Smart Sporting Goods

A smart soccer ball that allows exact position tracking during play.

There is a field here in San Francisco where I play soccer from time to time. Being in the city, the field is bordered by streets on all sides and worse, is on top of a hill such that if the ball goes over the fence in any direction, it is headed downhill and will roll for a long, long time. Combined with heavy traffic on some of the streets and a few other random factors, it all adds up to a lot of lost soccer balls.

As I was looking for yet another ball the other day (which I never did find), I started talking with a friend about how great it would be if our soccer balls had locator chips in them. Picture a time when you forgot where you parked your car. You’re wandering around the parking garage, pressing the car alarm button on your key fob and waiting until you hear you car alarm so you can find your vehicle. Imagine doing a similar thing trying to find a soccer ball. You could even have an indicator on the key fob that told you which direction to go. Turn left! Getting warmer… And actually a similar system has been around for a few years for finding lost golf balls.

Lost soccer balls may not be a very common problem, but when I got to work the next morning I kept thinking about smart products in sports. There are a number of examples besides the golf ball finder already – for instance, Adidas has been working to develop a smart soccer ball for a number of years that will take the human guesswork out of knowing whether the ball has crossed the line for a goal. The system may even be used in the 2010 World Cup.

Another area where smart products are making inroads into sports is as training aids. There are smart golf clubs on the market that have built-in hardware designed to measure the user’s swing and help improve their form. Training aids is a really exciting avenue of development because of the potential to provide objective feedback to the user without requiring them to hire an expert (and expensive) coach.

The ongoing shift towards ever more affordable sensor and other IC technology over the past few years has also really opened some new possibilities. For instance, in the past year we’ve worked on projects in and around the sporting goods space involving everything from accelerometers and gyroscopes to RFID, Bluetooth, and motion tracking. All in all, it’s pretty clear that the sporting goods market is going to be an interesting area for smart products as time goes by – it will be exciting to see what comes out next!

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