Tracking how fast a ball was kicked or thrown used to be done with an external device – it could be a speed radar or a high speed camera or maybe even a very trained (and experienced) eye. However, in the last 5-6 years, more and more engineers and scientists have tried to put some form of sensors inside the balls to measure linear velocity, spin velocity, spin axis. This has mostly been made possible with advanced developments in microelectromechanical sensors (MEMS), where accuracy and measurement range has increased significantly (while still keeping the small form factor). Another 2 tech contributions that helped keep the sensors (more permanently) in the balls are wireless connectivity (Bluetooth or Wifi) with the micro-controllers and wireless charging.
Smart Ball Construction
Although the electronics is key to measuring movement signals and processing, there is still the very important task of holding those components (sensors + micro-controller + wireless modules + battery) inside the ball. Let’s call all those components the core. So while designing a method to secure the core within the ball, one has to consider the weight and position of the core and how it affects the centre of mass of the ball. The method has to be robust enough since the ball will take lots of impacts as it’s kicked or thrown or bounced. The method of securing the core will also affect or determine how the ball is constructed. Here’s a look at some of the different type of “smart” balls and their construction:
Smart Basketball: 94Fifty
The way that the 9DOF sensor is built into the 94Fifty ball is rather unique (thus the patent). According to their patent application, there is an inner cavity on the surface of the inside of the ball, which is purposed for a casing to house the electronic components (core). The casing is built with a flexible material such that the walls can flex with the pressure difference between the inside of the bladder and the inside of the housing. The patent application also mentions providing access for battery charging but that was probably the early version. The new version is built with Bluetooth connectivity and wireless charging.
The ball is constructed according to the official size and weight which is 29.5 inches (749.3mm) and 22 ounces (623.7g). So with the extra weight added from the core, the designers made adjustments to the enclosure material so that the overall weight is close to the standard weight, and more importantly, the weight distribution is compensated so it spins like a standard ball. For example, if the core is positioned at the top of the ball (see image above), and the valve is placed 180 degrees from the core, the extra weight would be added around the valve until the balance is achieved.
Smart Soccer ball: adidas micoach
adidas’ smart ball is designed with its core positioned within the ball and held there by what looks like 12 sets of supports. The core is positioned or suspended right in the centre of the ball, and the supports are meant to be rigid so that the core is always in the dead centre. There doesn’t seem to be any patent related to the method of supporting the core but there was a patent with regards to the electrical wiring within the ball. The patent basically describes how the wiring is arranged along the bladder wall to interconnect two electronic devices. It also mentions that the electronic components are arranged in such as way that the ball is balanced and doesn’t affect playing properties of the ball. According to the adidas page, the core consists of only a tri-axial accelerometer. There is also wireless charging with their custom induction-charging stand. The induction coils would likely be placed along the bladder wall instead of in the core.
Smart Cricket ball
The Sportzedge group at RMIT developed an instrumented cricket ball for measuring the spin rate and calculating the position and movement of the spin axis (link to the conference paper). Due to the high spin rates of wrist spinners (up to 42 rps or 15,120 deg/s), typical off the shelf gyroscope sensors can’t manage that measurement range. What this smart cricket ball has are three high-speed gyros that can measure +/- 20,000 deg/s, one for each axis. This ball is not built in the typical manufacturing process. In order to house the electronics, meet weight requirements, and keep it balanced, 2 solid halves of the ball were designed and CNC machined from the material Ureol or RenShape® BM 5460 which had the right density and hardness. Eight holes within the ball allowed for additional masses to be inserted to balance the ball. According to the paper, this design is an initial prototype and it is still not robust enough to be hit by a cricket bat. But it is fully capable of measuring spin rates during fast bowling. Subsequent versions will be more sturdy and also include wireless charging.
Smart Oval Ball
The same team that built the smart cricket ball also developed a smart AFL ball to assess angular flight dynamics and precision of kick execution. The same electronics (high-speed gyros) that were built into the smart cricket ball was also incorporated into this smart oval ball. The main difference is, this oval ball is made with two bladders that sandwich the core electronics, keeping them right in the middle of the ball. The bladders were inflated simultaneously to ensure a more even distribution of pressure. It was noted in their paper that the advantage of using an inflatable bladder (instead of replacing it with expanded polystyrene beads) is that it allows for realistic kicking whereas the foam beads will absorb too much energy thus dampening the performance. Other than the smart AFL ball, a recent patent search found another American style football that is built with an electronic circuit coupled to an inflatable bladder. Interestingly, the football in this patent is designed intentionally with the electronics causing imbalance, unlike the above designs where the creators made sure their balls are balanced. Even though Wilson Sporting Goods has been granted this patent, there has yet to be any news of them releasing an instrumented oval ball. This might be something to look out for?
