Friday, January 13, 2012

#MEMS: "Smart Sensors Compare Pro/Am Athletes"

Shrinking sensor technologies and smart analytics are enabling tiny motion trackers to be sewn into athletes’ suits, providing detailed data collection and real-time comparisons to famous, record-setting performances.

Custom motion tracking suits are already being worn by famous actors, enabling their motions to control the action of computer-animated characters. This was done in the recent 20th Century Fox's X-Men: First Class movie where actors worked in suits built by Xsens Technologies BV to rehearse complex scenes and instantly review the corresponding performance of animated characters in real-time.

With the manufacturing prices of motion sensors plummeting, thanks to their wide-scale deployment in billions of smartphones, less expensive sensor suits are beginning to appear to enable ordinary athletes to use them to record and review their performance while running or playing tennis, golf, volleyball, baseball, football or any other game requiring precise motions.

The athlete's suit has tiny iNEMO (iNErtial MOdule) sensors from STMicroelectronics sewn onto each arm, forearm, thigh, calf and two on the back of the suit with optional modules mounted with straps onto hands, feet or head.
These inertial measurement units (IMUs) harness micro-electro-mechanical system (MEMS) sensors to downsize what used to be shoe-boxed sized devices full of spinning gyroscopes down to a solid-state device measured in millimeters. Even so, IMUs with enough precision for tracking the detailed motions of people in real-time still cost about $500 each, making the sensor-studded motion-capture suits worn by actors like Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man too expensive for most amateurs.

However, by switching to consumer-grade MEMS sensors, and marrying them to smart software whose algorithms compensate for the inexpensive sensors' relatively inaccurate measurements, new less-expensive suits could soon become cheap enough for anyone. Eventually, these inexpensive personal motion tracking systems could be used for augmented sports-realities, where amateur athletes can perform alongside "virtual" professionals to compare and improve their results.

At this week’s Consumer Electronics Show, STMicroelectronics (Geneva), a $10 billion global semiconductor supplier and the leading manufacturer of MEMS sensors for mobile and consumer applications, according to IHS iSuppli's Consumer and Mobile MEMS Market Tracker, announced a smart performance-suit prototype that uses its tiny 13-by-13-by-2 millimeter IMUs which it dubs iNEMOs (iNErtial MOdules). Each iNEMO combines inertial sensors (accelerometer/gyroscope/magnetometer) with sensor-fusion analytics running on an integrated 32-bit STM32 micro-controller, which deduces real-time altitude and heading (with a latency of just 15 milliseconds and an accuracy of half-a-degree).

Ten iNEMOs were sewn into the fabric of the prototype suite, each of which communicated wirelessly to a nearby computer where on-screen animated characters followed all the motions of the wearer. Eventually augmented reality developers are planning to allow wearers to view historical performances alongside theirs. For instance, long-range runners could literally run in the footsteps of the greats by viewing the ground in front of them on their smartphone where the world's greatest runners could be seen to set the pace around them.

ST's iNEMO sensors are also planned for use in sports medicine, for rehabilitation after injuries and for motion-activated gaming experiences.