The SABEL story

The following was prepared by key partner Griffith University for its ‘Research with Impact’ campaign and track our history over the last decade

Sport is a multibillion dollar industry with its elite athletes feted like rock stars and their performance and training managed like finely tuned race engines.

For Griffith University’s Associate Professor Daniel James knowing when an athlete is near breaking point can mean the difference between major competition success and long injury rehabilitation programs.

Ask any major sports team coach what they would give to ensure an injury-free season and the answer would be almost anything. However, while there is no magic wand to grant that wish there is the next best thing—wearable sports technology.

Associate Professor James, the founding director of SABEL Labs, a Griffith University commercial research and development unit, has been at the forefront of wearable sports technology developing monitoring systems to aid in better performance and injury risk management for Australia’s elite athletes.

His work with Olympians, major football codes and a range of international sports has led to robust research and development of systems that are dramatically changing the player/athlete performance and training workloads.

The technology also has medical potential to aid people recover from other injuries and post-surgery rehabilitation.

“The benefits of wearables to the health system, when used as a form of self or outpatient treatment are enormous, particularly as our population ages,” he says.

The success of the SABEL Labs research team in developing small sensors, which can track and record in real time, has taken the research from the labs to sporting arenas where the new tech can be worn in training or in game.

“Athletes perform very differently when they’re in a laboratory compared with a training session or in a real game,” says Associate Professor James.

But it’s not just elite athletes that are benefitting from this cutting edge technology. SABEL Lab’s research is being incorporated in award-winning consumer wearables. The consumer wearable fitness and health monitoring sector was worth an estimated US$20 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach  US$70 billion in 2025.

With weekend sporting enthusiasts clammering for access to the same technology as their sporting heroes, the miniaturisation of these sensors and a data display suitable for the non-scientist is in huge demand.

In a little over a decade Associate Professor James work has gone from building bulky boxes with parts from automotive airbag sensors to components that can fit into new slimline wearables for the weekend sports warrior.

With numerous international patents, his expertise is being sought as  a technology commentator, R&Ddeveloper and keynote speaker at conferences around the world. But what lies ahead is what really excites him, with wearables set to be integrated into everyday clothing, providing better quality and more varied data in even smaller devices.

It’s a bit like race car technology. Just like family cars follow on from race cars, the technology used by elite athletes is what the weekend warriors want to use now. For a long time it has just been heart monitors but now it is these wearables.

Associate Professor Daniel James

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DANIEL JAMES … THE STORY SO FAR

  • Developed a wearable GPS sensor now worn by every professional AFL player in Australia, also used by many other football codes and sports
  • Founded SABEL Labs in 2013, a commercial research enterprise of Griffith University specialising in the research and development of wearable sports technology
  • Developed a rowing technology in the lead up to the Athens Olympics assisting Australia to win several medals
  • Developed sports engineering and technology undergraduate and post graduate degree programmes at Griffith University
  • Developed a swimming technology sold as commercial product. This technology has won several awards.
  • Continuing research and development projects through ARC Linkage Grant with the Queensland Academy of Sport
  • Named as one of Queensland’s Top 50 Thinkers
  • Founded the Queensland Sports Technology Cluster
  • Founded 1/2 dozen enterprises, many of which are still running successfully
  • Developed algorithms for a lifestyle fitness product (Jaybird Reign) that won awards at the CES trade show in 2014
  • On the board of Australian Sports Technologies Network as the Queensland node representative
  • Is a joint research fellow at the Queensland Academy of Sport, Centre of Excellence for Applied Sport Science Research
  • Has held senior positions with the IEEE, the world’s largest technical professional organisation dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity
  • Developed a cricket bowling sensor used at the under 19 World Cup in Dubai 2014 by the ICC. The technology was designed to detect illegal bowling actions.
  • Holds a number of international patents
  • A board member of the International Sports Engineering Association ISEA

Griffith’s decade of wearable technology research adds to Jaybird’s success

Griffith business graduate and founder of Jaybird, Judd Armstrong, contracted SABEL Labs to help with technology that underpinned his award winning Jaybird Reign fitness and activity tracker.