Ball Movement Measurements
No smart ball is complete if there are no “smarts” involved. The acceleration and/or angular velocity that is measured do not mean much if they are not processed and analysed. So firstly, the inertia sensors would require calibration – to ensure that the measurements are linear and accurate or at least corrected based on a benchmark device. Then mathematical models would be derived to determine the parameters for analysis; parameters such as spin rate, spin axis, speed, timing, ball flight path, angles, point of kick, bounces etc.
Also, to ensure that relevant data is processed accurately, certain “markers” or references are put in place to indicate when ball movement needs to be analysed and how it should be analysed. For the smart cricket and AFL ball developed by RMIT, as they are still in the research stage, a lot of the sensor measurements, signal processing, calculations and analysis are done manually. However for the commercial products like 94Fifty and the micoach smart ball, they have developed algorithms as well as guided user interface and instructions to make sure that each throw or bounce or kick is analysed accurately. In both cases, the interfaces and algorithms come in the form of an iPhone or iPad app. Here’s a breakdown of how each ball does it:
Basically to analyse a kick with the adidas micoach ball, the micoach app needs to be turned on and connected to the ball via bluetooth. Then after the ball is positioned stationary on the ground, the user has to select his/her kicking foot and tap on the ‘Kick it’ screen before executing the kick. One condition for getting the parameters measured is to kick the ball at least a metre off the ground and for it to travel at least 10m. No bouncing or rolling kicks.
Similarly the 94Fifty ball requires its app to be turned on and connected via bluetooth for the shots to be measured. For measuring shots, the user’s height needs to be entered into the app as well as the distance where the user is shooting from. There are options in the app to utilise a shooting machine or a user can practice with a training partner who can pass the ball after each shot. The only condition is that the pass has to be a chest pass for the subsequent shot to be recognised by the app. There are also some workouts or skill trainings that allow users to practice on their own and ball handling tracking options.
The Coaching Element
All these sensor-laden balls and their accompanying apps with smart algorithms aims to help users become better players – whether it is improved technique in kicking or shooting or training of muscle memory to perform proper mechanics over and over.
The 94Fifty app provides real-time audio feedback for each shot that a user makes, whether the focus is on shot arc angle or shot speed or shot backspin. Based on ideal stats (e.g. arc angle of 52 deg and backspin of 180rpm), the user can fine-tune his/her technique to achieve the right angle/speed/backspin. This user shows how by utilising the app’s feedback and capturing his practice on video at the same time, he could analyse his shot mechanics and identify how he could correct his shooting technique.
Likewise, the adidas micoach smart ball app not only measures each kick with ball speed, spin, spin angle, ball strike location & flight path, it also provides “Coach Notes” with recommendations on how the user can boost each specific parameter. A video option within the app allows a second person to capture the user’s kick using the iPhone/iPad’s camera so that the user not only gets the kick statistics but also visual playback of the kick.
Designing a smart ball that analyses a player’s performance is definitely a complicated process. Not only must the instrumented ball behave like a normal standard ball with proper balance, but the electronics incorporated within the ball also have to be held robustly so that they don’t break under impact and the sensor data remains repeatable and reliable. Then there is the task of working out what parameters can be determined from the sensor data, if constraints/markers/references should be put in place to ensure accurate measurements, and how those parameters are helpful for improving an athlete’s skills and techniques.
Even with a properly designed ball that measures all the critical performance parameters accurately, it’s probably still not a complete coaching system. What the ball (and app) lacks is the ability to know (and break down) what exactly the athlete did in his kick or shot to achieve the numbers as calculated by the app. For example, in football, what affects a kick include foot speed, which part of the foot kicked the ball, and the amount of upper-body movement; and in basketball, a few things that influence a free throw include: the amount of trunk and knee flexion, shoulder flexion and elbow extension. These range of movements could be tracked with either video analysis (such as Kinovea which is markerless) or a 3D motion tracking system (such as Vicon which requires markers), or wearable sensors (such as SabelSense, XSens or this new sensor embedded compression suit).
In a nutshell, smart balls are definitely great coaching tools. But if combined with athlete movement tracking, it would give a lot more insight to improving the athlete’s shot performance.