How smart sports gear will change the way you train and play

Smart Balls Will Change the Way We Train for Sports
By Haroon Q Raja on 14 Jun 2014 02:00 pm
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Legend has it that in the early days of his career, Pelé once had the goal's height inspected after kicking for a goal and hitting the crossbar instead, and it actually turned out to be lower than the standard height! While epicosity of such astronomical proportions might work for legends like Pelé, what about us mere mortals? Fortunately, we live in an era where everything around us is increasingly becoming smarter, and our sports gear is no exception. Say hello to smart sports equipment that will soon change the way you train for pretty much any game. So, how exactly does it aim to do that? Let's find out.

What exactly is smart sports equipment?

According to Wikipedia,

A smart device is an electronic device, generally connected to other devices or networks via different protocols such as Bluetooth, NFC, WiFi, 3G, etc., that can operate to some extent interactively and autonomously

Applying this definition to sports equipment, smart sports gear could be anything from smart basketballs and soccer balls to smart bats and even clothing with integrated sensors that could measure data on the athlete's performance and transmit it to a conventional computing device such as a smartphone or a PC for further analysis. The result is not only the ability to get valuable insight on how you play, but also interactive guidance for improving your game. All that's left for you to do is rinse and repeat based on the feedback till you get the perfect shot. Furthermore, the companion apps will also provide you with tips before each shot to help you get it right.

A few example scenarios

You have been trying to score a birdie on the green, but have only managed par so far, and can't figure out where you're going wrong. A smart golf club paired with a companion smartphone app will be able to tell you how to adjust your stroke's angle, force, direction and strike point to achieve your goal, by presenting you with these statistics for your attempt and the optimal values required for what you're trying to achieve. And to make things even better, the best equipment will also learn from and adapt to your natural playing style and offer a custom-tailored learning experience around it.

Similarly, a smart cue ball with its own dedicated app can help you with perfecting those apparently physics-defying shots to avoid those pesky snookers and perfect your game in general. With this sort of assistance, achieving a break of 147 might not be all that hard, who knows? This doesn't have to end at golf and snooker; players of pretty much every game can benefit from such technology.

Sounds great, but what's available right now?

Let's not get ahead of ourselves though; the industry is still in its infancy, and there's no guarantee that you'll find smart sports gear for your favorite game on the market right away. However, that doesn't mean such equipment is years into the future. On the contrary, you can buy smart balls for the world's most popular sport i.e. soccer as well as one of America's most popular ones i.e. basketball right now. Also available are add-ons for baseball bats, tennis rackets and golf clubs that turn them into smart gear, as well as smart HUD (Heads-Up Display) glasses for cyclists, snowboarders and the like. Let's take a more detailed look at each of them.

 

Smart balls

For those of you who have googled the phrase by now, sorry to disappoint you but we won't be discussing kegel sexercise aids here; the smart balls we're talking about look and function just like your regular balls for sports like soccer and basketball, but come augmented with several built-in sensors and companion smartphone apps to help you with your training for the sport.

adidas miCoach SMART BALL

adidas miCoach SMART BALL

Despite not being too famous in the United States, football (the international variant — also called soccer — that is actually played with the feet) remains the world's most popular sport, with an estimated 3.5 billion fans. That's half the population of the entire world! So, it was no surprise to see one of the first available smart balls being for soccer, and with the 2014 FIFA World Cup just about to kick off in Brazil, the timing was also perfect. With Adidas miCoach SMART BALL in your corner, you'll be that much closer to bending it like Beckham!

Having already released its miCoach Smart Run watch, Adidas is no stranger to building smart sports gear. Does SMART BALL live up to the expectations one would have from Adidas? Let's find out.

Rather than limiting itself to simply providing you feedback on your kicks, SMART BALL stays true to its miCoach brand, acting more like a coach and offering you training via its smartphone app to master your game, complete with videos. Once you're ready, just position the ball as shown, select your foot, and get kicking! The built-in sensors will then relay valuable information such as speed, spin, trajectory and strike point to the app via Bluetooth 4.0. The app presents the information in a visually appealing way that's easy to understand without sacrificing on any of the important details.

adidas miCoach SMART BALL iPhone App

Our only complain with the miCoach SMART BALL is the lack of an Android app. Seriously Adidas, it's 2014, and a vast majority of smartphone users are on Android. iOS-exclusivity seemed to make sense a few years back for certain niches, but it's downright dumb in today's age. I wouldn't personally try it out till Android support becomes available. Though for those of you who don't mind the lack of an Android app, the Adidas miCoach Smart Ball can be yours today for just under $300, and considering the features it offers, it's a bargain for a soccer fan! And it comes with an awesome-looking dock.

