A Look at Smart Balls

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


Image from their patent file

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 miCoach Smartball

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.

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Instrumented cricket ball  (source: Fig 1 of the research paper)

Smart Oval Ball

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Smart AFL 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?

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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:

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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. 

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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.

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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.

Bottom Line

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 SabelSenseXSens 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.

Developing with Kinect sensors for fitness and health

microsoft_kinect_sensorThe Kinect sensor has been widely used (hacked/developed/applied) by many ever since the Xbox 360 was first released. A couple of years ago, a fellow sports engineer from SHU studied the feasibility of using the Kinect sensor as a biomechanical analysis tool. He concluded that although the Kinect was fairly accurate, it wasn’t good enough for serious analysis (You can read more in his blog post here). The main advantage of the Kinect was (and still is) it’s price compared to professional motion sensors, and the Microsoft SDK which allows developers to come up with interesting applications (Check out various kinect hacks here).

I recently started working on a project that utilises the Kinect sensor. The project is basically developing a fitness product/system that combines the use of various sensors for assessing gym exercises. It is a rather interesting and novel concept because not only does the product quantify different gym workouts, it has a gamification portion where each user is competing with another gym user at the same time. No, it’s not like online gaming. In fact, this system is not designed to be used at home, but rather in a gym setting where participants perform the workouts together and get scored at the end of each session. Think Nike+ Kinect Training but for many people physically at the same place and with smart gym equipment (Equipment with sensors and smart algorithms). I probably should not go into too much details to avoid spoilers, but do look out for it’s launch sometime this year!

Nike+ Kinect Assessment

Nike+ Kinect Assessment

Anyway, I had the opportunity to test out the Nike+ Kinect Training (NKT) and found that it has quite a well designed interface that helps the user perform workouts with proper techniques. For example, the Kinect (ver 1) sensor is not the most accurate in measuring depth, so for exercises like push-ups, burpees, and core exercises like the bird-dog, the NKT gets users to turn to the side instead of face the TV/Kinect sensor; that way, the user’s movements are tracked more accurately. The concept of the NKT program is also pretty good because it starts with putting the user through an assessment – a series of movement tests and exercises, then rates the user in terms of strength, flexibility and stamina. Following that, it recommends a scheduled training program with a combination of exercises that can help you reach your goal (either to build power, become toned or lean). The feedback given by the on-screen personal trainer are usually quite spot on, usually correcting my posture, asking me to slow down (for exercises that are meant to be controlled) or speed up (for endurance type exercises), or just encouraging me to push on for the last few reps. There are instances where the Kinect sensor was unable to track some of my joints accurately and failed to count my reps, especially in a few of the floor exercises. But all in all, it is a pretty good program based on some sports science fundamentals and it could be an effective training tool for people who like to workout alone. I also got some good ideas off it that might be useful in the project I am working on.

{On a separate note, there has been some interesting devices/gadgets developed for the fitness and strength training folks in the last few months:

  • PUSH – a wearable arm band (possibly built with inertia sensors) that is able to determine force, velocity and power of each strength training rep
  • Hexoskin – another wearable smart apparel that not only measures movement (activity level, steps, cadence), but also the users physiology (heart rate and breathing rate).
  • Athos – similar to the Hexoskin, it is a wearable smart apparel with the addition of electromyography (EMG) capabilities embedded in the apparel.
  • Skulpt Aim – a mobile device that measures the user’s body fat percentage and muscle quality in individual muscles.