Wearable technology – the game changer on and off the sporting field

If it moves, track it, measure it, understand it. That’s the mantra for Griffith University’s wearable sports technology pioneer Associate Professor Daniel James, whose research and product development are impacting on sports around the world.

But it’s not just the sporting elite that are benefitting from his cutting edge research. His biomechanics research can also be applied to rehabilitation for people recovering from injuries or surgery.

Associate Professor James is the founding director of Griffith University’s Sports and Biomedical Engineering Laboratory (SABEL), an entrepreneurial enterprise of Griffith University specialising in wearable technology for sports and health applications.

In an environment where a few 100th of a second can mean the difference between Olympic gold and missing the podium altogether, Associate Professor James and his team at SABEL Labs have been one of Australia’s leading centres developing and implementing sensor technology within the sporting arena.

Wearable sensor technology is being used to monitor and fine tune the sporting elite’s training programs as well as being incorporated in consumer products that are helping people to monitor and improve their performance and health.

“Elite sport has the resources to develop and really nut out very challenging problems that technology can help solve,” says Associate Professor James.

Associate Professor Daniel James

Associate Professor Daniel James is the Founding director of Griffith University’s  SABEL Labs (Sports and Biomedical Engineering Laboratory), in the School of Engineering.

He is an experienced R&D director and has consulted widely for elite sports, health, research and consumer electronics organisations in the development of products and ongoing research.

He leads several technical teams that have developed technologies used daily by the professional football codes and is a principal author of several international patents in this area.

He was worked with elite sports bodies nationally and internationally, including the Australian Institute of Sport, Queensland Academy of Sport (Centre of Excellence), the AFL and the International Cricket Council.

He has authored more than more than 240 publications and has presented his research internationally, including several keynote presentations.

As an expert in wearable sports technology he has been a regular commentator for media.

Postdoctoral experiences in psychophysiology and brain wave analysis, lecturing in the sports sciences and engineering honed Daniel’s interest in the interface between technology with people.

Following a stint in the finance sector in the UK he returned to Australia to pursue a range of projects with Australia’s elite sports bodies.

 

“It’s a bit like race car technology. Just like family cars follow on from race cars, the technology used by elite athletes is what the weekend warriors want to use now. For a long time it has just been heart monitors but now it is these wearables.”

Like many technologies, it took a while for acceptance before a critical mass had been reached. Now that it has, the mass-market appetite for wearable fitness and health monitoring products is voracious.

The sector is expected to grow to US$20 billion in 2016 to almost US$70 billion in 2025.

SABEL Labs research and development skills were showcased at the giant CES expo, one of the world’s biggest electronics trade fairs, when the Jaybird Reign won the 2014 Best Digital Health and Fitness ProductSABEL’s technology underpinned the product’s monitoring and reporting functions.

Associate Professor James has developed an international reputation for robust research in the emerging field of sports engineering and sports technology as well as holding a number of international patents that have led to commercial products. He also figured in the list of Queensland’s Top 50 Thinkers compiled by the Sunday Mail newspaper.

An experimental physicist by training, he has consulted widely for elite sports, health, research and consumer electronics organisations on wearable technology.

“It wasn’t that long ago that this type of research could only be done in a few specialist laboratories around the world, and at considerable expense,” says Associate Professor James.

He has been aided by wearable sensor technology adhering to Moore’s Law with reduction in size and more powerful technology continually moving at a fast pace.

“In early 2000 we were making wearable tech but didn’t call it that. We were putting these large bulky boxes on athletes,” he says.

“We started with rowing because it had somewhere we could store these bulky boxes but that’s all changed over the past 10 years.

“We work very closely with elite sports in Australia and internationally who are interested in the finer detailed information, more than just position or the distance run.”

One of the products developed, SABEL Sense, is a wearable lifestyle smart sensor that collects data from digital MEMS inertial sensors (accelerometer, gyroscope) and a digital magnetometer and transmits information wirelessly to a computer. However, capturing and recording the data is only half of the equation.

