Aug 18, 2020
Step by Step: The Rise of Motion Capture Technology Among Sports Healthcare Professionals

Motion capture technology — something usually associated with the studios and editing bays of Hollywood — is finding a comfortable home in the world of sports. 

Typically, high-tech cameras capture the motion of a subject covered in sensors and through computer software, the subject can be edited and recreated into the desired character. Actor Andy Serkis is well-known for his computer-generated image (CGI) performances in such blockbuster movies as The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Planet of the Apes reboot, among others. And while the effects of motion capture technology have been refined and perfected by Hollywood studios, it’s found a new life among sports healthcare professionals. 

A 2017 study published on ResearchGate titled “Application of Motion Capture Technology for Sports Performance Analysis” saw the made-for-movie tech as a potential aid in injury prevention and rehabilitation. Motion capture aims, according to the study, at tracking and recording athletes’ human motion in real-time to analyze physical condition, athletic performance, technical expertise and injury mechanism, prevention, and rehabilitation.

And while the results of optical systems are often thought of as highly accurate and reliable, justifying the cost of equipment and time needed to record, process, and extrapolate the data can prove difficult for budget-conscious programs. 

motion capture
Photo: Frank Boyd / Creative Commons

“Motion capture technology is typically tailored for universities, hospitals or private clinics, and professional clubs,” Dr. Kim Duffy, life science product manager at Vicon, said. 

The lofty price tag — running anywhere from $800 to $75,000, according to MetaMotion’s website — is for good reason. The tech allows sports healthcare professionals to perform gait analysis, benchmark gains, and conduct rehabilitation sessions remotely — something that’s become more of a reality amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But above all of that, Duffy said, is the ability to identify the potential of an injury before it occurs and correct the issue before requiring surgery. 

“It allows for a lot more monitoring of athletes, not just for an injury, which is important, but we can catch the injury before it occurs or when it’s less severe,” Duffy said. 

Injury prevention has jumped to the forefront of the minds of sports medicine professionals in recent years, a shift from the ideology of healing or rehabilitating the already-injured athlete. With an increased injury rate and the general demand of athletes, the incorporation of optical systems in the last decade — but specifically within the last five years — has proven beneficial in the area of injury prevention. 

Duffy pointed to a recent example from the Reading FC team and two players that were working to return from injury but were struggling. The program’s motion capture tech identified an underlying injury and they were able to put together a new return-to-play plan using flexibility and movements that weren’t being previously targeted. Although the doctors recommended surgery for one of the athletes, Duffy said, because of the motion capture software they were able to avoid surgery and provide a different avenue of treatment. 

A 2019 case study from the Sports Medicine Department of Dublin’s Sports Surgery Clinic (SSC) tapped Vicon’s motion capture technology to offer insights into kinematics and kinetics to enhance its practice by better understanding an injury through understanding all of the possible underlying mechanisms. With the help of Vicon’s tech, SSC found an example of their biases, particularly when it came to the ankle joint. Kinesiologists have traditionally seen the ankle joint as relatively less important from a motility point of view, according to the case study, but the analysis of Vicon data has suggested otherwise and convinced the SSC’s team of the role of the ankle joint and its importance during rehab.

“The way Vicon fits in with our practice is to really allow us to objectify what we’re doing. It gives us a basis to see whether our interventions are changing what we think they’re changing,” Dr. Enda King, head of performance at SSC, said in the case study.

Motion capture technology has also recently been combined with virtual reality training, specifically when it comes to the rehabilitation process. Duffy said the advantages of immersive realism that doesn’t occur in a lab or a gait clinic could help a quarterback test out their surgically-repaired body part in as close to a real-time situation without the possibility of injury. 

So, great. How does this sort of technology help high school and small college programs? Well with the surge of usage in the last five years has come different levels of optical and non-optical systems, and real-time analysis software. 

Though video analysis of camera-based systems can offer biofeedback for coaches and trainers to digest, it tends to be used more for research. Sensor-based systems tend to be more sports performance-related. Motus has a single-sensor product for throwing athletes like baseball pitchers, bowlers, and quarterbacks. 

Non-optical systems, or camera-less systems, rely on attaching sensors to body parts to send its spatial information to computers wirelessly by means of different technologies like electromagnetic and inertial accelerometry. 

“That’s where a more wearable tech has come into play recently,” Duffy said. “You get your athletes set up with a strapped sensor on their wrist or ankle, and you get information on your smartphone or tablet and review the data. More people want more data. Everyone wants their GPS information from their Apple Watches — their case splits, heart rate, peak performance times. That’s where these mobile apps are useful. But if they want more in-depth knowledge and data, programs should use optical motion capture software.” 

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