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KU lab uses 'markerless motion capture' technology to study, boost athletes' performance, health

Tuesday, November 07, 2017



LAWRENCE — Pitchers, catchers, offensive linemen, tennis players, divers, sprinters and lacrosse players don’t usually perform on the same field. But in a University of Kansas lab, all of those athletes, as well as anyone interested in their athletic performance, can step onto the same piece of turf to learn about their body’s performance, joints, balance and even if they are prone to injury.

KU’s Jayhawk Athletic Performance Laboratory is home to a markerless motion-capture technology system that can take dozens of biomechanical measurements without the need to wear a special suit or attach motion sensors to the subject. It’s all done under the watchful eye of eight high-definition, 3-D cameras that can help athletes, coaches, strength and conditioning coaches, athletic trainers and therapists. And researchers are just scratching the surface of its capabilities.

DARI, or Dynamic Athletic Research Institute, a Lenexa-based company founded by KU alumni, developed and provided the system for KU’s use. Faculty and students have been using the system for just under two years to provide data on performance, balance and more.

“It’s designed for quick information turnaround and has implications for medical, physical and athletic fields, though we focus on sport performance. One of the big benefits of the system is it’s designed to go through the analysis in about the time it takes you to put on your shoes afterwards,” said Andrew Fry, professor of health, sport & exercise sciences and director of the Jayhawk Athletic Performance Laboratory.

The DARI system can take nearly instant measurements on an athlete or individual’s joints, balance and performance through a range of 19 movements, including jumps, squats and rotations. The information gives researchers, coaches and athletes data on ankles, knees, hips, shoulders and elbows while informing them of balance, lack thereof and strength in each. It can help pinpoint areas of strength, weakness and potential problems nearly instantly.

“In addition to performance, people can use it to measure ‘am I fit?’” Fry said. “They can look at movement and muscle balance. If we know what they look like and how they perform when healthy, after an injury, maybe we can tell even more and help inform the recovery.”

It is common for people recovering from injuries to favor the affected joint, muscle or area, which can then lead to overuse and potential injury of other body parts. It is not always evident to the naked eye, even the trained eye of an expert, however, if that is taking place. DARI’s markerless motion-capture technology can detect and point it out to therapists and athletes who are also often unaware of such an imbalance. For a healthy athlete, it could potentially point out imbalances or favoring of a dominant side that could potentially lead to injury.

KU researchers are focusing their effort on sport performance. By measuring an athlete’s performance while conducting motions common to their sport, they can identify force generated during a pitcher’s windup. They can measure the balance of an offensive lineman coming out of his stance and making contact with a defender. They can measure the role of the arms in a diver’s approach and jump from the board. With that information, coaches and athletes can tell where the athletes' strengths lie, where they may need improvement and even develop workout plans based on the information.

“Most Division I athletes coming in are at the top of their game, and workout programs can be too generalized for them,” said Eric Mosier, a doctoral student performing research on the DARI system. “This system can help them customize a program that’s best for them. We can even tell if someone is injury prone. Or look at how someone is rehabbing and if they’ll be prone to re-injury.”

Mosier, who played football at KU, is writing his dissertation on fatigue testing and how an athlete’s performance changes when fatigued. The DARI system and other equipment in the Jayhawk Athletic Performance Laboratory provide ample data for the research.

In addition to conducting and publishing research performed with the markerless motion-capture technology, Mosier, Fry and colleagues are also working to find out just what the system is capable of. They plan to determine if more than one athlete can be measured at a time, if athletic gear such as shoulder pads obscure measurements and more. They have worked with several athletic programs at KU and hope to expand their reach to programs outside of KU as well. Those partnerships and the lessons they impart will continue to grow.

“A lot of the ideas of what we can do come from the coaches,” Fry said. “It’s not a situation where we’re up here with all of the knowledge and say, ‘Come on up, coach, and let me impart it to you.’ There’s so much potential for what we can do, and we’re just barely starting.”

Photo by Christian Rüfli.

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