The interpretation software and outcomes are dependent on the reliability of the processing algorithms that digest the thousands of data samples, interpret and then display them in a customised way that a coach and athlete can readily understand.

SABEL Sense is a flexible development tool developed inhouse with lead engineer Ray Leadbetter. It’s more flexible than a finished product and one of the ways we have gained traction. It allows us to rapidly develop a product for a research partner, a client, a sport or a business,” says Associate Professor James.

SABEL Labs’ clients include many of Australia’s elite sporting bodies including AFL, swimming, volleyball, cricket, Olympic Winter Institute of Australia and rowing. Internationally they have researched and developed projects for the International Cricket Council.

As the technology that drives these systems gets smaller and more powerful Associate Professor James predicts significantly more data, and cleaner data will be collected.

Analysis of that data will provide a much deeper understanding of human biomechanics and through that better training programs to reduce the risk of injury for elite athletes as well as the potential for better targeted rehabilitation programs dealing with injuries or post-surgery rehabilitation.

Jaybird Reign: Research discoveries packed for lifestyle and fitness

In 2014, only a year after SABEL Labs was established, the award winning Jaybird Reign shone the world spotlight on the lab’s research prowess.

The wristband product combined SABEL research with the passion of Griffith graduate Judd Armstrong, who pioneered premium wireless audio for sports through his focus on bringing music to active lifestyles.

The success of the Jaybird Reign has sparked worldwide interest and recognition of SABEL’s robust R&D programs and ability to quickly incorporate its technology for consumer products within commercial market timeframes.

“We had a decade of working in a range of sports and were able to help make something a lot more accurate than what was on the market,” Associate Professor James says of the Jaybird Reign product development.

For Armstrong the decision to use SABEL was obvious.

“Griffith has been working with professional athletes and sporting teams for a long, long time. So we took some of their technology and rolled that into a consumer product,” says Armstrong.

SABEL Labs provided the technical expertise that covers so many aspects of analysing the body during sleep, inactivity while awake, as well as walking, running, cycling, gym and general sports.

“It was great to have Griffith, through SABEL, on board for this project. I stayed at the Nathan campus in my university days and so to come back was like a homecoming.”

“One of the great technologies we were able to leverage was Griffith’s expertise in the ability to detect the movements of different sporting activities.”

Armstrong recently sold Jaybird to electronics giant Logitech in a deal worth approximately US$50 million in cash, with an additional earn-out of up to US$45 million based on achievement of growth targets.

However, those figures don’t reflect the humble beginnings of consumer wearables.

“When the first wearable technologies were released for general consumers they were kind of like a toy,” says Associate Professor James.

“Now they’re much more sophisticated and everyone wants them. There is an appetite for them. They have become a pervasive technology.

“When we first started what we were building was a very large box. Now that technology can fit on the wrist and we’re benefitting from that technology change.”

Elite athletes and the breaking point

It’s only relatively recently that the real worth and scope of wearable sports technology has become a mainstream tool for the sporting elite, which in turn has sparked sports and lifestyle enthusiasts demanding similar technology

Initially, many sports only wanted to know how far players ran. However, this has matured into demands for sprint duration and speed bands, to better determine optimum training systems.

With elite sports athletes/players attracting salaries in excess of a million dollars a year, sporting bodies are rightfully fearful of their players and athletes being injured.

The technology that Associate Professor James and his cohorts are researching and developing is helping drive injury risk management and an overhaul in training workload management.

He developed the first versions of the Catapult sports wearable GPS sensor now worn by every professional AFL player in Australia and which also is used by many other football codes and sports.

In 2009 SABEL PhD student Jonathan Neville and Brisbane Lions AFL team, developed the first versions of an improved sensor technology looking at replacing traditional GPS data collection methods with accelerometer sensors.

The units weighed only 100grams and collected data from a mix of game and training sessions (18 game sessions and 42 training sessions).

“A lot of the work we have been doing in sport has been about performance enhancement but it also is about workload,” says Associate Professor James.

“One of the great challenges with athletes is there is a notional breaking point and you want to be very specific about the workload you give an athlete building up, or tapering to competition and to manage their workload.

