The digitalised athlete

#performance_sensor  #athlete  #personal_contact

Three engineers at Axiamo have developed sensors that measure motion and performance parameters of professional athletes. The aim: to optimise the way those sport pros train for their specific discipline. Will the living, breathing trainer become obsolete as a result? Damian Weber, Michael Gasser and Benjamin Habegger offer insight into digitalisation in the field of sports and venture a peek at the future.

Text: ceo magazine editorial staff | Photos: Marc Wetli /Markus Bertschi | Magazine: Homo digitalis – June 2018

Is your technology an instrument for digitalising human beings?

Michael Gasser: No, it’s a technical aid for achieving enhanced performance. The device gives professional athletes objective digital feedback on the way their body moves in competition. This helps them to prevail against their opponents, given the hundredths of a second that can make the difference between victory and defeat in top-class sport these days. Our XRUN product is a tool that makes training more controllable and helps to prevent injuries.

But doesn’t it somehow rob the athlete’s ability to sense what their own body is telling them?

Benjamin Habegger: What our product measures are things the athlete can’t even feel or measure, such as ground contact time. He may sense his fatigue and overall fitness, but very specific performance-critical parameters can only be recorded with modern technology. Thanks to the data our sensors provide, you can evaluate precisely whether or not certain parameters have improved and consequently determine whether a particular training method works well.

“It’s precisely this search for meaning that makes man human.” B.H.

How did you come up with the idea for this product?

M. G.: We went to the same school and ended up working together on a project sponsored by the Federal Office of Sport FOSPO. Our findings turned into a master’s thesis, at which point we decided to run with the concept, so to speak, by founding our own company. It was clear to us from the very start that our product had a future.

B. H.: We developed the technology in order to meet trainers’ needs for deeper insight into body mechanics and their requirements in terms of metrics. So it was they who provided the impetus. We now have a very long list of parameters from them, and most likely we could fulfil each of those wishes. But because of the tremendous demand for individual applications, we ultimately have to decide which ones can be developed with reasonable effort and whether in the end there’s a viable market for them.

Your focus is squarely on digitalisation and sport, but which area of our lives do you think has been most affected by digitalisation?

Damian Weber: More than anything else, the way we communicate has changed dramatically as a result of digital technologies. And of course accessibility: today, it’s almost a must that we’re reachable round the clock, everywhere. It didn’t used to be that way.

B. H.: Right, but digitalisation has also intensified competition in the marketplace. Today, you can buy practically anything you want online, the related user information is also available on the Web, and if one virtual shop isn’t accessible at any given moment, you simply click through to the next one. Competition is fierce, and the customer has gained more clout.

“The question of singularity has yet to be answered.” D.W.

Are you personally available 24/7 for business purposes?

D. W.: I enjoy being unplugged once in a while, but it grows a beard quickly. Even on holidays, I catch myself repeatedly checking for emails.

M. G.: I agree – offline oases are not at the top of my bucket list. Sure, I’ve also enjoyed being offline during the occasional one-week holiday, but I didn’t make a special effort to avoid connectivity.

B. H.: When I’m away on summer holidays for 14 days, I make absolutely sure that I’m not reachable. Hey, we’ve got the entire rest of the year to be constantly in touch with the world, or am I wrong? But I guess, this availability compulsion has to do with the fact that it’s our own company. If we worked for some other firm, it would probably be easier to step away from things occasionally.

What remains of the human factor; or, stated differently, when do you actually communicate face-to-face with people?

M. G.: The more important a business matter is, the more personal the interaction should be.

B. H.: The lion’s share of communication these days takes place digitally. But I think it’s important that you have the opportunity to meet your opposite in person at least once so you actually know whom you’re communicating with. This makes things a lot easier.

Fellow students Damian Weber (1984), Benjamin Habegger (1984) and Michael Gasser (1985) founded Axiamo as a limited liability company in March 2015. All three young entrepreneurs are graduates in electrical engineering and today work as equally entitled proprietors of Axiamo GmbH. They live in the greater Bern environs and are also friends in private life. Michael Gasser will become a father for the first time in September; Benjamin Habegger is already the father of three children.

Can we shut ourselves off completely from the influence of digitalisation?

D. W.: Not in our society, my friend.

Where do you see the boundaries of digitalisation? Will there ever come a time when we have a chip implanted in us and are constantly monitored?