 

Infomotion 94Fifty Smart Sensor Basketball

94Fifty Smart Sensor Basketball

More into dunking than kicking, but keep on missing the hoop half the time? What you need is 94Fifty's Smart Sensor Basketball. Just like the miCoach, the 94Fifty also offers interactive training, and keeps you informed on how you're playing in real-time on your smartphone. And it supports both iOS and Android!

94Fifty Smart Sensor Basketball Screenshots

There are different training regimes available for newbies and experts alike. and you can also compete with a friend for a challenge. Various statistics such as speed, spin and angle of your throw are measured and shown on the smartphone app, along with some suggestions on how to make the best of each shot.

Thanks to high-speed Bluetooth 4.0, the data reaches your phone from the ball near-instantly (within 100ms), which can be especially useful in coaching sessions as it provides the coach with real-time information on how good or bad a player is doing.

While it's cheaper than the miCoach at around $250, that's still not exactly cheap. However, the 94Fifty's helpful insights on your game, tips on scoring the perfect shots, killer app UI, iOS and Android support, and the included wireless charger and cinch bag make it worth the price. And it's available in full-size (29.5") as well as mid-size (28.5").

 

Smart rackets, clubs & bats

While some of the world's most popular sports involve balls (no pun intended), a lot of them also involve some device for striking the ball, such as a bat, a racket or a club. These devices essentially act as extensions of the players themselves, and that only increases their potential for augmentation using technology. And while you can't generally attach something external to a ball and still expect it to perform like one, that limitation doesn't apply to the striking gear, expanding the possibilities even further by allowing us to smartify our existing equipment using add-ons. Here are some options available in this category, including a few add-ons.

Babolat Play Pure Drive

Babolat Play Smart Tennis Racket

There's no beating soccer but with a billion-strong fan base making it the world's fourth most famous sport, tennis enjoys immense popularity across the globe. And you've got to admit that it has the most good-looking players of any game. Heck, I'd bet my money on just Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer standing their own against most athletes from other sports in that department, but I digress.

Babolat needs no introduction when it comes to tennis; the famous French racket manufacturer has names like Rafael Nadal, Kim Clijsters, Andy Roddick, Leander Paes, Fernando Gonzalez, Igor Andreev and many more in its list of clients, who all swear by its professional-grade rackets and strings, the Babolat Pure Drive being the flagship. Babolat Play Pure Drive is the same carbon fiber and tungsten filament racket with a twist - it's smart!

Babolat Play App 1

The most striking feature of Babolat Play has got to be Pulse — an intelligent ranking system that assigns your game a score based on your technique, endurance and power, as measured by the racket's sensors and relayed to its companion app running on your iOS or Android device. Coupled with an integrated global community of users, this adds an MMORPG-like competitiveness to the game.

You still get all the statistics you'd expect from a smart piece of equipment like this, such as the number of topspins, slices and flats you've hit in your forehands, the spin effect in each of the former two, and even your achievements across strokes, rallies and sessions. And that's just the tip of the ice berg; exploring all the features offered by this smart racket will require a long, dedicated review of its own to do it justice. (And who knows, we just might do it some day.)

At almost $400, Babolat Play Pure Drive is among the most expensive smart sports equipment on this list. But then, you wouldn't expect something tested and endorsed by legends like Rafael Nadal and Li Na to come cheap. And when the experience it offers backs up these endorsements, that in itself can justify the price. Babolat even offers you to install the app for a demo without purchasing the racket to help you with your decision, and this level of confidence says a lot.

 

GAME GOLF

GAME GOLF Smart Golf Tag

I always thought golf to be more popular than baseball, but 50 million people beg to differ. Still, with a fan following of 450 million, it's the world's 8th most popular sport, right behind baseball with its half billion fans. Well, close enough. Getting back to the subject, we earlier discussed add-ons for your existing equipment that could smartify it, eliminating the need for replacing your perfectly good gear and saving you money in the process. GAME GOLF is a prime example of that.