“The technology we have made for the AFL has dramatically changed the game.

“Since the introduction of this technology the turnover on the interchange bench has almost doubled because they now know when an athlete is likely to get injured and they want to get them resting on the bench.

“An athlete, from a purely mechanistic view is an expensive resource, and you don’t want them sitting on the bench for half the season because of injury. If you can rest them to decrease the chance of injury it makes a tremendous difference.”

Associate Professor James research and sensor products are being utilised to create individual monitoring packages rather than a one size-fits-all approach for a sport or even a team.

“Within a team the individual positions will require different strengths and different movements analysed.”

Olympic disappointment impetus for research driven excellence.

Stung by Australia’s performance at the Montreal Olympic Games in 1976 (one silver medal and four bronze medals) the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) was established. One of its areas of interest was using the scientific method to better prepare athletes for competition, dial forward to the 2000’s and wearable technology is the next great competitive advantage.

In early 2000 Associate Professor James joined a federally funded Cooperative Research Centre for Microtechnology (led by Emeritus Professor Barry Harrison and Professor David Thiel), of which the Australian Institute of Sport was a major partner.

“Back in the 70’s Australia introduced a scientific process as a way to prepare athletes. Our success as a nation and our reputation was largely driven by that and we did fantastically well,” he says

“I see, and the elite sports bodies of Australia see, technology as that next step as everybody now has an AIS.

 This will assist in preventing things such as over-training, which is a major concern for elite athletes.

While Olympic gold is the ultimate goal for athletes the value to the Australia is much more than bragging rights.

“It’s been estimated a gold medal is worth $50million to the Australian economy. Other nations want to know what we’ve done and how we set up our sporting programs,” he says.

SABEL Labs has also done research with a number of Australian Paralympians with PhD student Jonathan Shepherd using SABEL Sense to monitor wheelchair athletes.

A collaborative research paper helped design an algorithm suitable for wheelchair tracking. This provides key propulsion elements that in turn can aid in tactical decisions, enhancing player performance and mitigating injury.

SABEL’s sensor technology has also been used in research for boxing, hockey and snowboarding.

Breaking out of the lab: Inertial sensor data for the non-scientist

While traditional research of human biomechanics is stereotyped by the image of an athlete with wires connected to various part of the body while running on a treadmill, it doesn’t mirror real world performance.

“Traditionally we measured athletes in laboratory and do some tests. Wireless technology allows us to monitor them in a real training environment rather than a laboratory,” says Associate Professor James.

“This allows us to go into the real performance environment and sometimes into the match environment. Athletes behave and perform very differently in those environments.

“We can also measure things we could never measure before. Monitoring an athlete’s progression through training is critically important.”

The ultimate goal for coaches and athletes alike is to replicate in-game or competition performance in training. The more that is mirrored the fitter, stronger and more skilled they become for the real competition.

Captured inertial sensor information displayed in multiple overlays, graphs or plots may make sense to a biomechanics specialist but the coach and the athlete are the ones that need to understand what it means to derive any benefit.

One of the key elements in the technology developed by Associate Professor James is always remembering that non-scientists will most often be the people who see the output.

Associate Professor James helped develop sensor technology, about the size of a matchbox, for swimmers with graduate students Neil Davey and post-doc student James Lee. Multiple sensors can be taped to the swimmer’s back, ankles or arms all collecting information hundreds of times a second.

With minimal processing time a swimming coach can give near immediate feedback to a swimmer who is using one of the new swimming sensors.

“Essentially in sport if you can measure something you’re likely to be able to make it better,” he says.

And this has led to better training systems and quicker rehabilitation.

The volume of data generated in just one of these training sessions is enormous. For a layperson it would be an information overload and next to impossible to understand.

However, for Associate Professor James, who has a PhD in radio physics as well holding undergraduate degrees in physics and mathematics, that’s where the essence to understanding and improving human performance lies.

Accurate interpretation of the data and displaying it in a simple user interface is crucial to the success of the system. That’s where the computational maths comes in—developing complex equations to filter the data streams for the key information.

