Wearable Futures: Multi-sensor wearable systems for return to play rehabilitation

In the wake of movies like Concussion that deal with the physical toll of high level athletics, there is a growing focus on how to make sports, at all levels, safer. We have even seen athletes like Chris Borland forgo a promising career in the NFL in the interest of long-term mental and physical health. As technology continues to get smaller and easier to interact with, we are approaching a time where we can drastically improve return to play rehabilitation for athletes across the athletic spectrum.

With all the money around these sports, you would think that solutions already exist to better serve players, coaches and clubs. While the trends are certainly indicating we are closer to this point, we are just barely scratching the surface of the true value that wearables can bring to us.

Limitations on Single Sensor Wearables

Apple Watch - Single Sensor Activity Tracker that also tells you the time :D

Apple Watch - Single Sensor Activity Tracker that also tells you the time :D

The wearable market has reached unfathomable projections in a short amount of time, expected to reach over 21 Billion by 2021. But this market is largely dominated by a few players primarily using single-point sensor technology.

Single sensor activity trackers like Fitbit, Garmin and Catapult utilize a host of technologies like counting your steps, tracking your sleep habits and measuring how many flights of stairs you’ve climbed. But there is little to be said about how these technologies can help you return to play after an injury has occurred. Why? It’s simple, by virtue of its single point of data collection, it can’t. Much like Apple introducing an iPhone with 2 cameras for its portrait mode feature, Fitbit needs a second focal point of data collection to create a better, clearer picture of what is going on.

Left: Picture taken without Dual focal point technology Right: Picture using Dual focal point technology (iPhone “Portrait mode”)

Left: Picture taken without Dual focal point technology
Right: Picture using Dual focal point technology (iPhone “Portrait mode”)

Multi-Sensor Data Collection

Using multi-point sensor systems for motion capture is nothing new. The movie industry has been using it for decades to bring to life characters like Smeagol (Lord of the Rings), Neytiri (Avatar) and The Conductor played by Tom Hanks in Polar Express. Many of us can envision an actor moving around a big green screen covered in what look like little ping pong balls.

As Fitbit gained its foothold in the wearable market, there were a few companies that had their sights set on multi-point data collection.

·       Athos –  high-performance base layers have built-in sEMG sensors that send data to the    Core that snaps directly into the garment.

·       Stats – utilizes a six-camera system installed in basketball arenas to track the real-time positions of players and the ball 25 times per second.


·       Xsense – 3D Character Animation, Human Motion Measurement, Inertial Sensor Modules, Motion Capture.

Despite raising phenomenal amounts of money, Athos struggled to gain traction because of usability. This was also the case for, Heddoko, another full body wearable suit, required the garment to be hand washed in between uses. Not sure about you, but when I get home from a 5 mile run, washing my sweat laden clothing by hand is among the last things I want to do.

Return to play

Unlocking the potential of multi-point activity tracking is on the cusp. We are already seeing some companies succeed in gaining traction with multi sensor products.

·         Hack Motion uses a multi sensor glove to help golfers avoid wrist injuries

·         Motus is using a multi-sensor elbow sleeve to help baseball players and quarterbacks            (American Football) reduce incidents of throwing injuries and fatigue.

Athletic trainers, Strength coaches and sports physicians have varying methods for returning their patients and athletes to the competitive field. Many injuries they deal with on a regular basis have a general “recovery period” associated to the injury. For example, a common grade 1  ankle sprain comes with a recovery time  of 1-3 weeks along with stretches, and keeping weight off of it etc.  But as any credible care provider will tell you, this is just a mere guess. The results can vary in each particular case.


Moreover depending on the sport missing two weeks may be more detrimental to a teams playoff hopes than others. The NFL has 16 games in a 17 week season. So missing 2 games is about 12% of the season. Whereas in MLB there are 162 games in a 24 week season. Assuming the average of 6 games per week, missing 2 weeks is a drop in the bucket of the overall season.

Applying data through the means of a multi sensor smart garment can assist trainers and coaches in customizing return to play rehabilitation protocols and processes.


Torq Smart Leggings: Connected Clothing For Athlete Safety and Performance Improvement

Torq Smart Leggings: Connected Clothing For Athlete Safety and Performance Improvement

Connected clothing companies are merging performance grade textiles with clinical grade technology to help better understand how our bodies perform in the competitive environment.

Multi-sensor wearables are becoming better understood and more easily adopted by the private sector as manufacturing and prototyping cost continue to fall. I predict we will see more of these products first adopted by professional and elite sports clubs to expand and improve return to play procedures.

Multi sensor technologies will be later released to consumers, despite high demand, due to the difficulty of keeping custom fit inventory on hand and increased early adopter price points.


  • Single sensor detection products have limitations on providing injury reduction assistance

  • Multi sensor wearables have the capability to provide greater insights for an athletes return to play process

  • Usability is the key to gaining traction with new technologies

~Julian Holtzman MPH, MPA

IG - @JulianHoltzman
Twitter - @uwmadisonboy