GAME GOLF consists of two components - a tag that screws into your golf club, and a wearable tracking device that you mount on your belt. All you have to do is to tap the club-mounted tag against the tracking device before each shot, and GAME GOLF does the rest. Unlike most other smart devices in this list, however, GAME GOLF doesn't show you your data in real-time on your smartphone or tablet. In order to retrieve and view the gathered data, you must connect the tracking device to your computer running the PC software provided by the vendor, and let it sync with it. The software then sends the data to GAME GOLF's servers, which process it and push it to the mobile apps across your smartphones and tablets.

GAME GOLF Smart Golf App 1

The results you get, however, are both insightful and stunning. You basically get your entire game laid out over a map view of the golf course, complete with indicators for the holes and trajectory lines for your swings. You can instantly switch between data for all the games you've played with the tags equipped.

Further details include the par, shots and putts for each hole, a list view of all your statistics gathered so far, achievements and records, and the ability to share and compare your results with the other members of the community.

The biggest shortcoming of GAME GOLF is the lack of direct mobile integration for uploading your statistics wirelessly without the need to sync with a PC, especially considering how easily achievable it is using a technology like Bluetooth. This shortcoming alone makes it hard to justify spending $250 on it, though that price does include 18 tags for all your clubs. Also, the Android app is currently under development, but that shouldn't be much of an issue since all the information is still viewable on your computer as well as the web.

 

Zepp Tennis, Baseball & Golf

Zepp Smart Baseball Golf Tennis Sensors

What important factor do games like tennis, baseball and golf have in common when it comes to the person on the strike? The swing, of course! That's what determines the momentum you build with the racket, bat or club, and the point as well as angle of impact. Zepp sensor for tennis rackets, baseball bats and golf clubs transforms these instruments into smart devices, in turn providing you insight on your swing from the instant you move your hands back, right to the moment of impact with the ball.

The sensor itself is the same for all three of these sports; it's the mount that differs, allowing you to install the same sensor on a baseball bat, a tennis racket, or a golf glove. The way the feedback is interpreted depends on the sport-specific app you use on your smartphone.

Zepp Smart Baseball Sensor App

With "Analyze your swing, improve your game" as its motto, Zepp is clear about its objective - helping you refine your swing by showing you detailed statistics about it and offering you powerful tools to analyze that data.

What I love most is the 360º Analysis that lets you view your complete swing from start to end in full 3D from any angle, and even as a replay. Then there's the precise impact analysis to see exactly when and where you hit the ball during your swing.

You can also compare data for two of your own swings side by side, or even compare your swing with that of someone else! The data itself includes impact speed, maximum hand speed, impact time from the start of swing, and vertical as well as horizontal angles of impact. The iOS and Android apps are both well-designed, making it a treat to view and analyze your data.

The sensor itself can only be purchased as part of the Zepp Baseball, Golf or Tennis kit, each of which is available for about $150 and includes the sensor, the appropriate mount, and a charger. Though once you've bought a kit, you needn't spend the same amount of money again if you want to use it in another of these sports; you can simply buy the appropriate mount for $9.99. Zepp could have easily fused the sensor right into each mount and sold it as three different devices (worth $450 in total) in order to make more money, but it chose not to, instead opting for offering users great value for their money by letting them smartify all three devices for just $170. Kudos!

 

Smart glasses & HUDs

Unless you've been living off the grid in the wilderness, chances are you know about Google Glass — the tech giant's innovative foray into wearable technology that promises to change the way we interact with the world around us. While Glass — and many of its spin-offs — might be targeted at a more general audience, its hard not to see how beneficial such technology can be in specialized fields including sports. Smart sports glasses can offer athletes a see-through HUD that presents them with the right information not just at the right time, but also at a glance. Furthermore, they eliminate the need to look at a separate display for said information, which can be immensely beneficial in high-risk situations such as car, motorcycle or bicycle racing, snowboarding and all sorts of extreme sports where taking your eyes off your surroundings even briefly could potentially spell disaster.

Although general purpose smart glasses can also be used for such sports in conjunction with some external hardware and an app, here are a couple of HUDs that are built for the purpose.

Recon Jet

Recon Jet Smart Sports HUD

I'm quite into cycling, and a huge proponent of smart HUDs integrated into glasses or goggles. And while I prefer function over form, aesthetics are also quite important. That's why the moment I laid my eyes upon the Recon Jet, I fell in love. I mean, just look at it! Doesn't it look like the perfect blend of geeky and sporty, topped with a healthy icing of fashionable?