Associate Professor James systems provide next to real-time monitoring so that a coach can identify areas of style improvement, essential for optimal efficiency.

SABEL colleague Dr Hugo Espinosa has found great utility in the use of SABEL Sense to teach  STEM and physics to schoolchildren.

“Sport is a great engager, everyone is interested in it at some level. Using SABEL Sense we can teach students about the physics of movement in a really fun way,” says Dr Espinosa.

The system can track coordination of a swimmer’s arm stroke, kick patterns and body roll.

It monitors the efficacy of training regimes, and aids in injury prevention through changes over time, post-recovery, and with fatigue. It is like a blueprint of what the athlete is doing. Changes to techniques are readily identifiable.

Those seemingly small incremental improvements can have an enormous impact on world ranking and Olympic success.

SABEL’s innovations have also appeared on  BBC Click, the broadcaster’s flagship technology program on the latest in global technology shaping the world, along with a myriad of media publications in Australian and around the world.

But it’s not just human movement that SABEL is tracking. SABEL Sense technology has been turned into a CattleAwear ear tag.

SABEL alumni James Lee, who now works at Charles Darwin University, has been looking into cattle monitoring to improve stock nutrition by monitoring their grazing behaviour as part of a project with SABEL.

“It turns out they are just mammals with four legs rather than two,” says Associate Professor James.

“ A lot of what we have developed applies to them as well and it can be a big boost for the livestock industries to improve food quality and margins as well.”

Associate Professor James ability to break down the technical aspects of technology and communicate it in layman terms has also led to him being a regular media commentator of technology. He is also a regular speaker at conferences and reviewer of grants for national and state bodies.

Sub-elite athletes prove a valuable testing ground

Associate Professor James has successfully forged a strong symbiotic relationship with Queensland Academy of Sport, which caters for both today’s elite world athletes, but also the hopeful juniors, some of whom will scale the same international podiums.

“I’ve had a joint role with the Queensland Academy of Sport for a number of years and this has helped us tremendously.

“The  QAS has world-leading coaches. They help win half of Australia’s medal count, and have not only the elite teams, they have sub-elite developmental squads. They’re the people who love to get out and play with new stuff.

“People at the elite end are not always willing to try out the new stuff. They’re focused and have a trajectory but the developmental squads provide a lot more opportunity.

“The  QAS has its own research centre with Founding Director Dr Sue Hooper OA and her colleagues. We have worked with them for many years and that’s involved a lot of the national and state sporting organisation networks and other universities in Brisbane as well. There is so much expertise there and I have been fortunate enough to work with so many of them.”

The physical location of the  QAS, a 10-minute stroll from Griffith University’s Nathan campus and the home of SABEL Labs, has also been a boon for working together.

Smart phones and technological advances

The dramatic reduction in the size of sensors, coupled with the widespread usage of smart devices has propelled the technological advances out of the laboratory to within easy reach of the weekend sports warrior and lifestyle consumer.

Early devices were often bulky with parts cobbled from existing technology and products. The inertial sensors originally were sourced from airbags used in cars.

“When we first started making these wearables the electronics companies in Australia could not make the circuit boards small enough,” says Associate Professor James.

So, rather than accepting an even bulkier module he turned to Griffith’s Engineering School.

“We made them ourselves on the fabrication facilities, purely out of necessity.”

In an unexpected but fortuitously timed technology game changer, Associate Professor James, also rode on the back of the introduction of smartphones.

“They had their own inertial sensors a fraction of the size, cheap and readily accessible.

“Our use of accelerometers was somewhat opportunistic. The early ones came out of airbags because that was where the volume was.”

“When the smartphones came onto the market that was like the second wave of development on accelerometers with an even larger volume and that’s when they really shrunk and gyrometers and magnetometers were included.

“So we rode opportunistically on that wave as well, because to develop those sensors takes big money and as researchers interested in the data that was not our area of competitive advantage.

“I can see a day where we won’t make any of our own hardware.”

SABEL Labs: A multidisciplinary success story

One of the strengths of SABEL Labs has been its multidisciplinary approach, which in turn has led to it becoming one of the leading sports technology and engineering universities in Australia.

