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NFL Combine 2013: Motion capture technology and the future of player testing

J. Meric/IMG Academy
Manti Te'o is one of the many top prospects training at IMG Academy

Forty-two NFL hopefuls donned compression suits adorned with 41 white markers at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., this past month. They stood in the middle of a rectangle formed by eight specialized cameras needed to map the markers -- each perhaps a little bigger than a marble -- within a 3D space. The athletes ran through a battery of position-specific drills, and how those markers moved was translated into real-time data indicating joint angles, limb acceleration, where there was too much oscillation and where there was not enough.

The prodding was done in the name of preparation for the 2013 NFL Combine, where athletes are admired more for feats of speed and strength than actual accomplishments in the sport of football. IMG teamed up with a New York City biomechanics lab called Motus to help athletes prepare for the talent showcase in Indianapolis. Using raw data generated by motion capture technology, they helped athletes shave milliseconds off their 40 times and add inches to their vertical jumps. If the players felt like guinea pigs, they didn't show it, according to Loren Seagrave, IMG's director of speed and movement.

"These players get pulled on and tugged on all over the place, and if it doesn't benefit them, they really don't see the need to participate," Seagrave told SB Nation. "Once they understand the dynamic and what it does, they're all over it."

Motus was founded in 2010 by a pair of 3D animators, Keith Robinson and Joe Nolan. The two were creating video game characters before deciding to apply the same motion capture technology used in film and video games to benefit athletes. In fact, that the technology even exists is a massive credit to Hollywood, according to Dave Fortenbaugh, Motus' executive vice president of biomechanics. 

"On the biomechanics side, we are actually very grateful to Hollywood because universities don't really have the deep pockets to be developing that kind of technology," Fortenbaugh says. "But when a giant Hollywood studio says ‘we need a 100-camera system to film a fight scene in The Matrix,' the companies that are making those cameras can figure out how to develop that technology."

Adapting the technology was simply a matter of creating the software, according to Fortenbaugh. Once that was in place, professional teams were open to using the technology. Motus caught a couple of big breaks last September. The company struck up a partnership with the American Sports Medicine Institute to begin compiling biomechanical analysis of Major League Baseball pitchers for coaches and trainers. That same month, Motus began working with IMG, making the technology available to every athlete to come through the facility.

Perhaps the biggest immediate benefit has been injury prevention. Seagrave calls the process "pre-hab." Using Motus technology, physical trainers can identify joint instabilities that could lead to a sprained ankle, knee, or worse at some point down the road. Ideally, if an injury does occur, a diagnosis will be able to be made immediately from the data, freeing up the time that normally goes into evaluation and seeking a second opinion.

"This is the cool thing about it," Seagrave says. "This is where they're moving, and it's going to allow a trained technician to administer things and allow athletic trainers and orthopaedic surgeons to leverage their time and do what they do best rather than occupying [athletes] with an evaluation that could be done with a program at Motus' development."

Ditching the compression suit will be the next step in the evolution of motion capture technology. Game situations are perhaps the best time to gather data. Unfortunately, wearing fragile 3D markers at all times isn't practical for a high-contact sport like football. With the use of Microsoft Kinect, for example, Motus hopes to measure any movement at any time. Kinect is still too inaccurate at this point, according to Fortenbaugh, but it does set a solid foundation to work from. 

"It's hard to make a laboratory in the middle of the Olympics or in the middle of a World Series," Fortenbaugh says. "But if we can push the technology to get closer to that, so that they can be playing in the Super Bowl and we can see how fast Joe Flacco's arm was moving when he threw that touchdown pass and he didn't even know he was getting measured, that's going to be one of the biggest things."

Eventually, the technology may become ubiquitous. Not only could motion capture analysis filter down to the college and high school ranks, it may also soon be in your living room. Using a device like Kinect, fathers training their sons or athletes training on their own could have access to information that they can only get with from a professional physical therapist today. 

There may even be a time where technicians are able to measure the immeasurable. The term "moxie" is one of dozens used by sportswriters to describe a player that may not be a peak physical talent, but whose leadership and intelligence makes him one of the best players on any given field. Will we someday be able to quantify intangibles?

"Oh absolutely. I mean, you can measure it, but is it real time or are you going to send me a report in a week?" Seagrave says. "We have video analysis software where the athlete runs out, but it's all manually driven, and it's not exact. It doesn't give you exactly the acceleration from your stance to the time your foot moves. When it leaves the ground, where's your center of mass and what's it doing? And how long does it take you to get to the next step? Should be five-hundredths of a second. Oops, it was nine-hundredths of a second.

"It is these kinds of things that are going to be absolutely essential to high-level sport."