This week we have the honor to interview Dr Reuben Burch, Director of Athlete Engineering, and Associate professor of industrial and system engineering at Mississippi state university.
📝Show Notes: Through this interview, we touched on his background, his role at Mississippi State, some of the studies he worked on. We also discussed the state of the wearable industry, his favorite technologies, and the future of wearables. We also talked about what he would build if he had unlimited resources.
🚀Best Quotes: Here’s some of the key discussion points and best quotes from our conversation with Dr Reuben Burch:
On his background in engineering (FedEx, NASA..) and the academic world:
“I've been in some form or fashion in research and development for the past 20 plus years. I was in the industry for about 14 years. I did a lot of work for naval weapon systems and I did some NASA satellite work. I had a chance to be a software configuration manager for a very large claims company. And where I really started to get into physical device prototyping was at FedEx. I was our engineering principal and was in charge of their ruggedized handheld research in their autonomous vehicle research program”.
“Ruggedized handhelds threw me into the world of devices and sensors, and so when I had an opportunity to come to academia, I jumped on it and I wanted to create a wearable research program that included both engineering and kinesiology”.
“Looking at the landscape at the time, back in 2016, there wasn't really a strong wearable research program led by engineers. I'm also a former collegiate athlete myself, so I wanted to try to be the person that bridged a good connection between athletics and academics, and so that was the start of my athlete engineering program at Mississippi State”.
On the study that he conducted on wearable usage among NCAA teams:
“When we surveyed those NCAA teams, 70% of those teams using wearables were using them, but 30% of those NCAA teams were not using the wearables that they bought”.
“I think one of the reasons was the lack of trust of data as well as other factors. That was really eye-opening for us. It was great on two fronts. It helped us as researchers to identify where there's a gap. And the gap was a lack of trust in the technology”.
On the state of the wearable technology market today:
“There's an opportunity there. There was still a lot of interest back then, but there was a lack of trust. But there is still a huge interest towards wearables because everybody sees what they can do”.
“The most shocking number out there was a study that came out, I think in the late 2021. And there was a prediction that the wearable market is going to be a $130 billion industry by 2026, so we're not that far off”.
“I like to use that number just to show the scale of the market. But the point in that study was that they said that out of all wearables invented only 50% are ever validated in any way, shape, or form. And then it said, of the 50%, only half are ever validated by someone who's an unbiased third party”.
On the fact that there is still a lot of money being invested towards wearable tech startups today, with the sports sector driving some of that:
“I think there's such a demand for wearables. I think there's a ton of venture capital money too. Everyone has seen the success of other wearable products out there. I think sports and the money behind competition, is driving a lot of that”.
On the fact that sensors have become so small and wearable technology has become more accessible to a broad audience:
“The growth of the wearable market is partially due to the fact that sensors have evolved and become so small and then the technology is so accessible. It creates a really positive ecosystem for people who otherwise maybe wouldn't have been able to come up with a new idea and create a product”.
“I think that with wearables, the only limitation is your own creativity in most cases. So I think we've seen a really positive impact, with accessibility for creation through the wearable market. But with that, you also have a bunch of people designing things for a task or activity that they themselves may have never performed or been a practitioner in which then goes back to that trust issue we found in the study”.
On the fact that wearables will never replace the expertise and know how of practitioners of teams:
“Wearables will never replace a practitioner, a strength coach, or a health and safety engineer. They're meant to be a decision tool aid. And so if you put a lot of faith and finances into a tool, and there are still some questions about the quality of that data. And maybe you trust it sometimes but not all the time”.
On the fact that some wearable tech companies comes to his campus claiming that they can prevent all injuries:
“We have wearable tech companies that will show up on our campus here. And we usually will have a sit down between members of our team and certainly a lot of the strength coaches, and you'll have a wearable tech company that'll go through their sales pitch and say, we're here and we're going to prevent all injuries”.