Its interdisciplinary team of scientists has expertise in biomedical engineering, sport engineering, human factors, physiology, wireless networking, information systems and microelectronic engineering.

“Much of my work has been across group. I don’t think there has been a group I haven’t worked with,” says Associate Professor James.

“A particularly exciting area is working with Professor David Lloyd from the Menzies Health Institute Queensland looking at musculoskeletal conditions and rehabilitation.

The benefits of wearables to the health system, when used as a form of self or outpatient treatment are enormous, particularly as our population ages.

“Our work doesn’t sit in any particular pure science. It doesn’t sit purely in sport either. It’s at the intersection of a range of disciplines.

“Only when we come together and meet at interface between those disciplines can you get something.

“Our longstanding relationship with the sporting community is one of our competitive advantages. Most engineering schools aren’t that closely tied to the athletic community. Working with them is the only way you can really prove that something works.

“Each project is like a mini-startup in a sense with small teams with diverse expertise. Contact with the customer and end user is absolutely crucial. That’s what the Queensland Academy of Sport has provided us.

“I don’t dream up an idea over three years and say here it is. From day one it’s turning the handle together, iterating and pivoting and making it better and trying to make it right.”

Griffith University’s commercialisation and technology transfer office, Griffith Enterprise, has also assisted with preparing SABEL for more commercial engagement.

While much of the work is done out in the field, there is still a need for laboratory testing.

SABEL through Griffith University draws on a multitude of specialist workshops, laboratories and tools to test its ideas and develop products including:

  • Electronic design and fabrication laboratory
  • Silicon design and fabrication
  • Electronics and mechanical workshops
  • Psychophysiology laboratory
  • Biomechanics laboratory
  • High end motion analysis system
  • Force plates
  • Treadmills
  • Swimming recovery centre
  • Ready access to an athlete stadium

The future of microsensor sports technology

Associate Professor James is excited by the prospect of what lies ahead in sports and biomedical engineering.

“It’s not so much what’s next but the quality of the data from the sensors and then the treatment of the data.

“In the consumer market the wearable technology sits currently on your wrist. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to see them in your shoes and in your clothing. This is coming now, lower body and upper body clothing.

“Then you have whole body monitoring and that will give a quality of data that you only get in Gait labs where you’re covered with reflective markers. And throw in the new type of sensors, such as blood oxygenation, non-invasive glucose. All of these are starting to come.

“Handling that data brings its challenges and it’s great to have experts in computer systems like Dr David Rowlands working on that aspect.

“From a researcher’s point of view we really need to see them come in. The trick is trying pick where the demand is because that is what drives resources.

“I would have loved to have made the SABEL Sense from day one, but there wasn’t a market for that. It just took a decade, but we learnt a lot in that 10 years and the technology got a whole lot better.”

One of the impediments is battery life and size. It has improved but has not adhered to Moore’s Law. The battery size is the limitation for the microprocessor power at present.

“By the time that is resolved the devices will be even smaller and far more powerful.”

It also may allow athletes from remote centre to stay in their hometown to train with live feedback to a professional coach hundreds of miles away in elite training centres.

Queensland Sports Technology Cluster

As one of the pioneers of microsenors in sports engineering Associate Professor James realised he needed to share and learn from his mistakes and successes with others in the same field.

“I didn’t know until 2006 there were other engineers working in sport until I discovered an international association for that. That was a watershed moment for me,” he says.

One of his collaborative successes came from his first international conference when he met Yuji Ohgi of Japan’s Keio University, a Japanese swim coach turned scientist who was also exploring technology to improve sporting performance.

Professor Ohgi, a former member of the Japanese Olympic Committee and coaching staff for the Atlanta Games, has pioneered the use of inertial sensors in swimming and other sporting applications.

The two have collaborated on a number of projects over a decade and have set up exchange programs for research students and staff of Griffith University and Keio University.

“More recently Associate Professor Tomohito Wada from Japan’s National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Kanoya joined us for a year to work on developing new algorithms together,” says Professor James.

“With PhD student Nicholas Jackson we now have a shared cloud system for athletic data with our colleagues in Japan.

