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Space Age Sports

Athletes looking to improve their performance are turning to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where students are learning how to apply cutting-edge technology to sports.

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  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    In April, pro cyclist Timmy Duggan finished 59th at the Tour de Georgia. It wasn't good enough. So the 22-year-old Coloradoan came to the wind tunnel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to learn to ride faster. But wait a second; learning to ride a bike isn't rocket science. Or is it?

  • KIM BLAIR:

    It is rocket science here in some cases. It's just applied to a different platform.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Kim Blair should know. An ardent triathlete — swim, bike, run — he's also an ex-NASA engineer who teaches in MIT's Aero/Astronautics Department, running the Center for Sports Technology and Innovation, whose purpose is to marry science to sport.

  • KIM BLAIR:

    With the wind tunnel, we're studying aerodynamics, OK. Now obviously you can study it on an airplane, but we're studying the same principles that you'd study on an airplane just applying it to cycling.

  • MARK COTE:

    We'll start you at your baseline, and what this gage shows you, when you actually get on your bike, this is going to show you your real-time drag.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    An MIT sophomore, Mark Cote, was helping Duggan trim his time by making his position more aerodynamic and thereby reducing both wind resistance and drag — low pressure air that forms behind fast moving objects and tugs backwards on them.

    Blair fired up the wind tunnel — built in 1938 to test aircraft — and Duggan began cycling against the wind in his usual posture. Cote monitored the effects with software he's designed. Next, time to tinker. Duggan was told to alter the angle of his head, his arms. Did the drag increase, decrease? The results were projected onto the floor so Duggan could adjust to them. So how weird is this?

  • TIMMY DUGGAN:

    It's pretty cool. I mean, every little, minute movement you make in there makes a difference in your aerodynamics. As I moved my arms up, the drag started to go way down.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    The biggest drag reduction: Tilting the long fin of his helmet at what you might call a more rakish angle. The further back the low-pressure air pocket, the less the drag, just a slight improvement, but one that can have a big payoff.

    If you had to guess as to how much of a difference it's going to make?

  • TIMMY DUGGAN:

    I would probably guess around maybe a second per kilometer. So in a 40 kilometer race, that's a typical race distance, that'll be savings of 30-40 seconds, which, you know, that can be the difference between 1st place and 20th place, so pretty significant.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And indeed, Duggan's MIT Training appears to have paid off. In two recent time trials, he finished third and fourth. Now speed is the subject of many of these MIT projects, including several on ice.

    Juniors Kieran Culligan and David Walfisch are testing, not technique but equipment: The new fulcrum skate designed by a company called Okolo sports, which asked MIT to come up with a test to measure the new equipment's effect.

  • KIERAN CULLIGAN:

    This is the original klapskate, which is used by most people right now. It's just a straight pivot point, right, rotates about this one point. Where with the fulcrum skate, designed by these guys at Okolo right here, you'll notice it's a different motion. It slides back and it opens up. And one of the biggest advantages to that is that it's more similar to walking. A more natural stroke is probably going to lead to increased speed. So —

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    But your job is to find out whether or not this intuition of theirs is really paying off in athlete —

  • KIERAN CULLIGAN:

    Exactly. We're trying to see if the numbers actually come out differently when the skaters use the two different types of skates.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    The testing begins low-tech: Pledge dusting spray on white board to simulate ice. Rob Kramer, a former pro skater who runs Okolo Sports, has strapped on one fulcrum skate. MIT's super-slow-motion camera records the push-off: The mostly-sideways motion that generates speed.

  • ROB KRAMER:

    They have more time to push on the ice, so they can exert more force and go faster on the ice.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And you're sure that the more contact time on the ice you have, the faster you'll go?

  • ROB KRAMER:

    According to the results, it looks pretty sure, yes.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Enough, perhaps, to achieve world record speeds. After the original klapskate was developed back in 1996, every speed skating record was shattered. But for students, the point is to achieve something else: An understanding of the scientific method.

  • KIM BLAIR:

    The educational intent of these projects really focuses on coming up with a good project as that shows good experimental designs. So the students actually have a chance to develop and test the hypothesis.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Blair also wants students to get some real-world science experience by working with businesses. Three years ago, the New Balance Co. approached Blair to see if his students could design a better running shoe for triathletes. One key issue, how to get your running shoe on fast, after the swim and bike phases of the competition.