These devices (and other smart devices) could potentially become a common sight in gyms in the near future, allowing users to track more about their workout sessions and gain more understanding of what’s happening. A common trait among these gadgets is that they all have (or are developing) iPhone apps, which means users will have access to their workout history on their fingertips and probably be able to brag about it on social media.}

Going back to the Kinect sensor, apart from sports and fitness applications, developers have also come up with practical solutions for the medical and health industry. One such application is the Teki system developed by technology services company Accenture, and a few other partners including Microsoft. The main purpose of the Teki system is to reduce the need for elderly patients to travel to the hospital for routine consultations and check-ups, saving time and money. Using a Kinect sensor, set up at the elderly patient’s home, together with a few other wireless medical devices like a pulse oximeter and a spirometer, the doctor is able to do a remote consultation using a webcam in the hospital/clinic. The Kinect sensor comes in when the doctor needs to evaluate the patient’s range of motion; or when there are prescribed rehabilitative exercises that the patient need to perform and the Kinect sensor is able to assess and provide feedback to assist the patient.

Kinect v2

Kinect v2

It was mentioned earlier that the Kinect sensor isn’t the most precise in measuring movements, especially in terms of depth and also higher speed motions. Although the specification says that it could measure up to 30 fps, but after testing it myself, I found that it is usually around 15-16 fps (depending on your program). Lighting and certain background objects could also affect the detection of a full skeleton. But all these little ‘glitches’ will no longer be there with the release of the new Kinect 2 sensor which features improved performance over the original Kinect. Those improvements include: a wide-angle time-of-flight (ToF) camera allowing better range (or depth) measurements; capturing 1080p video, and ability to ‘see’ in the dark with its new active IR sensor; it can detect more joints on the body (5 more than the previous) with much higher accuracy, and it can track up to 6 skeletons at one time. Also, it is capable of measuring the users’ heart rate via a change in the user’s skin tone and even detecting mood from the user’s facial expression. {Just watch this video that basically demos all the improvements.}

With this newer Kinect sensor, it will be a lot more exciting for hackers/developers and who knows what interesting applications could be invented. But as of now, there is still no news of when Microsoft will officially release the windows version of Kinect 2 for developers; for those who are really keen, there is a preview program with limited spots that you can apply for here!

If you know any other Kinect applications in sports and health, feel free to comment below. Thanks for reading and here’s wishing everyone a happy new year!

Designing an iPad Cooling Case

A while back, I was referred to someone who had an issue with overheating iPads (the 3rd gen one). Due to the nature of his work (coaching/sports science), he often uses the iPad under the sun, which contributes a fair amount of heat to the iPad, and it was overheating to the extent that it would shut down. The shutting down was meant to be a safety feature to prevent it from blowing up, but this became a huge inconvenience for him. So the challenge for me was to come up with a solution to cool down the iPad so that he can continue using it under the sun.


Overheating iPadFirst I did a bit of research on the internet, and found that the new iPad (3rd gen) did have an issue with overheating. An article from Reuters even found that the iPad racked up temperatures of up to 47 deg Celsius after 45 minutes of running an intense action game. It didn’t bother most people (from what I read on the forums) because they will just stop using the iPad when it got too warm and let it cool down, or use it on the table instead of holding it with their hands. But for someone who needs to use the iPad as a sports training tool under the sun, it was a problem.


Next I explored the possible options for cooling the iPad:

  1. Cooling with water – People who overclock their PCs are usually the ones who would try using a water cooling system. You could build one on your own, or buy a system off the shelf. It will work for a PC, but an iPad? I am not too sure. I think one thing for sure is it will make the iPad way too bulky.
  2. Using an ice pack – Anything that is zero degrees should cool things down. But, the thing is, it will also cause condensation. There will be water droplets everywhere, your hands gets slippery and oops, you drop the iPad on the ground. Not a good idea.
  3. Heat sink – Heat sinks are only effective if there is complete contact between the hot surface and the heat sink; and typically that is achieved by applying heat sink compound or thermal paste between the surfaces. Also sticking a couple of heat sinks at the back of the iPad might make it less ergonomic to carry.
  4. Cooling fans – Now this might work. All we need is somewhere to mount the fans, allow the air to move around the back of the iPad and carry the heat off the surface.


