How wearable tech is changing football

By Redwood Team
February 17, 2017
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Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

The Patriots pulled off an unthinkable comeback during this years Super Bowl 51. Tom Brady and co. carried the team to the first ever overtime win in Super Bowl history, closing a 25 point deficit in the second half of the game. And while that’s the story that made headlines, the history of football is changing in a subtler, but more substantial way.

Over the last few years, wearable technology has seeped into just about every corner of professional and amateur athletics.  Tiny sensors that can be woven into clothing, attached onto helmets or glued directly onto the skin can track the physical performance and biological mechanisms of athletes like never before.  

So when did wearables hit the market?

The birth of wearable tech is often traced back to the 16th century when Leonardo da Vinci first conceptualized a pedometer.  But it wasn’t until the early 1900s that his idea became a popular tool for tracking steps.  Originally marketed as “hike-o-meter”, the first widely used wearables were mainly used by long distance walkers. The devices needed to remain vertical to work and used a small lead pendulum to count steps. The potential of wearable technology to meet its current state of popularity really came about in the 1990s as computing power became increasingly less bulky and more compact.  

How popular are wearables now?

Slowly, but surely, consumers are opening their wallets more and more to buy the latest wearable tech products.  Companies entering the space have developed small sensors to do everything from track sleep patterns to monitor pregnancies to record life live to provide real time feedback on the wearer’s health.  The data shows that overall, consumers are flocking to wristwear more than anything else, with FitBit retaining the dominant slice of the market.  But while the function of FitBit and other popular consumer wearables are great for the average joe, the unique physical demands of professional athletes has birthed a whole new wave of wearable tech.  

So how are they changing the game?

They’re making football safer

It’s no secret that the NFL has a serious brain trauma problem, with one recent study finding that over 40% of former players suffer from brain injuries sustained on the job.  But one young company is using tech to combat the issue.  VICIS, a Seattle startup, has gone to market with their ZERO1 product, an impact reducing helmet developed by a team of research engineers and leading neuroscientists to mitigate the effects of collision. An outer layer of the helmet buckles on impact, effectively slowing the acceleration of the wearer’s head. The helmet was worn by NFL players this year and has been shown to prevent skull fracture significantly.   

More accessible to coaches, players and fans

Zebra Technologies, a company with over 40 years experience in the industry, has deployed hundreds of its quarter-sized sensors to be used by NFL teams.  The chips are placed on shoulder pads and provide real-time data based on player’s physical movements during the game. The data is accessible to coaching staff and fans alike. Zebra’s sensors have also been placed inside actual footballs to track acceleration, velocity and distance, all of which is wirelessly transmitted in less than half of a second.

And more lucrative

One of the world’s largest suppliers of athletic performance trackers is an Australian company called Catapult Sports.  Their sensors are strapped to a player’s back and can measure over 100 metrics including speed, acceleration, heart rate, work rate and distance.  Compiling these data points about prospective players is already allowing NFL coaches to make more informed recruitment decisions.  The more the team’s management is able to know about prospects, the less financial risk they will be undertaking as to whether a given athlete will perform as a player.