  • EDITH HARMON:

    The athlete can pre-lace the shoe and then to their liking, and then they can also enter the shoe through the rear portion by pulling this tab up and not having to lace it. That's very, very important.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    MIT Grad Edith Harmon is an engineer at New Balance, who worked with several of Blair's students to develop the "sling back." New Balance got MIT talent; the students got a real-life science project with real-life economic constraints.

  • EDITH HARMON:

    So it was very, very fruitful we think for both.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    For Marianne Okal, an avid rock climber and alumnus of the Center for Sports Innovation, the business partnership wasn't as fruitful. She came up with a device to test carabineers, the metal clips used by climbers.

    Did they develop microscopic cracks after repeated use? A product that could save lives, but when she tried to get it into production, companies weren't interested. If a clip passed muster and then subsequently failed, the company could get sued.

  • MARIANNE OKAL:

    I think I was looking at sports from a purely scientific perspective and a company can't do that. They also have a marketing and a liability side that's just as important.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    But Blair says that's precisely why his students need real world experience.

  • KIM BLAIR:

    The purpose of my Center for Sports Innovation is to really educate students in the product development process, and in order to do that you have to be involved in all phases of product development. You can't do just pure research.

    And so in those cases, you really have to have industry involved so they understand time-to-market issues and things like that and the bigger issues that you really can't teach necessarily in the "ivory tower, university vacuum."

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And indeed, many MIT students are leaving the ivory tower to start real-world businesses, like Satayan Muhajan and Zach Lavalle, who were eager to show us how they've combined space age technology with golf.

    First up, the I-club: A device that screws on the end of your club and then transmits information about your swing to a computer.

  • MAN:

    The faster you're moving, it's going to be red. And as you slow down, it's going into blue.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And so what you're really supposed to do is get gradually from the red to the blue at the end?

  • MAN:

    What you see here is actually pretty good. You see the nice gradient from blue to red and then you're staying red as you come through.

  • MAN:

    It's designed to help the average or the avid golfer just get better depending on what area they want to work on.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Their company has also developed a vest which monitors body movement to improve performance. It's based loosely on a project that Lavalle did for his MIT school project with Blair.

  • TOM CAVICCHI:

    You're just going to get a little bit more, that position there —

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Harmon golf instructor Tom Cavicchi says he loves using the new system, and offered to take a look at what one might laughably call my golf swing.

    There it is, yeah. Then he took me over to the computer screen to analyze what I'd done.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    That's me?

  • TOM CAVICCHI:

    That's you.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    That's a kind of grim reminder, isn't it?

  • TOM CAVICCHI:

    Well, it gives us an idea of what the body's doing and what the spine's doing and what the pelvis is doing during the golf swing. At the top you have 42 degrees of upper body rotation, which means you turned your shoulder 42 degrees away from the target; you've also got 34 degrees of hip rotation, which means they're a little too close together. To get a little bit more power, we'd like to have some separation, maybe something around 70 degrees of upper body rotation and 40 degrees of hip rotation.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    So twist the top more than the bottom. When you uncoil, you generate more torque, more power.

  • TOM CAVICCHI:

    There you go. Very good.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    So this is sort of a biofeedback system?

  • TOM CAVICCHI:

    Yes it is. And what it's doing is it's showing us what goes on with your body. Before we didn't know that; we had to guess. Is this person turning enough? Are the shoulders turning enough? What are the hips doing? No, this gives us some — this quantifies the information so we can look at it and say, that's good, that's enough.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    But after all this, we were left with one last nagging question: Does science in some ways sully the sports that MIT applies it to? After all, the nature of competition is pushing the envelope as far as you can to beat the other guy.

    Doesn't Blair ever worry that his technological advances are giving some competitors an unfair advantage over others? No, he says, that's the job of the sports authorities to make the rules, keep the proverbial playing field level.

  • KIM BLAIR:

    As an innovator and a developer of new technologies, my view is, I want to get the technology out there, and I'll let the sport decide what they want to do with it. We will certainly do our best to push the limits of the rules that we can, because that's what we're asked to do. But I don't get involved in, you know, where the rules should be, in a particular case.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And so, Blair and his students will keep making things and people go faster, higher, longer, all for the sake of both science and sports.

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