“It makes such a difference to our collaborative work.”

That formal partnership led Associate Professor James to realise that while he was working for the university, the reality was many of his collaborators were outside of the university.

He needed a way to represent those links with the  QAS and friends at QUT, the University of the Sunshine Coast and a couple of the companies he had worked with.

And so, he formed the Queensland Sports Technology Cluster—a formal collaborative framework of like-minded individuals.

Part of the reason for the cluster was that research and development work didn’t fit in one discipline. It sat in many areas of research including physics, engineering, and biomechanics, coupled with one of the most temperamental and complex of organic machines—the human body.

The value and expertise of the cluster’s members was soon acknowledged when the QSTC was asked to head the Queensland node of a newly formed Australian Technologies Network.

QSTC was an idea that together we were greater than the sum of the parts,” he says.

“That was really exciting and Queensland was recognised as a significant contributor and that put us on the map. Today we are probably one of the most well-known centres.”

Associate Professor James passion for testing and introducing new sensor technology has led to him being on senior executive committees of a range of sports and technology groupings, nationally and internationally.

They include:

  • Queensland Academy of Sport, Research leader, Technology in Sport, Centre for Excellence for Applied Sport Science Research,
  • International Sports Engineering Association, Executive committee for 8 years
  • Australian Sports Technology Network, Non-executive Director
  • Journal of Sports Technology, Editorial Board
  • Journal of Sports Engineering, Editorial Board
  • Australian Jujtisu Federation, Qld State Rep (Aikido)

The success and standing of the QSTC has led to it gaining the right to host the International Sports Engineering Association biennial conference in Brisbane in 2018.

“In some senses we have arrived, though every day is still like a start-up not knowing where the next opportunity is coming from,” says Associate Professor James.

“Initially sports engineering was about how we build better products used by athletes in their sport, light and stronger, not about the monitoring.

“Now about 70% of the papers are from the electronic sensor and monitoring field.”

Cricket and the spirit of the game

In a system designed for the International Cricket Council, a wearable technology was developed to report and analyse the bowling action of bowlers.

Whether a bowler is using an illegal throw-like bowling action has been a regular controversy of the modern game of cricket.

Associate Professor James was part of a team that approached Cricket Australia who in turn approached the ICC with a plan to use wearable technology to assess bowling actions. The ICC and the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) funded the work.

“You can only can measure it in one of a few laboratories in the world,” says Associate Professor James

“It’s expensive, and there is loss of valuable time for the player involved and it’s not available to everybody.”

“We’ve done the validation work and hope to roll that out so we have a training tool with the potential for it to be used in real live environment.”

In 2014 a total of 21 finger-spin and fast bowlers from nine countries were recruited from an ICC under-19 Cricket World Cup tournament to take part in the research using the technology.

Bowlers delivered a cross section of their standard deliveries while wearing an inertial sensor placed on their wrists.

At the time the ICC reported it was keen to see the technology implemented in elite cricket as it would be a significant stride forward in detecting illegal bowling actions in match conditions, provided it was light, cost effective and did not hinder performance.

While technology can aid in sport, it is not always welcomedby athletes, sporting bodies and fans.

“Some codes have adopted technology quicker than others and some teams adopt quicker,” he says.

“Sometimes the sport is not ready or it could be a cultural shift that goes against the teaching of a discipline.

“Working with Griffith Business School’s Dr Caroline Riot was integral in helping us understand the human factors and effects for players, officials, umpires and even the rules of the game.”

When Associate Professor James looked at using sensors to analyse the path and motion of a bokken, (a Japanese wooden sword used for training) in the martial art of Aikido it was viewed by some as inappropriate for a discipline, which involves the synthesis of martial arts, philosophy, and spiritual growth. Technology was not encouraged.

Technodoping is another concern. The term was coined to describe situations where athletes /teams may have the latest technology, potentially giving them an advantage over other competitors.

“A lot of it comes down to the expense, can you afford the technology and do you have the personnel to run the technology,” he says.

