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Human spirit tops technology at Rio 2016

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After two weeks of Olympic madness, the games are over and South Africa has done very well. Wayde Van Niekerk broke the 400m world record, but how much technology was involved and how much was human spirit, asks LEE NAIK, MD of Accenture Digital in South Africa.

It’s over. After two weeks of intense Olympic madness, the Rio games are over and I’m left catching my breath and dissecting what happened. One of my (and most other South Africans’) favourite moments was watching local boy Wayde Van Niekerk break the 400m world record.

Provided you haven’t been living in solitary confinement, you already know the story. After a mediocre qualification, Wayde was banished to the far outside lane. Everyone agreed that he had no shot.

Except it didn’t quite work out that way. Despite “running blind”, Wayde managed to do the unprecedented and win a gold medal – something no Olympian has ever done from the outside lane – breaking a world record that previously stood for over 17 years.

What strikes me most about this story is that Wayde was effectively running against himself. With no line of sight to the other lanes, he had no competitors against which to pace himself. It’s a dilemma that should resonate for any high performer in business: How do I consistently beat my best?

And with researchers speculating we may be pushing the boundaries of what is humanly possible in sports, is there anywhere else to go from here?

Building the superhuman

In many ways, professional athletes are the perfect example of lean principles at work. With the difference between winners and losers often coming down to the tiniest of margins, their entire career is dependent on shaving off literal fractions of seconds. Teams of scientists, nutritionists, doctors and physiotherapists all collaborate on training regimes, designed to hone athletes into machines of superhuman efficiency.

Naturally, technologies that can enhance these performances play a big role in this hypercompetitive world. Innovations in everything from clothing to training techniques have always generated plenty of discussion – not all of it positive, as the controversy over the swimming bodysuits four years ago shows.

If you’ve been following the technological side of this year’s games, you’ll have heard all about the latest digital tools Olympians are using to help them get the edge. There are the omnipresent wearables that track everything from heart rate variability and skin conductivity to sleep patterns. By tracking every nuance of an athlete’s body activities, trainers can fine-tune their training regimes to account for strain, injury and overstress.

And that’s just a small taste. Look at almost any sport and you can see an example of a fascinating new technology being deployed. Gymnasts like Simone Biles use LumiWave technology in their uniforms to alleviate aches and strains, allowing them to recover faster from training. Cyclists are taking to the track wearing smart glasses that display key metrics like speed, power and distance as they ride. The Australian Sevens Rugby team instantly know when it’s time to substitute a flagging player, thanks to data-capturing GPS units sewed into their shirts.

Beyond the wearables, you have the more surprising examples. The US swim team uses BMW taillight technology to monitor swimmers’ paths underwater and measure their movements more efficiently. And with the Americans having dominated the swimming competition, it’s clearly having an impact.

So perhaps the answer to recreating Wayde’s performance in the business world lies with investing in this advanced technology? Making yourself or your business into an unbeatable digital superma

Almost… but not quite.

Tech is just the starting block

Other Sevens teams may have had more advanced technology on the pitch, but it was Fiji – a nation where plastic bottles are frequently used in the place of balls – that took home the gold. Imagination and discipline is what carried them to the podium, not high tech.

BMW’s motion tracking technology might help Michael Phelps refine his technique, but it’s the swimmer himself breaking records and winning medal after medal. And Simone Biles certainly isn’t making those incredible leaps because of what she’s wearing.

As for Wayde Van Niekerk, when asked how he made that blistering 400m run, he says he doesn’t remember a second of it. You’re more likely to read about his 71-year-old trainer than you are about his advanced training technology

Because while the tech does undeniably have an impact on how you prepare, how you build up your skills and capabilities, it comes down to the performance on the day itself to bring home the gold. Wayde did the business when it counted, and that’s ultimately what sets apart the medallists from the rest.

So for me, the biggest lesson from the Olympics is not to get so fixated on the technological side that you forget the human element. Because when the gun goes off, it is creativity, drive and the desire to excel that will win the day.

What do you think? How do you believe businesses can emulate the performance of Phelps, Van Niekerk and Biles?

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Data gives coaches new eyes in sports

Collecting and analysing data is entering a new era as it transforms both coaching and strategy across sports ranging from rugby to Formula 1, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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Coaches and managers have always been among the stars of any sports. They become household names as much as the sports heroes that populate their teams. Now, thanks to the power of data collection and analysis, they are about to raise their game to unprecedented levels.

The evolution of data for fine-tuning sports performance has already been experienced in Formula 1 racing, baseball and American football. All are known for the massive amount of statistic they produce. Typically, however, these were jealously guarded by coaches trying to get an edge over their rivals. Thanks to the science of “big data”, that has changed dramatically.

“American baseball has the most sophisticated data science analytics of any sports in the world because baseball has this long history of stats,” said Ariel Kelman, vice president of worldwide marketing at Amazon Web Services (AWS), the cloud computing giant that is working closely with sports teams and leagues around the world. “It’s an incredibly opaque world. I’ve tried for many years to try and get the teams to talk about it, but it’s their secret sauce and some of these teams have eight, nine or ten data scientist.”

In an interview during the AWS Re:Invent conference in Las Vegas last week, Kelman said that this statistical advantage was not lost on other sports, where forward-thinking coaches fully understood the benefits. In particular, American football, through the National Football League there, was coming on board in a big way.

“The reason they were behind is they didn’t have the player tracking data until recently in in the NFL. They only had the player tracking data three years ago. Now the teams are really investing in it. We did an announcement with the Seattle Seahawks earlier this week; they chose us as their machine learning, data science and cloud provider to do this kind of analysis to help figure out their game strategy. 