“And we're like, all right. Thank you for your time (…) There's no prevention of injuries. There's a mitigation of injuries, but you can be the healthiest person on the planet and still have your ankle rolled. And a wearable is not going to stop that again. A wearable is an informational tool. The practitioner is still required and bad things can still happen no matter how much you've planned. So if for the people who show up talking about how there's going to be no more injuries at Mississippi State, that's a red flag”.
On the relationships he has built with Mississippi state teams as well as other pro teams (NBA, NFL, MLB..):
“On the Mississippi State side, I serve as a liaison between all sports teams and the academic side. But this isn't the only university that we do some work with (..) I've got specific teams that I work with across the NFL, NBA, MLB. And a lot of times I usually work with the strength coaches directly”.
On some of his favorite wearable technologies and sensors out there:
“Our favorite sensors, and again, we're biased, but it was what we were funded by the National Science Foundation to use, but stretch and soft sensor technologies, things that can seamlessly be embedded into textiles, and can be used to replace things like motion capture”.
“So that's what we've been working on with other companies. Liquid Wire has done a really successful job there too. But we have been slowly working on building a uniform that can replace the need for motion capture without the sensation of wearing a bunch of sensors on you”.
“Finding technologies that were originally intended for something else and then having them find a home in the human performance world, continues to fascinate us”.
On the future of wearables like contactless biosensors or smart patches that can measure lactate, glucose, electrolyte, or smart fabric with sensors embedded into the fabric to measure motion capture:
“On the physiology front, I think you nailed what really is in the very near future for wearables in the medical space. I mean, those things are not that far away. I think that the long lead time for a lot of those companies is probably the FDA approval process”.
“And being in Mississippi, there's the University of Mississippi Medical Center, which has the world's largest research center in telehealth”.
“Regarding the future of technology and wearables, we do a lot on the biomechanics side. We have some of the world’s leaders in slip, trip and fall and foot ankle research here on campus”.
“And so that's the area where a lot of our research is because gait and the information that comes from the gait, the fact that the gait is unique, like a fingerprint for everybody, there's a lot of value in that on both the athletic training and the medical side”.
“But when I think about the future of wearables, I put on my former industry hat. And if you think about the evolution of manufacturing equipment, your manufacturing equipment, over time, has begun to imitate features of humans”.
“But I think the evolution is coming full circle in that we have preventative maintenance on machines, and we're now in the world where we have preventative maintenance on humans. And so I think the future of wearables is the sensors that can be integrated into uniforms, like PPE, personal protective equipment”.
“So I think we will see an evolution in PPE type equipment, but I think the future of wearables is going to be a combination of non-invasive, sensors that can be embedded and markerless motion capture”.
On what he would build if he had unlimited resources:
“I think I would continue what we're doing in creating technology that can collect clinical level data, but make it accessible for people who don't have huge budgets”.
“So what I mean by that is, here's a good example of something that currently exists, but I would want to build on it more. For example we work with the Southwest Research Institute and they have, in our opinion, the best marker less motion capture system we've ever seen in a setup that really gets us what we need from a biomechanical analysis perspective”.
“A setup for that, just based on the hardware is maybe a $10,000 purchase, maybe a $20,000 purchase to have a really robust system, versus the half million dollar system of the marker technologies that takes me 30 minutes to set up, and things that can go horribly wrong”.
“I like to think that human performance is too big to be selfish about it. There's still so much we can learn and everybody brings something new to the table. If I could have unlimited money and staff, I would probably invest all my time trying to build some type of integrated sensor uniforms, markerless combination that allows any practitioner to have a state-of-the-art clinical solution that is cost effective versus what we have today”.
“So I think I'd really focus on that because there's some really great people out there who aren't able to contribute as much as they could if they had the technology. So making it so that the technology allows us to collect trustworthy, clean, solid data sets that are then used to provide the neural network training for all these other wearables so we can get past this space for only 25% of the $130 billion market that are validated”.
“The Apple Watch is probably the single most validated wearable in the world, but you're not going to find it in certain parts of the world or certain parts of the country because of the cost barrier”.
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