Blind athletes help students to create a wearable coaching aid

Postgraduate engineering students are working with blind athletes to design a wearable coaching aid that gives haptic feedback when certain moves are correctly executed.

The work is part of the Innovation Design Engineering (IDE) masters programme run jointly by Imperial College and the Royal College of Art.

As part of the course, mining company Rio Tinto has launched a ‘Sports Innovation Challenge’ for new paralympic opportunities, ranging from equipment through to radical new sporting events and competition models.

The teams had the chance to do research and work with paralympians such as blind triathlete Iain Dawson.

‘As a visually impaired person, you don’t develop the same kind of kinaesthetic awareness — so we began with how you can rebuild body awareness and how you can actually have a feeling of where your limbs are in space, if you lost your sight, for instance,’ said IDE student Benedict Copping.

Noting that the vast majority of sighted athletes use coaching demonstrations or video-analysis techniques to perfect complex motion skills, Copping’s team wanted to find a way for blind athletes to similarly benefit.

‘Ghost’ device

The team’s ‘Ghost’ device comprises wearable joint pads that record the position of the limb in space and reference this against predetermined angles, giving a graded vibration feedback as they match up. In its current form, the device uses off-the-shelf components such as flex sensors, vibration motors (as used in mobile phones) and an Arduino mini pro electronics board for computations.

When an athlete puts on the device, it requires calibration to get the so-called minimum-to-maximum flexion for each joint.

‘If you’re visually impaired, because you can’t reflect on somebody else doing the motion, the coach moves the hand around, so what he’ll do is get the first position and press a button, store that, then [get a] second position, store that — so a combination of points together will build a picture. Then when you actually change movements, it will vibrate more and more until you get the correct position,’ Copping said.

‘So, for instance, with the tennis serve, if there’s a particular rotation you need to do in the joint, you can set for just that one wavepoint and see if you’ve hit that, as opposed to doing the whole pathway.’

Intuitive training aid

Copping said Ghost could also potentially be used as an intuitive training aid for sighted athletes — something that came up through testing with Dawson.

‘He’s got 10 per cent sight and sits in a category that goes from complete blindness to around 20 per cent sight. Athletes with any sight, because it’s such a strong sense, tend to overly rely on sight, so he liked the fact that he put this on and could close his eyes and train like that.’

For creating the winning design, the Ghost team (which also includes Jason Cheah, Shruti Griver and Idrees Rasouli) will receive undisclosed funding from Rio Tinto to further develop the technology.

The ultimate aim will be to decrease the profile of the device using burgeoning technologies such as conductive ‘smart’ textiles and tape, as well as wireless feedback for post-analysis.