Friday, May 28, 2010

Running technology report from the MIT Media Lab

Interior of the new MIT Media Lab building
 Today's run (street): 4.5 miles at 8:52 per mile

My recent visit to the MIT Media Lab was fascinating (as usual) and I was happy to see friends and faculty again after so many months away. I've written a couple of posts about my great runs along the Charles River this week but today I'm going to focus on noteworthy technologies that relate to athletics. Besides hearing from the architect of the beautifully designed new Media Lab building and from visionaries such as Stewart Brand and Nicholas Negroponte (who said the Media Lab's goal was to create solutions looking for problems) there was the usual "Open House" where students show off their latest research projects. It's essentially the coolest science fair in the world.

Bio-sensitive stretchable fabric
Above is a picture of a woven sensor that appears to be a piece of stretchable fabric but acts like a sensor that can pick up information such as core temperature, blood pressure/flow, heart rate, pH, etc. Imagine if your HRM or foot pod could be sewn into your running clothes? 

SportSemble performance capture system
Portable variable light illumination device
Another interesting project was the use of the SportSemble (above, top) system to capture the most minute details of movement by major league baseball players. In this project, players from the Boston Red Sox are wired with multiple sensors that capture metrics such as the speed of a pitcher's waist relative to the speed of the wrist of his throwing hand. The data is captured and correlated and the goal is to determine how certain sympathetic actions, however minute, can result in higher performing athletes. Go Sox!

In a more running related project I was given a demonstration of a lighting system that constantly reads conditions and enables lights based on the users needs. I often run with a headlamp at 4:00 AM and on dark days with no moon I really need the maximum amount of illumination. On other days, with clear skies and a full moon, I really don't need any extra light. This device can deliver, to the lumen, the exact amount of light needed at every moment. This conserves battery life and ensures that the light you need is delivered exactly where it's needed. The research assistant pictured above told me I could make this device myself with a simple microprocessor. I may need her help, especially since I've proven I can't change the battery in a Garmin 50 without destroying it.

Hugh Herr talks about devices to augment human running performance
During the Wednesday morning session Dr. Hugh Herr, who runs the Biomechatronics group at the Media Lab, talked about human augmentation. This group has developed the most advanced prosthetic legs in use today with capabilities that allow single and double amputees to walk and run with the same (or better) energy efficiency as able bodied people. Much of the research done in this lab is focused on augmenting athletes, especially runners. Imagine running a five minute mile while expending no more energy than a stroll in the park. I know my Saucony Kinvaras and Grid Tangent 4's give me a boost but that takes it to whole new level!

I thought about the science of human augmentation and the small differences in form and stride that can make a big difference in running pace. This morning I set out with my Kinvaras for a 4.5 mile run around the neighborhood and finished with an overall pace under nine minutes that just felt too easy. I definitely run faster in these lightweight trainers. Does running a little faster provide a greater training benefit than running slower? Hard to know. I loved the feeling of moving along in 50 degree temperatures on a cool, clear late May morning. Yes, the shoes are great but this morning's run was about much more than that.

2 comments:

  1. The human augmentation sounds really awesome... I mean we're basically talking comic book stuff here!

    I could envision some training applications for running... seems like you'd get similar benefits to the low gravity treadmills the Nike Oregon Project uses (increased mileage with less impact)... That's assuming that they can adjusted to provide variable levels of assistance...

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  2. The key question I always have is what is the true benefit of this technology to an able bodied recreational runner? Hardware that makes me faster doesn't interest me unless it also improves my long term performance. A method to recreate those low gravity treadmills using a device that also gets you outdoors sounds interesting to me.

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