The Key To A Successful Sports Wearable: Balance

Elite athletes need to be able to see data in a simple, non-invasive way


Wearable technology has been in sports and fitness for a long time. Whenever you watch a high level rugby match you see small boxes at top of each player’s back to allow coaches to check their vitals. In athletics heart rate monitors have allowed coaches to see people’s performance for years. In many other sports having the ability to check perspiration rates and power outputs have all come through the use of wearable tech.

However, each of these things simply record the data, they don’t allow the athlete themselves to see the data in real time through a wearable device.

Attempts have been made to rectify this though, with several wearable devices now allowing athletes to not only track their performance and body metrics, but also to attempt to see these in real time.

The problem that many of these have found is that they can hinder the very performances that they are trying to improve.

Take the GPS watch as a prime example of this for runners.

In theory this gives important information to the athlete, but can only ever be useful when you can see it. In order to do this you need to not only check the watch from close up, but also analyse and adjust to the information being displayed. All of this is happening whilst you are essentially holding your hand in front of your face or looking down on it and not paying attention entirely to what is in front of you. This means that in longer distance races this is not necessarily as issue as time can easily be made up, but what about short and medium distances where winning margins are only a few seconds?

To attempt to broach this, some companies have created wearable technology that sits on the face in an athlete’s field of vision. It allows them to glance at the data without necessarily taking their eyes off what they are doing or needing to change their rhythm of movement. However, having used some of these devices, one of the main aspects that is holding them back is that they are often fairly bulky to wear and limit your field of vision.

In any kind of racing environment, the ability to see what your competitors are doing is essential to being able to win an event. Limiting this by even a few percent is going to have an impact on a performance. It is very literally creating a blindspot for rivals to exploit.

So with these two very different approaches to communicating information directly to the athlete in real-time not necessarily filling the void, what can be done to create a happy medium?

The key is in the balancing of a technology, ease of access needs to not come at the loss of other important aspects within a performance. At present we have wearable technologies that work effectively for fitness and sporting use on one side and general use on the other. We need to look at what top end athletes require and balance technologies to fit these needs.

If it takes people out of their rhythm, then make it easier to access and if it detracts from the world around you by being too intrusive, then make it smaller and more intuitive. At present this middle ground between access and intrusion has not been reached, but perhaps one of the key ways that this could be done is through taking the burden of display away from visuals.

Perhaps we should look at audio or feel based systems where intrusion is not necessary, but where access to information is still easy. Imagine a system where a few taps on your leg or arm could communicate with an earpiece to tell you your heart rate or current pace. Perhaps a system could be created where you know your optimum heart rate, but you don’t want to exceed that and burn out. If you had a heart rate monitor that vibrated in one way when you go above or another if you go below, then you would not need to see your exact number within that range.

At the moment the possibilities of what we can do with wearable tech are just revealing themselves, but we need to make sure that we are not getting too many wrong as there is always the danger that we will turn people away from using them forever. 


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