Out of the 4 options, I picked the cooling fans since it seemed the most feasible solution. My initial plan was to build a 3D model and run a CFD simulation to test out the concept. But when I started to draft something on SolidWorks, I ended up designing an iPad case which could house two 10mm fans and with channels for directing air across the back of an iPad. Then since I had access to 3D printing,  I decided to just build the prototype, get two 10mm fans and ran an actual test with the iPad. 

1st prototype with fans

1st prototype with fans

On one of the few sunny days in autumn, I borrowed a 3rd gen iPad and subjected it to some ‘heating’. I turned on the iPad, stuck a thermocouple on it’s back and left it under the sun. It was about 30 deg C that day. Once the thermocouple reading reached 45 deg C, I inserted the iPad into the prototype case and turned on the fans, while leaving it under direct sunlight. The good news was that the temperature dropped by 5 deg only after a minute or two with the fans on. But rate of cooling slowed down after that and it dropped to 34 deg C after 20 minutes. 34 deg C is still quite warm but since this is still under direct sunlight, and it was a 30 deg C day, I would say it was quite effective.


In my opinion, the concept worked. The design just needs a bit of tweaking. Firstly, I didn’t get the dimensions of the iPad right so the case didn’t really fit that well. Secondly, I picked the wrong fans – they were a little too big and they needed a 12V supply. Thirdly, the fans had to be switched on manually – it would be better if there was a temperature controlled switch.

So I got all those sorted out:

  • Improved the case design. Even added a slot to mount a wide angle lens for the rear IMG_2388camera.
  • Found smaller fans that only required 5V power supply.
  • Also got some help with building a temperature sensor circuit that will switch on the fans when it gets too hot (it’s adjustable via a variable resistor).


Before I went ahead to build a second prototype, I decided to find out how much it would actually cost to 3D print it (The first prototype I got was given to me in kind). To my surprise, it would cost over $600. It would actually be a hundred dollars cheaper to have the case prototyped using CNC machining. On the other hand, all those electronic components plus the fans would only cost less than $20.

Well, if I was making a few thousand of those cases, I could just design moulds and get those parts extruded which would then bring down the cost of each iPad case. But how many people will actually need a cooling case for their iPad??

Also when I was working of this project (back in April), there was already the 4th gen iPad in the market, which was kind of an improvement. There were still complains of the iPad 4 being too warm, but I was thinking, it wouldn’t be long before Apple came up with a newer model that will totally solve the heat issue. Fast forward to today, out comes the iPad Air with a brand new processor! Apple has also stopped manufacturing the 3rd and 4th generation iPads. That’s probably because they realised they were inferior designs!


Although I didn’t get to mass produce these iPad cooling cases, it was overall a good experience. I realised that I would have to work faster if I wanted to make accessories for tablets or smart phones because a newer and better version is always coming out. Also the cost of commercial 3D printing services is way too high. If I wanted to get 3 prototype cases built, I will be better off buying myself a 3D printer. The cost of thermoplastics for printing doesn’t seem too expensive. Might be cheaper than traditional ink cartridges!

Anyway, thanks for reading, and if you think this iPad cooling case is a good idea and you want to get one, leave me a message!

Swimming with the times

InstabeatSwimming is one of the top priority sports in Australia and has been one of the most successful sports in the international arena. As such there’s a lot of attention put into improving the performance of athletes. In fact, for those who are new to this blog, research in swimming performance is one of the focus areas of Queensland Sports Technology Cluster (QSTC), and you will find some recent published work here and some related blog posts about them here. There has also been lots of work done in various research institutes in Australia and here are some notable ones in the last 4-5 years:


Mini-Traqua in action

The AIS itself has set up the Aquatic Testing, Training and Research Unit (ATTRU), where there has been even more research and testing done on swimming research, often working in tandem with research institutes mentioned earlier above. These and other similar type of research and innovation is what will give the Australian swimmers the edge to win on the international stage. Some of these research outcomes stay at the elite level of sport because they may not be relevant to the casual swimmers or do not have any commercial application or they are just ‘secret squirrel’ stuff. But some of the developed technology do get commercialized, though it may take a while before they get released into the public, but they do.

