The Rio Olympics are finally here! Approximately 10,500 athletes from 206 countries are expected to take part in 17 days of Olympic-level competition, competing across 306 events. For those of you planning to tune in and watch your favorite events, NBCUniversal will offer an unprecedented 6,755 hours of programming for the Games of the XXXI Olympiad, streaming out over multiple devices and platforms. Meanwhile, Ad Age is predicting that Rio will be the largest social media event in history.
However, the coolest Olympic technology is not for spectators, but for the athletes themselves. In fact, Team USA has hired a Director of Technology and Innovation, Mounir Zok, to lead an influx of wearable devices and tracking programs into the heart of Olympic training. Zok, who holds a PhD in biomedical engineering, is on a mission to harness wearable technology and sensors in order to achieve just small margins of improvement – delivering those tiny incremental improvements which have become critical for securing Olympic medals.
Zok’s influence on US Olympic training has been truly significant, and as American athletes head to the games they will be using a range of cutting-edge technologies:
• The US Women’s Volleyball team is using the VERT jump monitor, which fits around players’ waists and calculates their jump heights and counts. It then sends real-time data to an accompanying app
• Sensors worn by US gymnasts track performance metrics in real time
• Glasses for American cyclists deliver cadence, speed, and heart rate data directly into their field of view
• Divers are wearing tiny waterproof sensors to tell them how high they jumped and how long it took them to get into their first spin
• American boxers are training with advanced sensors in their gloves that provide coaches and boxers hand speed data that is measured in milliseconds
• Marathon runners receive detailed feedback about their hydration levels in simulated race conditions, along with the exact electrolytes they need to replace at specific points in the race
• Taekwondo athletes from all countries will wear magnetized socks and have impact sensors in body and head protectors, helping judges with more accurate scoring
• For the Paralympic Games the Olympic Committee worked with automaker BMW to develop a new wheelchair that tracks stats such as miles traveled and the frequency of arm strokes
According to Zok, “My job is all about gaining that extra 1% edge by leveraging emerging technology. We have to get our hands on it before it’s available to the masses and drive excellence within Team USA. This Olympic Games will be the first wearable technology games. We’ve reached the stage where athletes can use it without interfering with their activity. Our aim is to use the wearable technology to help the athletes and coaches make the best decisions possible. If you can help them understand how their bodies are performing you have influenced their decision making process.”
Zok sees three key trends that are driving Olympic-sized tech innovation for athletes and beyond. Looking beyond the dramatic tech impact of the Athlete-Coach relationship at this year’s Olympic games, it’s clear that this is a powerful harbinger of how technology will play an increasingly critical role in the Patient-Physician relationship.
1). Wearable Technology
As we’ve seen from the US Olympians heading to Rio, today’s wearable technology is moving far beyond the latest FitBit craze. Smaller, faster, and more accurate sensors are delivering a truly remarkable stream of real-time data about any and all aspects of human activity. Currently these sensors remain mostly external, but moving forward we can expect a range of ingestibles and implanted sensors that will yield even more cascades of heretofore uncharted data.
2). Internet of Things (IoT)
Not only are patients and physicians on the cusp of a digital tsunami of health-related data, but IoT technologies are helping to create a ubiquitous communications mesh that will allow us to effortlessly capture and synchronize all of these data points into integrated data dashboards. This seamless and real-time information capture then allows for total transparency with coaches, caregivers, and HCPs. Just as the nature of the coaching role is being transformed by athletic wearables, HCPs will soon find themselves in similar roles, helping patients to track, internalize, and adapt behaviors based on powerful, always-on health indicators.
3). Real-time Analytics and Cognitive Computing
Artificial intelligence (AI) is still early in the adoption curve, but is already beginning to make powerful strides across a range of industries, including healthcare. This example from Boston Children’s Hospital shows how AI is being integrated into consumer technology such as the Amazon Echo. Cognitive computing and health-related algorithms will learn from users and adapt to their individual performance and behaviors. Ultimately, AI will help uncover surprises and connections that no one has even been asking before.
Conclusion – Welcome to the Age of the Superhero and Superpatient
Driven by wearable technologies, the Internet of Things, and powerful breakthroughs in cognitive computing, today’s Olympic athletes are on the leading edge of a health-tech revolution that will soon become an everyday reality for patients. “We are very, very, very fast approaching the superhero stage. Tony Stark is not anymore a science fiction character,” Zok believes, referring to the Marvel Comics Iron Man whose suit may well be the ultimate wearable device. “Tony Stark will be on the field of play.”
Looking ahead, because of technology diffusion this year’s Olympic tech will quickly become an everyday item for the rest of us, turning us into superpatients. Wearables will become even smaller as companies make use of smart tattoos with flexible electronics that stick on like bandages. Smart clothing with conductive fibers woven directly into the fabric will become commonplace equipment not only for athletes, but for anyone tracking a health condition. With these small scale but powerful advances, wearable technology that is helping to deliver medals at Rio will deliver Olympic-sized improvement to the monitoring, rehabilitation, and long-term outcomes for patients around the world.