Bull Session

The Super Bowl, Emerging Tech, and Health

February 5, 2015          

Episode Summary

The Super Bowl last weekend was a testimony to the integration of technology at the highest level of sporting competition — from the ultra high-definition cameras for broadcast clarity, to the tablet displays for reviewing plays with coaching staff, to the deluge of viewing audience commentary via social media.

In tribute to that exciting finale to the 2014 football season, in this episode of The Digital Life we discuss the training, techniques, and technology for professional football and how the advances the NFL is making toward a complete view of health metrics and performance in real time is inspired by the quantified self movement.

The NFL has taken the lead in quantifying their athletes play, including sensor technology in helmets for measuring impact, electronic health records (EHRs) on the sidelines for reviewing player history, and wearables in the uniforms to track position on the field. What does this technology integration mean for the future of health?

Jon:
Welcome to episode 88 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Hey, Jon. You must still be pretty excited there in Boston after the Super Bowl.

Jon:
Yeah. Being a big football fan, this is really a highlight of my year so far with the Pats, coming out on top in the Super Bowl and of course, I’m sure many folks around Boston feel the same way. Today on our show, and in honor of that and the phenomenon that is the NFL and the Super Bowl in America, I thought we could talk a little bit about the technology side of that industry, and in particular, how it relates to the players and their health as a starting point.

In particular, I think there are some tremendous things that the NFL is doing for encouraging both player health and safety and for lack of a better term, the quantified athlete. I think it’s a surprise, maybe, to our society, generally speaking, that we’ve got so much obsession right now about health and the perfection of the human body, almost to the point of it being worshiped.

I don’t think that, at least for myself, looking at all our advances in technology, you don’t always consider that the human body is also advancing alongside the technologies that we’re putting into play, which are largely the product of our thinking. At the same time, we have these athletes who are really becoming, in some ways, superhuman or at least from my perspective, seeing some of these very athletic tall guys who are focused on nothing but evolving themselves to become these incredible athletic machines, it seems superhuman to me.

Part of the technology that’s wrapped around that is the quantified self technology, the sensors, the tracking, the analytics, that allow these athletes to pursue this kind of body perfection. Today I felt we could dig in a little bit into that tech because as we know, the high performance excellence in these industries eventually makes it way … This technology makes its way into people’s everyday lives.

You only have to look at the evolution of helmets to see how it starts at the upper echelons of sport or whatever industry you’re concerned with, and then becomes part of our day-to-day in America. I wanted to start by talking about the sensors and just this deluge of data that we can get around quantifying the human body now. Dirk, what are your impressions of this push for the superhuman and the technology that’s wrapped around it?

Dirk:
Yeah, I mean there’s a few things here. The first is you kicked off talking about this as being a health issue. I expected you to talk about wellness, when in fact you meant health as performance. I think there’s some interesting topics there that … You said too many other things, so I guess we’ll have to circle back to that at some later point in time.

The quantified self technology is certainly something we’ve talked about a lot before. Using sensors, gathering data, converting that data to improve performance, to change the way we’re living, to have an impact on our health, that’s something that certainly we, and I’m guessing most of our listeners, are pretty familiar with at this point.

To me, some of the interesting questions around it have to do with context. There are absolutes in the sense of performance. If you can run faster or change direction faster or are stronger in any of the n ways that are physically relevant, those are, I think for the most part, absolute goods. That’s to say, if you can increase your top speed, that will make you more successful as a professional football player in ways large or small, depending on your position, depending on how fast you were previously, depending on your role and the assignments in your team.

What seems to still be missing, and I’m … I’m certainly not a big football fan. I don’t watch a lot of football, but I tend to do a lot of reading on statistics. I tend to do a lot of reading on the meta around sports, and there’s not a lot done around context. What I mean by that is, for example in the Super Bowl last night, which I saw maybe half of it, there was a receiver for the Seahawks who had I think never caught a pass before. His name was Chris Matthews. This tall guy was able to just use his height to make these big plays against a much shorter Patriots defensive back.

It’s certainly known and you see teams saying, “We want to get tall receivers,” or “We want to get tall defensive backs,” like tall being better than short is sort of in an absolute sense known as superior. But there is out there some more quantifiable answer or quantifiable formula for how height is relevant in the context of both receiving and defensive backs, which unless there’s one or more teams that are just keeping knowledge that they’ve gleaned totally locked down and nobody else in the broader statistical community has gotten there yet, that contextual point hasn’t been solved, for lack of a better word. You know the really short guy has disadvantages compared to the really tall guy, but what does that mean?

Crucially to this thread here, how should it impact the way that they are evaluated in the context of drafting them or trading for them or buying them as free agents? How should their performance be optimized using modern technology? Those context questions are much closer to black box than being solved for. I think the technology’s cool and it’s very different now with all of the quantified self stuff going on to optimize the performance of these players, but I think the big questions around context and performance, and how that context should translate into specific development plans, for lack of a better word, I think there is really still an unknown.

The big contextual gains, how player A could be made to be most efficient and effective in the context of the broader system of the team, is just being clumsily, if at all, hacked at, and it’s these more generic implementations and benefits that are being enjoyed by the technology. I think we’re only just really scratching the surface, and the big unknown, the big iceberg under the water, is the question of context. I think that that has a lot of interesting tendrils into all of the stuff that we do from the context of the design of experiences.