Commercialized Sports TechSo what kind of technologies/gadgets are available to everyday swimmers today?

1. Lap and stroke counting. How many times have you swam in a pool and lost track of the number of laps you covered? It can be pretty annoying. That’s why engineers developed swimming specific wrist watches that counts strokes and laps. These watches have motion sensors that enable them to count strokes, laps, and even estimate speeds and distances. Some of these include: the FINIS Swimsense, the Swimovate Poolmate, the Speedo Aquacoach, and the Garmin swim. The Garmin Swim particularly could even identify the type of stroke (front crawl, butterfly or breast stroke).

2. Music while swimming. One way to do it is to blast music at the swimming pool (assuming its your own pool, or everyone else at the pool likes your taste of music). The other option is to use waterproofed mp3 players. Some companies have developed swimming specific mp3 players, some applied waterproofing technology on existing devices, some made waterproof cases. Most of them did not stray far from the original mp3 player designed for land dwellers, all except the FINIS SwimP3 which used Bone conduction technology for audio transmission instead of earphones. If anyone is keen on swimming with music, they should check out DCrainmaker’s post comparing all (most of) the swimming mp3 players.


DCRainmaker with the AquaPulse

3. Heart Rate monitoring. For the more serious athletes who want to monitor their heart rates to keep track of how hard they are training (or if they are training in the correct zone), there are two options available in the market right now – Heart rate belts and Heart rate ear clips. Heart rate chest belts are a pretty common training accessory for most athletes, but not all heart rate monitoring (HRM) belts will work in the water. For example, HRM sensors that transmits via bluetooth (or any higher frequencies) will not work in water. So if you want to use a HRM chest belt for swimming, make sure they transmit in water (i.e. lower frequencies). As a guide, Polar sensors and the PoolMate HRM sensors will work. The alternative to chest belts is ear clips, and the only product in the market is the FINIS AquaPulse which uses infrared sensors to monitor capillary blood flow at your earlobes. The advantage of using the ear clip (I believe) is it is more secure than the chest belt which tends to slip while swimming thus losing heart rate readings. Although I can’t imagine the ear clip sensor being very comfortable during swimming.

4. GPS. This is mainly for open water swimming. Tracking where you have swam in the open ocean/sea/lake/river/pond. Many sports watches (targeted at runners and triathletes)  have a built-in GPS module. That’s your Garmin, Suunto, Timex, Polar, Magellan, Nike etc etc. But one GPS sports watch that stands out is the Leikr, because it actually puts the map on your wrist. Coloured maps! It’s not officially out in the market yet because it started as a Kickstarter project, but it has been successfully funded so it won’t be long. Would you really need the maps? It depends and I think it’s arguable.

5. Performance feedback. The traditional way of getting feedback is to have a coach scream at you. But with all these gadgets that count your stroke rate per lap, calculates how fast you swim and monitors how hard (heart rate) you are training, a swimmer can train without a coach yelling at him/her every session. These devices can tell you how you are performing. Since most of the mentioned devices are watches, the main feedback form is displaying all the calculated statistic on the screens. The one device that sets itself apart is the FINIS Aquapulse which used its Bone Conduction technology (what they used for their swimming mp3 player) to provide audio feedback of your heart rate. Saves you the trouble of trying to catch a glimpse of your watch face. Too bad it doesn’t work together  with their swimsense watch to also give you audio feedback of how many laps you swam and how fast you are swimming. Although that might make it worse than having a coach yelling…

So just when you think: that should be pretty much what swimmers need to help them train; along comes Instabeat – a heart rate sensor that is mounted on your goggles (and any other goggles), measures the laps, turns, breathing pattern, and gives you heads-up visual feedback of your training. Other than music and GPS, it does most of the things mentioned above. But how is it different from the rest?