Technology can also at times get in the way of the game itself. In a match in the Six Nations Rugby Tournament in 2012 French coach Philippe Saint-Andre refused to sanction the closing of the Millennium Stadium roof.

The reason … it would interfere with the GPS (Global Positioning Systems) tracking system worn by the French players. He wasn’t prepared to compromise and lose valuable data that helped with player management of when and who to substitute.

Move over GPS

While the use of GPSs to track movement has helped considerably in athlete monitoring it has limitations. It struggles with accurate tracking for high-intensity running over short distances, or complex changes in direction.

For football sports the majority of sprinting is less than 30m and the greatest intensity sprints are even shorter, less than 20m.

Associate Professor James and his colleagues Neville, Lee and Rowlands at SABEL Labs have developed new technology that can out-perform GPS reliant products.

GPS is designed for vehicles and assumes steady state motion,” he says.

“Human gait is less predictable and so, even for steady running, there are errors greater than 10 per cent in many cases. “

GPS is reliant on satellite coverage, which poses problems for closed arenas and stadia with high sides.

With more major sports bodies championing the need for closed roof stadiums to ensure a more comfortable environment for fans as well as eliminating the possibility of washed out events, other technologies are imperative to the business of sport.

SABEL Labs research fellow Dr Jono Neville, who has since joined a New Zealand university,  developed a model that presents accelerometers as a viable alternative to GPS.

The system collects data from digital MEMS inertial sensors (accelerometer, gyroscope) and a digital magnetometer, which it transmits wirelessly to a local computer.

The new technology is cheaper than GPS and therefore more accessible and has already attracted interest from a number of sports teams and sports bodies.

“Where we used to focus on single athlete analysis today we are monitoring entire populations of athletes across seasons and years,” says Associate Professor James.

This is expected to generate a wealth of data, which in turn will be assessed and scrutinised by the SABEL Labs biomechanic experts to give an even deeper understanding of optimal training systems and sports injuries.

From glaciers to crop sniffing

Associate Professor James entry into research and development of wearable sports technology came as a result of a diverse range of career paths including working as a glaciologist in The Antarctic, a brain wave analyst in psychophysiology and monitoring agricultural sensors capturing crop gasses.

From as young as eight years old, when he was brought to the Griffith University campus by his parents, Associate Professor James had always wanted to study and work at the Griffith.

He recalls the story of his mother trying to talk him out of a single entry on his application form. However he wasn’t to be swayed and attended Griffith, gaining his Bachelor of Science (with Honours), majoring in experimental physics and electronics.

His early studies had nothing to do with sport. As a glaciologist in Antarctica he did research on the geophysics of ice.

“Glaciology was a neat way to explore radio wave propagation because ice is a very pure mechanism. We had an interesting problem to solve, to detect where crevasses are so people and vehicles don’t fall into them.”

He later completed his Master of Philosophy in chemical sensors used in agriculture, where remote technology was required to sniff and detect crop gasses that often regulate various growth and development processes.

He has since completed his PhD in radio physics, also at Griffith.

“At the time I didn’t realise it but they were all preparing me for where I am now.

“I funded my way through PhD working with Tim Cutmore in department of psychology at Griffith doing a lot of brain wave analysis, looking at propagation of radio waves in the brain, which essentially is all numbers to a physicist.

“It’s the same problem but the application is different.”

Project work and grants

Associate Professor James main focus area of research is in the application of micro technology to geophysical, sporting and biomedical applications. This has led to several international patents and commercial products.  He has worked with:

  • Australian Institute of Sport
  • Rowing Australia ( AISNSWIS and consortium),
  • Motorola Australia
  • Queensland Academy of Sport
  • Olympic Winter Institute of Australia
  • THQ software
  • International Cricket Council,
  • Cricket Australia
  • Australian Antarctic Division
  • Australian Research Council
  • BNP Paribas
  • Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
  • Australia Japan Society
  • Attorney Generals Department, crime prevention
  • Japan Society for the Promotion of Science
  • Australian Academy of Science
  • Australian Broadcasting Commission
  • Orion
  • Weepa
  • Orica
  • GeoNautics
  • ARS Co Japan
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