Jon:
Yeah, I think you’re right there. I think there’s such great potential for this information to be analyzed, as you said, in context to provide greater insight into how the athletes might participate in their team, as you pointed out. I think there’s an aspect to this that would apply in a long term sense to our own health and performance. I think what we’re beginning to see from this data being collected is some real-time analysis of anything from the kinds of hits these guys are taking to the kinds of speeds they can run at, how fast they move from 1 part of the field to the other.

It’s that real-time aspect, coupled with … I know the NFL has procured electronic health records that can be used by the trainers on the sideline, so mapping some of those real-time aspects to the history of health of that player. I think there’s fantastic potential there, not just for these guys who are professionals at the top of their industry, but also as this technology progresses and becomes more affordable and available, giving ourselves that missing user’s manual for our own bodies. I think that’s maybe the promise that the quantified self has.

Now, to be clear, as you pointed out as well, we’re a long way from that, but I think that, as people, we’re not very in touch with what’s going on inside us as a human machine. I know that, even with all this involvement in the health industry, I know I’m guilty of not really understanding how my body works as well as I should. I see in that real-time analysis and mapping to the historic record some potential for advancing our own understanding of our bodies in the future.

Dirk:
Sure. What you’re talking about there starts to talk on social change that really needs to happen. Most of us are not tied in to how our bodies are working and our health in the way that we should be, in some objective sense, because of the requirements that the society makes upon us. The needs that we have to pay bills and function in this capitalist 40 hour work week crucible, we spend all of our time or much of our time, certainly not all, we spend much of our time focused on … just focused on rubbish, focused on things that are just holding up something that doesn’t really need to be there.

There’s many consequences of that that we can’t see because it’s a negative. We just plod forward, but one of them, and a big one, is we don’t care about our health. From the desk jobs that keep us sitting all the time that demonstrably make our health worse to just not having the time, attention, and sort of the, I’ll call it, psychological bandwidth, to deal with our health.

Part of not dealing with it is just the scariness of it. If we really got down into the nitty-gritty and were paying attention to it, there’s a lot of risk there. There’s a lot of exposure there. Our lives are so full. We have to pay the bills. We have to manage our family. We have to participate in the standards of society. What would be possible? How could we focus on and optimize our health, both physical and mental, psychological, the whole 9 yards, if the rubbish were put away, if our time was more focused and focused on the right things?

Yeah, I think it’s sort of off-topic, but I think in talking about how you don’t really focus on your health and take advantage of the data and the potential that is there, it really speaks to bigger problems about how we’re really wasting humanity. We’re really wasting all of these people, all of these generations, just doing things that are totally counterproductive to what would be best for us as individuals and to what would be best for the human condition in a more macro way.

Jon:
Yeah, I think that, as we have these technologies available to solve much broader problems like our understanding our day-to-day health, it’s interesting that while we have all these terrific things, they’re extremely difficult to integrate at this point into what I would say is my everyday, middle class life. It’s very difficult, whereas if you’re an athlete at the NFL, you have these … You have the time and then you also have … It’s your job to look at these factors.

There’s tremendous disconnect between what is technologically possible and what we are capable of integrating into our lives, based on, as you pointed out, the sociological constraints of what we’re doing day-to-day. In fact, I would even go so far as to say some of the things that we’re doing initially to adopt these technologies might very well be taking time away from doing the activities that would benefit us.

There’s all sorts of initial time loss in getting up to speed, whether it’s tracking yourself using wearables or trying to get all of your health data into an electronic health record, which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do those things, but adoption and integration are not easy to do. That’s something I think we often overlook when we’re looking at this ecosystem of health and saying, “Hey, all the tech is there. Why can’t we make this happen?”

Dirk:
Yeah. Amen, brother. It’s kind of silly in a way, when you look at it and you say much of the world is in poverty. It’s depending on the statistic that you’re looking at. 25 to 33% of all women will be the victim of sexual violent crime in their life of some form, but boy, we sure as hell can track how many steps we take in a day. There’s a real misfit in priorities around the things … these cool things that we’re creating. They’re cool and they’re neat, but compared to the realities of the world and what’s important, it’s just in a lot of ways, it’s not super.

Jon:
Yeah. Unfortunately, the long term enablement of better and more productive, healthier lives is not something that we’re capable of really organizing ourselves around, so we have to, I don’t know, move forward in fits and starts and see the potential in these tremendous achievements that can be part of sport at the highest level, but then also acknowledge the reality which is that the day-to-day could be quite gloomy for a little bit. At any rate, the inspiration that these types of athletes can impart upon us, I think, is worthy of some excitement anyway, and I am pretty jazzed about that Patriots win. I hope that that enthusiasm anyway makes our day-to-day lives a little bit better.

Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things we’re mentioning here in real-time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one L in The Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode, where we’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. It’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening to the show or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.

If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter, @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O, dot com. Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter, @dknemeyer. That’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, or email me dirk@goinvo.com.

Jon:
That’s it for episode 88 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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