B. H.: As far as surveillance is concerned, we’re already very far along that slippery slope. If you don’t explicitly disable it, Google knows exactly which restaurants you go to, which shops you buy stuff in, where you work and where you live. Most people carry a smartphone with them – talk about trackers! You don’t even need an implant! It’s hard to say where the borderline will be. Probably far beyond what we can even imagine today.

Isn’t that frightening?

M. G.: It is indeed. And that’s why we should start enlightening people early on and make them aware of the problem. Many youngsters post comments and images on social media that they might regret in five or ten years’ time.

What do you think carries more weight: the risks or the opportunities associated with digital progress?

M. G.: In the end, it’s the same with any new technology: what you do with it is up to you. I’m convinced of the good in people and therefore that the opportunities will outweigh the risks.

“The more important a business matter is, the more personal the interaction should be.” M.G.

Many people view artificial intelligence as being an adjunct risk of digitalisation. Can AI develop a life of its own?

B. H.: Intelligence of any kind always requires some sort of motivation, and in this regard I don’t think AI can develop beyond itself, at least not yet. A chess robot can teach itself chess through trial and error and logic, but the robot doesn’t think that chess is something bad and therefore doesn’t look for a new, more meaningful task. It’s precisely this search for meaning that perhaps makes man human and causes him to seek other areas that interest him more or seem more important.

In that case, let me rephrase the question: Is it theoretically possible that an AI robot could find a new field of activity for itself, or must it be specifically programmed by a human to do so?

D. W.: You touch on the question of singularity; in other words, the threshold where artificial intelligence takes over. And until now, there has been no reliable answer. Researchers are neither in agreement on whether this can happen nor when it could happen. The discussions have been going on for 20 years, but today the topic is becoming hotter everywhere.

In your estimation, how great an influence will AI and digital assistants have on our lives in the decades to come?

D. W.: It most definitely will grow, and we’ll be surrounded by an increasing number of digital assistants.

Does that also apply to your company’s range of products? Are you developing a digital assistant of your own?

B. H.: An AI-driven processor that generates standardised training suggestions based on the data measured by our sensors is certainly conceivable and to a certain extent is already being applied in some mass-produced devices. In our customer segment, though, this is somewhat less the case. Professional athletes have a trainer who evaluates the data and translates those readings into concrete measures. So our intention is not to replace trainers – we trust that they can do more than any form of artificial intelligence.

Daily life has changed rapidly in the last ten years. As engineers and experts in digitalisation, can you envision a scenario of what our lives will be like ten years from now?

M. G.: The trend will certainly go even further in the direction of personalisation. Advertisers will know a lot more about me and what I like, so their offers will be more precisely suited to my needs and interests. To a certain extent we’re already witnessing that today, but the whole process will probably become even more intelligent.

B. H.: The framework of life in the broadest sense won’t change all too dramatically; the really meaningful things for people – like love, interpersonal relationships, work and the quest for self-realisation – will stay the same.

D. W.: Day-to-day life will be different in a number of ways: many shops will no longer need cashiers because customers scan their goods themselves or order online. Specific jobs or entire professions will disappear, but new ones will emerge.

The history of Axiamo GmbH begins with a research project between the Institute for Human Centered Engineering HuCE of the Bern University of Applied Sciences (BFH) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Sport Magglingen (SFISM) from 2010. Within the scope of the project, three electrical engineers – Michael Gasser, Benjamin Habegger and Damian Weber – developed the prototype of a sensor for field studies in the area of motion monitoring. The encouraging results and excellent collaboration between the developers, sport scientists and trainers motivated the three engineers to found Axiamo GmbH in Nidau in March 2015 and “run” with this promising analysis system. Today, the start-up develops and sells various motion sensors for application in sports. The products support trainers and athletes in their work by providing feedback on objectively compiled performance data for training and monitoring purposes.

Various studies have drawn the conclusion that thousands of jobs are being lost as a result of digitalisation. Are you concerned about the risk of a social schism?

B. H.: The cleft between low-skilled and highly qualified workers is likely to widen even further. On the whole, digitalisation will benefit the economy, and more new jobs will be created than old ones that fall by the wayside. However, this inevitably results in constant pressure to become evermore highly qualified, and not all people are up to that task. So probably there will be the need for some form of social evolution, and the question of how we distribute the efficiency gains will have to be resolved.

The sensor (visible above in red) measures movement and performance parameters, thereby facilitating optimal training approaches.