Wearables are smart electronic devices and accessories that can sense the person who is wearing them. Thanks to the advances in sensor technology, continuous miniaturization of electronics, computing power, connectivity, energy storage, and falling price, the use of smart wearables are widespreading in all commercial sectors, particularly healthcare, industrial, defense and sports.
In amateur and professional sports, monitoring health and training load has become a key focus for athletes, coaches, and sports scientists to maintain a winning edge. As a result, there is growing interest in real-time monitoring, and biometric data capture to analyze human performance, e.g., breathing rate, heart rate, body temperature, hydration levels, and muscle tension.
In this context, wearables look very appealing because they are lightweight, worn close to or on the skin surface to detect and transmit information about various internal and external variables.
In addition to near-body wearables like fitness watches, we see an emerging spike in need for on-body smart clothing for sports, fitness, and wellness – including t-shirts, caps, bras, trousers, socks, and shoes. In addition, wearable e-textile technologies with functionalities like heat regulation, luminescence, touch, and sensitivity are also surging for several sports applications.
In Formula 1 (F1) car racing, technical innovation has traditionally focused on the car, its components like tires, and supporting IT systems, with less attention paid to the driver and supporting crew. The driver’s performance is, nevertheless, key to winning any race. In a car cockpit, the driver’s body is under great strain from cramped conditions, high temperatures, dehydration, and G-force.
Pit crews, engineers, and other staff are also under considerable pressure from working in harsh environments, in different time zones, and in extreme climates. Drivers are increasingly wearing special suits wired to the car to monitor their states. Different types of smart wearables can provide a competitive advantage by enabling drivers and other team members to take a proactive stance towards their health and safety. Wearables that collect more data on how the body is behaving in real-time can help improve individual decision-making, reactions, and recovery and enable teams to take steps to optimize members’ performance. Clothing that can adjust to the body, e.g., regulating body temperature, could be particularly beneficial to users. Ultimately, it is their usefulness that will drive the adoption of such wearables.
2018 Winter Olympics
The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea, where athletes braved sub-zero temperatures, showcased clothing with embedded heating technology. For the USA Olympic and Paralympic teams, Ralph Lauren designed water-repellent jackets equipped with a button on a slender battery pack that athletes could push easily, even wearing gloves, to get a jolt of warmth. They could also set their desired temperature level via their mobile phones.
Other examples include OM Signal’s PoloTech connected t-shirt, designed by Ralph Lauren and woven with silver fibers, that integrates biosensors to monitor temperature, stress levels, heart rates, and breathing. Linked via Bluetooth to a mobile app, available on iPhone, iPod, and iWatch, it also counts steps and records the calories burned and activity intensity.
OM Signal’s OMbra, an intelligent bra made of a mix of polyester, elastane, and nylon for optimal stretch and using the same sensors as the t-shirt, links to the OMRun app or other health and sports apps. These products are washable, with detachable sensors that can last for 10 sports sessions before needing to be recharged. Digitsole SmartShoes can count steps, distances covered, and calories burned and integrate a foot-warming system and a torch in footwear.
The IoT could also transform the audience experience by enhancing content and entertainment. Teams and fans can be linked thanks to smart wearables and smartphones. Via a mobile app connected to sensors on the racing track, sports field, or embedded in clothing, fans can follow their favorite driver, player, or team through video feeds, participate in live polls, and share their experience on their social media.
In football/soccer and rugby, smart wearables enable efficient data tracking, including electrocardiogram (ECG) readings and 360° monitoring, useful for players and trainers. In some matches, fans can receive data on players’ distances run or passes made on their screens. In Formula E (for electric cars), fans can vote to give drivers a power boost via the race’s official app. There are plenty of innovative ideas in the pipeline to enrich the audience experience.
Given the importance of protecting and developing health and talent, what and how variables are measured greatly in a wearable device matter. Many companies who develop and sell sport/fitness technology have not taken the appropriate steps to validate their measurement processes. Although they have perfected their marketing. Companies making such devices make strong claims of performance and health benefits, but the research remains mixed.
Some companies apply their own normative value of acceptability while looking for a commercial edge. This often means that critiquing and questioning science is minimal (or nonexistent) for the sake of market presence and sales. A big cause for concern is that the sports community (athletes, coaches, etc.) may be convinced by pseudoscience due to sports technology companies using neuroscience and social psychology in their marketing plans.
Other limitations of current wearable devices center around the following factors: the need to place devices at specific anatomical locations; frequency of data sampling; movement artifact; monitoring of a few selected variables as opposed to a suite of variables; uncertainty about the accuracy of data interpretation (by athletes/algorithm vs. trained professional); lack of measurement of environmental factors like temperature, humidity, altitude, UV radiation; inability to transmit data indoors, underwater, and in built-up areas; and interference from other physiological responses (e.g., vasoconstriction, hypovolemia).