Smart vests are bringing rugby insights to supporters and coaches

Capturing data on the field and delivering it in real time
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You're sat in the stands at Twickenham, and players from both sides are lining up for a scrum. The pile of bodies spills out, the crowd cheers, but you have no real idea how the ball ended up in the hands of your team's scrum-half. You can feel the excitement, but you don't know how or why it unfolded the way it did.

It's part of what makes sports like rugby often friendlier, from a viewing perspective, to watch on television rather than at the stadium; there's highlights from five different angles, commentators breaking down every detail and you don't have to squint your eyes every time the ball is at the other end of the field. The downside is having to hum along to the national anthem and drink your beer from the couch, but what you get in return is a better look at the action.

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Aiming to help bridge this gap, though, is Sportable Technologies' smart vest, which is a similar setup to ones produced by Catapult. The data captured from the smart clothing is then presented by analytics firm Metapraxis, with the pair looking to provide viewers - whether they're in row Z or at home - with more context to how and why the game developed as it did.

And after trials last year with several Premiership and Championship sides, the pair recently debuted live insights during the annual Varsity match between Oxford and Cambridge.

"We talk about telling good stories through data. And once you have the foundations, it's a matter of really focusing in on what people want and putting yourself in their shoes," Sportable Technologies' CEO Dugald MacDonald told Wareable.

"In rugby, as in many other contact sports, there's no adequate technology for quantifying impact in real-time, and our smart garment allows us to track collisions at unique points on an athlete's body, such as tackles and scrums, and deliver that data live to coaches, broadcasters or officials."

The tech being used to track the action is similar to that used in the likes of football and American football. A compression top is worn underneath the player's jersey, with the sensor sitting in between their shoulder blades picking up both static and dynamic metrics. Sportable's solution, like most, will calculate a player's speed, acceleration, the total distance they have covered and more in-depth measurements, such as sprints and speed zones.

But this is just the start of the picture. Tracking a player's movements is one thing, but tracking how they collide with competitors is another. By being able to measure force and then present it in real time to big screens in stadiums, as well as to broadcasters and coaches on the sidelines, this is tracking and data delivery taken to the next level.

Smart vests are bringing rugby insights to supporters and coaches

"There are a number of technologies that track players, but many will fail to deliver the data in real time, which for live broadcast overlays we put at sub-50 milliseconds, from the event to the outside broadcast truck. Another important difference is that when you bring standard wearables into a packed stadium, you'll find there's an incredible amount of interference from the tens of thousands of wireless devices.

"This interference can cause complete loss of communication with the monitoring devices on game day, if they're relying on GPS. We've designed our system to be impervious to this stadium interference and so it's optimised for the live broadcast data."

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And for Metapraxis, the analytics firm presenting the numbers, this is an essential part of the equation. But finding a suitable radio-based wearable that's able to work in signal-heavy environments isn't the only challenge. Once you have the vast swaths of data in your lap, picking out the most relevant and making it interesting is crucial.

"Timing is everything," says Metapraxis CEO Simon Bittlestone. "And you've got to make it simple, because people are going to look at it for a few seconds, and they're also going to have no background knowledge.

"'Answering who exerted more force is one of the things we help present, but the applications go well beyond providing for viewers. Referees, for example, find it very hard to see if one side has pushed too early, or if one side is responsible for a collapse of a scrum. And with this is all happening in real time, there's definitely scope to get a more objective look at what's happening."

Smart vests are bringing rugby insights to supporters and coaches

But with teams consistently looking to gain an edge over one another, Sportable is also looking to place more emphasis on machine learning in order to provide sports scientists and training staff with more data.

MacDonald indicates that one of the things currently being worked on by the company is teaching its system to 'understand' what makes a good scrum. And when these characteristics are identified, working out whether the team is executing on them as individuals or a pack in real time.

"Over time we can then help the teams build strategies around selecting their best combination of forwards, substitutions and even manage injuries better," he says.

So after launching a platform that can help present more detail to a range of different audiences, and continuing to make it smarter through AI, what comes next?

Well, MacDonald would only hint that another rugby first is coming this year. But with the Rugby World Cup looming in 2019, don't be surprised if you begin to see more and more tidbits on scrums and player distances popping on your screen throughout the year. With the progress being made, it could well be a staple of both the stadium and couch viewing experience by the time Japan rolls around.

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Conor Allison


Conor moved to Wareable Media Group in 2017, initially covering all the latest developments in smartwatches, fitness trackers, and VR. He made a name for himself writing about trying out translation earbuds on a first date and cycling with a wearable airbag, as well as covering the industry’s latest releases.

Following a stint as Reviews Editor at Pocket-lint, Conor returned to Wareable Media Group in 2022 as Editor-at-Large. Conor has become a wearables expert, and helps people get more from their wearable tech, via Wareable's considerable how-to-based guides. 

He has also contributed to British GQ, Wired, Metro, The Independent, and The Mirror. 

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