  • For one, it measures heart rate from your temporal artery using optical sensors (which is patent-pending). 
  • Secondly, it becomes part of your goggles, so you are not wearing or clipping on an extra thing on your body.
  • Thirdly, it determines your breathing pattern. This is something new.
  • Lastly, it gives you real-time visual feedback of your heart rate training zone so you know if you are meeting your goals.

What led Hind Hobeika (Instabeat founder) to develop this was her deep dissatisfaction with existing heart rate monitors in the market. Utilising her swimming experience and engineering knowledge, she went through several designs, prototyping and testing them and the final result is this revolutionary heads-up display design.

Left: Initial designs of the Instabeat; Right: The final Instabeat design

Some of the challenges the Instabeat team faced included getting the right data from the sensors, coming up with a design that could fit all the different goggles, and not forgetting the challenge of making the sensor waterproof – the nemesis of all wearable technology. And now that they are past those product design challenges, they face the next challenge which is to bring it to market. They have decided to go through Indiegogo to crowdsource funds and you can support them here. The response looks positive so far and you know the Instabeat team is a bunch of forward thinkers because they have already planned a next version which includes wireless (bluetooth) data transfer and syncing with your smartphone. I even found out [Spoiler alert] that they would explore adding GPS for open water swimming and possibly make a version compatible with other eyewear, i.e. sunglasses. Sounds like the Sportiiiis could be having some competition in the near future.

In the meantime, I leave you with Instabeat’s pitch on Indiegogo:

Thanks for reading!

Laser Additive Manufacturing – applications in medical technologies and beyond

The Advanced Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (AMCRC) organised a workshop last week on additive manufacturing and its impact on medical technologies. Organised in conjunction with RMIT and Bio21 Cluster, the aim was to promote the new technologies and also educate the attendees on the network and resources available to help businesses adopt them.

The latest in laser additive technology includes Selective Laser Melting (SLM), Electron Beam Melting, Laser Metal Deposition, and Laser Sintering.  Their main advantage is the ability to build complex shaped objects using biocompatible metals such as Cobalt-Chrome, Titanium, and 17-4 PH Steel. This then simplifies and quickens the process of customising orthopaedic and dental implants; and using additive manufacturing basically means less wastage of materials compared to traditional subtractive methods.

Anatomics, who had a rep presenting at the workshop, is one of the companies applying this technology in the medical field. They are a Melbourne based company, specialising in cranial and maxillofacial custom implants. They also produce BioModels based on CT scans or MRI, which allows surgeons to have a better visual and feel while diagnosing and subsequently help improve surgery planning.

The potential for laser additive manufacturing is huge, but currently most of the ‘action’ are still in the universities, research institutions, and hospitals. That is where government funding programs and organisations like the AMCRC come in to help bring additive technology into the industry or even to form startups. The challenge is that the size of the local market (Australia) is too small for this technology, so it must definitely go regional or even global for a commercial entity to be viable. Then even before that, to build up an environment that embraces entrepreneurship, innovation and collaborative efforts.

Looking at Kickstarter – the latest trend in global crowd-source funding, if you search “3D printer”, there are at least 10 projects trying to come up with their own machine for 3D printing (which is the more common name for additive manufacturing). They are typically motivated by three reasons:

  1. Existing 3D printers in the market are too bloody expensive
  2. They would like certain features or capabilities missing in existing printers
  3. Read point 1 again.

Although currently these Kickstarter projects are only suitable for printing polymers and objects smaller in dimensions (around 100x100x150mm), but their low cost of entry (between USD$700 – 2500) is rapidly promoting the use of additive technology and they just might be the tipping point for design and additive manufacturing. Just check out this project that is already getting close to 20 times its original funding goal!

Finally I found this Ted talk that gave a very good overview of additive manufacturing from a designer’s point of view: