June 28th, 2013
04:31 PM ET

The 3-D technology that is helping ice skaters

Editor’s note: Jim Richards is a professor of biomechanics and vice provost for graduate and professional education at the University of Delaware, where 3D simulations are created to enhance performance in both sports and medical rehabilitation. For more on Richards, watch "The Next List," Saturday June 29th at 2:30 p.m. ET on CNN.

By Jim Richards, Special to CNN

One of the most interesting aspects of biomechanics is its widespread applicability to everything ranging from the study of insect flight to complex medical issues. I am fortunate enough to work on a campus that has made a significant investment in resources and expertise that facilitate research across the entire spectrum of biomechanics, including significant efforts in orthopedic research, rehabilitation of wounded soldiers, osteoarthritis, and of course, sport injuries and performance.

Researchers in sport biomechanics have been studying athletic performance for decades and have made significant improvements in equipment, athlete safety, and less frequently, performance. In fact, the ability to use biomechanics to directly improve athletic performance has been minimal. Performance improvement has been realized through advancements in equipment design (ie. golf clubs, skis), but improvements to actual skills have been sporadic.

Traditionally, biomechanical analyses of skills conclude with professional interpretation of the measurements and recommendations for potential improvements to performance. The “contribution” of biomechanics typically ends once the recommendations have been made, leaving the coach and athlete to figure out what the final result should look like. As expected, this approach rarely leads to meaningful improvements in performance, and this has been a source of frustration for both scientists and athletes.

When we started the skating project, the goal was to utilize technology to conduct rapid assessment of the athlete’s performance and to provide objective and mechanically sound recommendations for improvement in a form that both the skater and coach could immediately use. Prior work with the skaters taught us that most were failing to complete their jumps because of ineffective posture during the flight phase of the jump. The fact that the skater isn’t in contact with the ground during this part of the jump simplified the analysis and allowed us to adopt a modeling approach to improving performance. There were several advantages to this approach. First, different strategies to improving performance could be examined without putting the skater at risk by asking them to implement the strategies on-ice. Second, unproductive strategies could be ruled out while successful strategies could be identified, minimizing the amount of trial and error that would normally be part of the process. Finally, the skater and coach would be able to view a 3D rendering of the model to see how changes would look during the performance, providing them with a visual example of how the performance would appear for each individual athlete.

To date, the outcomes of the on-ice analyses have met our expectations. Within approximately 10 minutes of the performance, the skater and coach can begin working with the model. The coaches can experiment with both traditional and non-traditional arm, leg, and trunk positions and immediately determine whether they benefit the skater’s performance. Most skaters report being able to implement the recommended changes in a period of 2-3 weeks, and we frequently receive email and/or video evidence of a skater’s success. Additionally, trends associated with successful jumping styles have begun to emerge, and coaches are able to apply this knowledge to the training efforts of other skaters.

The research on the shoulder presented a different set of challenges. Early on in my career, I analyzed shoulder mechanics of pitchers ranging in skill from little league to major league. The obvious flaw in the analysis was the fact that it ignored the contribution of the scapula (shoulder blade), a structure critical to shoulder function. Current research on shoulder function still suffers from the same flaw, and when we were invited to participate in a shoulder workshop at the Philadelphia Shriners Hospital focusing on patients with brachial plexus birth palsy, it became obvious that we couldn’t ignore the scapula any longer. It plays a critical role in the ability of BPBP patients to realize any degree of functionality.

Drs. Kozin and Zlotolow at Shriners provided the medical direction for the work, which focused on measuring scapular contribution to specific clinical positions used to estimate the patient’s degree of shoulder function. Our approaches began with surface mapping strategies using hundreds of markers and evolved to more landmark specific strategies using a few as 10 markers. To date, we have been able to differentiate between scapular contribution and glenohumeral contribution (the ball and socket joint in the shoulder) to specific arm positions, and are working toward measuring the scapula during dynamic motions. We have a long way to go, but we’re pleased with the progress we’ve made to date.

In the future, we’re optimistic that improvements in technology and new approaches to the mathematical analysis of human motion will continue to advance our ability to analyze and improve performance. Looming on the horizon are optical systems that can capture motion data outdoors, optical systems that can capture motion data without markers, and wireless sensors that can measure body orientation without the use of cameras. It would not be surprising if in the near future, much of the process that we now perform with expensive, high-end technology becomes available in the form of affordable lightweight portable sensors coupled to a smartphone app.

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June 25th, 2013
09:03 AM ET

How scientists are making ice skating safer

Editor’s note: Tune in to CNN Saturday, June 29th, at 2:30 pm ET to see "The Next List's" 15-minute profile of biomechanist Jim Richards.

With only seven months until the Olympic caldron shrines bright on host city Sochi, Russia, athletes are vigorously training in preparation. Competition is fierce and Olympic hopefuls are expected to be faster, stronger and capable of superhuman feats. But one winter sport, known for its grace and beauty, is wreaking havoc on the joints of developing bodies: ice skating.

“We’ve seen skaters as young as 20 who have had major surgeries and hip replacements,” says Jim Richards, a scientist at University of Delaware’s human performance lab.

When Richards decided to pursue a career in sports biomechanics and kinematics, or the study of human motion, he had no idea he would be spending so much time in a damp cold ice skating rink. However, when the university built his lab, they neglected to include one major necessity, and he had to walk through the rink every day to reach the restroom.

After watching elite figure skaters crash to the ice over and over, he thought he could approach their training in a more efficient way.

Richards is one of the first scientists to successfully leverage motion capture data to create 3-D simulations. The models help assess athletic ability and decrease the chance of physical injury.

“The whole point of what we’re doing is to accelerate their ability to learn these jumps,” Richards says, “We’re decreasing the number of impacts which we hope would have an effect on the long-term health of their lower extremity joints.”

Motion capture technology has been used to develop lifelike movements in animations and video games. For skating, 40 markers are placed on the athlete’s body while 10 high-speed infrared cameras record the markers' movements. Richards and his team are doing something other sports haven’t done; they’re constructing models that allow them to play what-if games.

The research is sponsored by the United States Olympic Committee and United States Figure Skating, and while the university has had requests from all around the world, the program is exclusive to U.S. athletes.

It could take up to a year to master aerial tricks known as triple and quadruple rotation jumps. After completing the analysis, one skater landed the perfect jump the same day. The learning curve is drastically reduced and most participants successfully complete the jumps within two weeks.

Nearly 70 skaters have gone through the system and they are blown away by the results.

“This program is going to help skaters for the future figure out how to do more quads, and who knows, maybe quints,” said Alex Johnson, an internationally ranked figure skater and Olympic contender.

Richards envisions the day when he is able to measure motion without markers. New systems in development do not require tracking, which means the analysis could be performed in real time. It opens up an entire world of possibilities. Richards could analyze a fast ball pitch during the World Series, a three-point shot in an NBA game, and a gymnast’s mid-air vault.

Athletes aren’t the only ones benefiting from this technology. Richards spends a significant amount of time working with children whose shoulders are injured during difficult deliveries.

“He has tackled a problem that we have wrestled with for the last 100 years,” says Dr. Scott Kozin, M.D., chief of staff at Shriners Hospital for Children in Phila., Pa.

Approximately four out of every 1,000 births result in brachial plexus birth palsy, an injury that causes nerves in the shoulder to tear during childbirth. Skeletal simulation enables surgeons to measure upper extremity motion without radiation. The long-term goal is to operate on the model and see the outcome on the computer before ever working with the patient.

“It’s fun to work with a population that can do incredible things when it comes to physical ability,” Richards says, “but the reality is if you can play some small role in helping a child walk better or be able to use their arm better, that’s a far more rewarding experience.”

Richards is revolutionizing the way athletes train and he is transforming the way doctors treat children.

You can learn more about his work and the human performance lab on "The Next List," this Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET on CNN. Please Follow us, Like us, and check out our photos!

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June 14th, 2013
04:56 PM ET

The Right Stuff

Editor's Note: Tune in to CNN Saturday, June 15th, at 2:30 pm ET to see "The Next List's" 30-minute profile of Graham Hill. 

What is most important to you? House? Car? Clothes? Formal china? Probably not. These things might make your life more convenient. To some extent, they might enable you to do the things that Are actually important. But our stuff, when we think about it, isn’t that important.

What is important to most of us? Our friends, families, having meaningful work, amazing experiences. As I have heard it said, “The most important things in life aren’t things.”

Yet somehow, when many of us look at our lives, we see a disproportionate amount of time and energy directed toward stuff. We work extra hard so we can make the car payments. We max out our credit cards to keep up with fashion. We move into big homes so we have a place for the hutch that stores the formal china.

In the late nineties, I had the great fortune of selling my startup. What did I do with my newfound cash? Same thing any good American would: I got lots of stuff like a new car, furniture, gadgets and of course a big house.

This ability to consume was new to me. When I was growing up, everyone in my middle-class, six- child family had everything they needed but not much more. When you’re raised with just enough, you imagine having more than enough will make you that much happier.

But there I was living the American dream–driving a quick car, living in a big house, with the ability to buy more–and I was no happier. What was I missing?

I was missing the fact that no amount of stuff would ever make me happy. I actually found the more things I had, the more complicated life became. There were more things to buy and maintain, more things to keep track of, more things to lose.

A number of events in my life–most notably a serious romantic relationship–made me realize that people, amazing experiences and meaningful work are the real important parts of my life. The other stuff is just stuff.

Don’t get me wrong, I love objects and architecture. I studied product design in college and have built homes as a carpenter before I got into startups. But my later life experiences made me reevaluate how and why our stuff and homes were designed. I started to wonder why we often ended up living to support our stuff and homes rather than the other way around?

It was with this question in mind that I started LifeEdited. I wanted to help start a movement where our products, homes and the way we live are aligned with what’s important to us.

On a practical level, this meant doing more with less. The average American takes up three times more living space than sixty years ago. Yet we still don’t have enough room for our stuff, evidenced by a $22 billion dollar personal storage industry. Worse still, we have become a nation of debtors paying for our big homes and stuff. Clearly, our lives could use a good edit.

LifeEdited is starting with homes. We help conceive homes around what is important in people’s lives. We are specialty consultants to architects, currently working in cities such as New York City and Las Vegas. Often, the result is a space that is much smaller than the typical American home. My own 420-square-foot Manhattan apartment sleeps up to four, seats twelve for dinner, has a home office and much more. The smaller footprint is cheaper to buy, easier to clean, greener and, even though there’s a generous 426 cubic feet of storage, doesn’t permit me to collect a lot of unnecessary stuff.

Because I have fewer things, the stuff I do have is quality stuff I love and appreciate.

LifeEdited is about freedom, not restriction. We think the less-but-better approach leads to more money in the bank, more time for friends and recreation and less to think about. It’s about including everything that’s important and “editing” out the rest.

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Less stuff, happier life: The philosophy of Graham Hill
June 11th, 2013
05:14 PM ET

Less stuff, happier life: The philosophy of Graham Hill

Editor's Note: Tune in to CNN Saturday, June 15th, at 2:30 pm ET to see "The Next List's" 30-minute profile of Graham Hill.

Graham Hill is an entrepreneur, designer and environmentalist who started a website called LifeEdited.com. He evangelizes the idea that living a pared down life can make you happier, healthier and wealthier. And that editing down all the unnecessary and gratuitous stuff in your life will give you a smaller carbon footprint and a cleaner conscience.

“Every less cubic foot of air means less to clean, heat, cool, insure and move," says Hill. “The more space, the more complex your life gets.”

Hill says that over last 50 years, average housing size has increased nearly three times while families have gotten smaller, but people are not any happier.

“Living within our means is financially and environmentally good. Having an unorganized life full of crap is not a recipe for happiness,” he says.

To help illustrate his idea, Hill purchased two apartments in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood. He launched a competition, crowd-sourcing the design to renovate the first one, which was only 420 square feet. Required for the winning bid: room for a couple, space for a sit-down dinner for 10-12 people, room for overnight guests and a workspace among other amenities. The second apartment is currently under construction.

The result is a design marvel. Sanjay Gupta paid a visit to check out all the bells and whistles, including a movable wall that makes space for two drop-down bunk beds. You have to see it to believe it.

Hill isn’t advocating a monastic existence. Rather, he believes that good design and a system of shared amenities (he calls it a Product Library) will allow for all the creature comforts with a minimum of hastle.

Imagine the Product Library as a way to borrow big, bulky items when you need them, such as coolers, folding chairs, a standup paddleboard, a karaoke machine, a sewing machine. His idea is to design a cost-effective system to access them and reserve them on line.

There is something of a movement to build and design smaller apartments commensurate with demographic trends. San Francisco, Hong Kong, London and most recently New York City have all taken high-profile forays into the micro-unit space.

In fact, in NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a competition in July to design a rental building on East 27th Street that would be 75 percent comprised of micro units, 275-300 square feet.

Hill is involved in a similar project in Las Vegas with Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos. Hsieh is moving Zappos headquarters to Las Vegas and investing $350 million of his own money to remake a section of downtown into a hub for high tech and creativity. Hsieh saw Hill's Tedtalk on an Edited Life and solicited ideas to build micro housing for his employees.

Graham Hill is, above all, an environmentalist. His concern for the environment and human impact on it informs everything he does. (He was the founder of TreeHugger.com which he later sold to Discovery.)

Hill was a crew member on the 2010 voyage of the Plastiki, a 60-foot catamaran made out of 12,500 reclaimed plastic bottles and other plastic waste products. The crew traveled more than 8,000 nautical miles from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia to raise awareness about plastic waste and its affect on marine life. And to show how waste can be used as a valuable resource.

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Controlling flying robots with your mind
June 6th, 2013
03:43 PM ET

Controlling flying robots with your mind

By Heather Kelly, CNN

A graduate student wearing a skull cap covered in wires sits perfectly still and thinks about making a fist with his right hand.

Nearby, a small quadcopter - a flying drone with four rotors - turns right. He imagines making a fist with his left hand and the robotic flying copter goes left. After a thought about clenching both hands, it lifts higher into the air.

He is controlling the device with his mind.

The system is part of a new research project that reads the brain's electrical activity and translates certain thoughts into commands for the unmanned aerial vehicle. It's called a brain-computer interface, and someday it could have important uses for people who are paralyzed.

"We envision that they’ll use this technology to control wheelchairs, artificial limbs or other devices," said University of Minnesota engineering professor Bin He in a post announcing the project.

This graduate student wears a special skull cap that allows him to manipulate the flying robot with his mind.

Here's how it works: Imagining specific movements without actually doing them produces electric currents in the motor cortex. The interface itself isn't new, but the researchers used brain imaging scans to find out exactly which imagined movements activated which neurons.

Once they mapped out the various thoughts and associated signals, they used them to control a helicopter simulation on a computer. Next, they moved on to real flying devices.

There are no implants or invasive brain tweaks needed for subject to control the copter with their brain. The technology is called electroencephalography (EEG). The skull cap uses 64 electrodes to detect these currents from a subject's brain as they think about associated actions, then translates that data into instructions and transmits them to the quadcopter over Wi-Fi.

In the test, pilots weren't allowed to look at the quadcopter while they controlled it, only a screen showing the view from a small camera mounted on the front of the flying vehicle. After a few hours of training, the subjects could move the quadcopters with precision, even  guiding them through hoops suspended from the ceiling.

Flying is just the start for this technology, He said.

"It may even help patients with conditions like autism or Alzheimer’s disease or help stroke victims recover," he said. "We’re now studying some stroke patients to see if it’ll help rewire brain circuits to bypass damaged areas."

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June 4th, 2013
02:14 PM ET

Izhar Gafni and the cardboard bike that could revolutionize transportation

Editor's Note: Tune in to CNN Saturday, June 8th, at 2:30 pm ET to see "The Next List's" 15-minute profile of cardboard bicycle innovator Izhar Gafni.

For years, people told him he could never do it. But with his own money, resources and what he describes as "guts feelings," inventor Izhar Gafni built a bicycle made almost entirely out of cardboard.

His cardboard bike took four years and six prototypes to make, and when it was finished Gafni's story and Vimeo went viral. Izzy, as he's called, became an Internet sensation. But "The Next List" team wanted to see Izzy in action - actually making a bike from scratch on his own turf.

In a workshop on a small kibbutz on Israel's northern coast, we watched as Izzy, a self-described cycling enthusiast, worked his magic. Using the principles of Japanese origami - literally folding cardboard over and over (with a machine he invented) - and adding a secret concoction of glue and varnish, Izzy, who is self-taught, figured out a way to make cardboard rugged enough for us to ride. His craftmanship resulted in a light, waterproof and recyclable frame capable of holding cyclists up to 500 pounds. A full-size cardboard bike weighs around twenty pounds, and according to Izzy, never has to be adjusted or repaired.

"The tires are made of reconstituted rubber from old car tires so they will never puncture," he says.

Izzy says innovation is everywhere in Israel, but the aftermath, or production phase of an invention, is lacking. He and business partner Nimrod Elmish formed the Israeli company, I.G. Cardboard Technologies, and say they are determined to change that.

"This project, Izzy's cardboard bicycles, is a unique business model, and a real game-changer," says Elmish. "We will build these bikes using all kinds of funding, including government grants and rebates for using recycled materials. This will keep production costs down and will also create many jobs at local factories."

The end result: a bicycle made from $9 worth of cardboard, that will sell for around $60. But Izzy hopes the rebates for using "green" materials will enable them to distribute the bicycles for free in poor countries all over the world.

"The whole concept for these bikes is to build something so strong, you can throw them in a village in Africa, and come back next year to collect the damaged ones and bring new ones," he said.

Mass production of the cardboard bike begins later this year, and Izzy wants to take his technology even further, already working on cardboard wheelchairs and high chairs.

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