At the heart of Recon Jet lies a 1 GHz dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor coupled with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage. The display shows you a 30" wide screen HD virtual image at 7' away. WiFi a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, ANT and micro USB take care of all your connectivity requirements, while the 3D accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometers as well as pressure and ambient temperature sensors track your activity and present it to you in real time. You control the UI with the optical touch sensor that works in all weather conditions and even with gloves on. And as we all know, no smart glasses would be complete without a built-in camera, so there's the HD camera for capturing the world around you effortlessly without having to get your focus off the game.

And if all that isn't enough, Recon Jet can be paired with your iOS or Android smartphone for receiving and answering calls via the integrated speaker and mic, viewing SMS, and connecting to the web. In addition to the built-in apps for showing you performance statistics such as speed, distance traveled, elevation gain and the like with its own sensors, Jet also supports third-party apps and sensors; developers can use the Jet's SDK to build apps of their choice for it, even employing external sensors such as heart rate monitors, cadence sensors etc. via the ANT+ standard.

At almost $600, the Recon Jet is the most expensive device on this list. This might seem like a huge price but when you consider that it's not a mere accessory but more of a standalone computer with support for apps of its own, the price seems justified. In comparison, Google Glass will set you back $1500 - that's over 2.5 times the price of the Jet. Above all, no smart glasses I've seen come close to looking this good. And it's even available in white!

 

Recon Snow2

Recon Snow Smart Alpine Sports HUD

The Jet isn't Recon's first offering when it comes to smart HUDs for sports; the manufacturer has previously brought us the MOD and MOD Live HUDs for alpine sports. Recon Snow2 is their latest update to that line, and it looks as impressive as the Jet. It also shares most of the same internals and sensors with the Jet, though there's no camera and the virtual display shows up as 14" at 5' away.

In addition to the basic metrics you'd expect such as speed, distance and temperature, the Snow2 also lets you track your vertical descent, airtime and altitude - all important statistics for alpine sports. There's the same support for third-party sensors and apps as well as smartphone connectivity. When it comes to controlling the device itself, there's a handy wearable remote instead of a touchpad, with large buttons that make it easy to operate even with gloves on.

Just like the Recon Jet, the Snow2 doesn't come cheap either, and will set you back almost $600 for the HUD and UVEX G.GL 9 goggles bundle. However, if you already own one of the aforementioned supported pairs of goggles, you can buy just the HUD for just under $400. Again, this does seem like a bargain when you compare it to the hefty price tag of Google Glass. If you just can't afford it for the price but still want something similar, Recon is still selling its older MOD Live HUD for $300 ($450 with the goggles), and the yet older MOD HUD for $200 ($350 with the goggles).

 

What's next?

While the above options seem quite refined, the smart sports industry still has a long way to go, Though from what we've seen so far, things do seem quite promising, especially considering the sheer potential of such technology in an industry that isn't short on cash for R&D. It's also quite lucrative for investors considering professional, amateur and aspiring players as well as enthusiasts and fans are usually willing to spend a lot of money on any equipment that can help them refine their game.

Admittedly, the technology is quite expensive right now and you'll have to spare a few hundred dollars for each of the available options, though prices are bound to drop as more competition enters the industry. Still, even at a few hundred bucks, it's worth the investment for those serious about getting an advantage in their training.

Personally, I'm not into ball games at all (surprise!), the only exception being cricket, and that too only when it comes to important international matches of my national team (Go Greens!) Still, being a sucker for all things tech, this industry intrigues me greatly, and I am looking forward to seeing more smart sports equipment surface. It was actually kinda sad to not find a single smart bat or ball available for cricket, despite it being the world's second most famous sport boasting over 2.5 billion fans. For my own use though, the aspiring adventurer inside me would be most interested in getting my hands on devices like the Recon Jet and Snow2. In fact, I were to pick just one device from this list for my personal use, it'll have to be the Recon Jet.

I also came across some interesting smart sportswear offering real-time monitoring of your body's statistics as you play or work out. However, they are scheduled for launch later this year. Besides, in a few months, there would be enough options available in this category to warrant a dedicated post, and we'll certainly be writing a similar one for them when that happens.

So, what's your take on smart sports gear? Will you buy any of the aforementioned options? For fans of other sports not covered above, which smart gear would you be most looking forward to? Did we miss any currently available options? Don't forget to let us and our readers know in the comments below.

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How smart sports gear will change the way you train and play

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