's a small industry now because it hasn't been fully embraced yet – but it is accelerating due to the larger 'quantified self' movement," he said.

This sensor technology can broadly measure human performance by tracking gross and fine motor movements, health, or development of a new skill.

"The future of sports is being written today with the technology developed in the Perkin's lab at the University of Michigan," said Ken Nisbet, associate vice president of U-M Tech Transfer. "We're pleased to have our technology play a role in the future success at Wilson Sporting Goods Co."

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