“They are building models predicting the other teams and looking at players and also evaluating all their practices. They are setting up computer vision systems so that they can track the performance of the players during their practices and have that inform some of the game strategies. The teams then even talk about using it for player evaluation, for example trying to figure out how much should we pay this player.”

Illustrating the trend, during Re:Invent, Kelman hosted a panel discussion featuring Rob Smedley, a technicalconsultant to Formula 1, Cris Collinsworth, a former professional footballer in the NFL and now a renowned broadcaster, and Jason Healy, performance analytics managerat New Zealand Rugby.

Healey in particular represents the extent to which data analysis has crosses sporting codes. He has spent four yearswith All Blacks, after 10 years with the New Zealand Olympic Committee, helping athletes prepare for the OlympicGames. 

“The game of rugby is chaos,” he told the audience. “There’s a lot of a lot of things going on. There’s a lot of trauma and violence and it can be difficult to work out the load management of each player. So data collection is a big piece of the technical understanding of the game.

“A problem for us in rugby is the ability to recall what happened. We have to identify what’s situational and what’s systemic. The situational thing that happens, which is very unlikely to be replicated, gets a lot of attention in rugby. That’s the sensational big moment in the game that gets talked about. But it’s the systemic plays and the systemic actions of players that lies underneath the performance. That’s where the big data starts to really provide some powerful answers. 

“Coaches have to move away from those sensational andsituational moments. We’re trying to get them to learn what is happening at that systemic level, what is actually happening in the game. How do we adjust? How do we make our decisions? What technical and defensive strategies need to change according to the data?”

Healey said AWS was providing platforms for tracking players and analysing patterns, but the challenge was to bring people on this technology journey.

“We’re asking our coaching staff to change the way they have traditionally worked, by realising that this data does give insights into how they make their decisions.”

Kelman agreed this was an obstacle, not just in sport, but in all sectors.

“Across all of our customers, in all industries, one of the things that’s often underestimated the most is that getting the technology working is only the first step. You have to figure out how to integrate it with the processes that us humans, who dislike change, work with. The vast majority of it is about building knowledge. There’s ways to transfer that learning to performance.”

Of course, data analytics does not assure any side of victory, as the All Blacks discovered during the recent Rugby World Cup, when they were knocked out in the semi-finals, and South Africa went on to win. We asked Healey how the data-poor South Africans succeeded where the data-rich All Blacks couldn’t.

“You have to look at how analytics and insights and all thesetechnologies are available to all the coaches these days,” he said. The piece that often gets missed is the people piece. It’s the transformation of learning that goes into the player’sactual performance on the field. We’re providing them with a platform and the information, but the players have to make the decisions.. We can’t say that this particular piece of technology played a role in winning or losing. It’s simply just a tool.”

The same challenge faces motor racing, which generates massive amounts of data through numerous sensors and cameras mounted in vehicles. Rob Smedley, who spent 25 years working in engineering roles for Formula 1 teams, quipped that his sport had a  “big data” problem before the phrase was invented. 

“We’ve always been very obsessive about data. Take car telemetry, where we’ve got something like 200 to 300 sensors on the car itself. And that goes into something like two to three thousand data channels. So we’re taking about around 600 Gigabytes of data generated every single lap, per car. 

“On top of that, where we’ve also got all the time data and GPS data. The teams are using it for performance advantage. We’re into such marginal gains now because there are no bad teams in Formula 1 anymore. Data analytics provide those marginal gains.”

• Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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IoT faces 5-year gap

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In five years, the world will have more than 40 billion devices. Locally, IoT specialist,Eseye, says that South African CIOs are recognising IoT (Internet of Things) and M2M (Machine to Machine) technologies as strategic imperatives, but the journey is still in its infancy.

“As legacy systems start to reach end of life, digital shifts will become inevitable. This, coupled with an increasing demand for improved bottom line results from existing and new markets, makes IoT a more viable option over the next five years. This is particularly prevalent in manufacturing, especially where time to market and product diversification has become necessary for business survival,” says Jeremy Potgieter, Regional Director – Africa, Eseye.

He says that within this sector one thing matters – output: “Fulfilling the product to market lifecycle is what makes a manufacturer successful. Addressing this functionality and production optimisation through technology is becoming more critical as they focus on increasing output and reducing downtime. By monitoring machinery and components in the production line, any concerns that arise, which impacts both the manufacturer and consumers alike, will be more efficiently dealt with by using an IoT approach.”

Potgieter says that there is also the growing strategic approach to increase the bottom line through new markets. As manufacturers seek new revenue streams, Eseye is encouraging the use of rapid IoT enabled device product development : “By addressing the connectivity aspects required at deployment, manufacturers are immediately diversifying their portfolios. Eseye, as an enabler, assists by providing market ready SIMs, which can be embedded into IoT connected devices at OEM level, connecting them to a plethora of services (as designed for) upon entry to market, anywhere in the world.”

In addition, Potgieter says that organisations are increasingly looking towards IoT connectivity managed services to capitalise on specialist expertise and ensure the devices are proactively monitored and managed to ensure maximum uptime, while reducing data costs.

Impacting IoT adoption though, is undoubtedly the network infrastructure required. Potgieter says that this varies significantly and will depend on criteria such as sensor types and corresponding measurements, the overall communication protocols, data volume, response time, and analytics required: “While the majority of IoT implementations can be enabled using cloud-based IoT platform solutions, the infrastructure required still remains important. A cloud platform will simplify infrastructure design and enable easy scaling capability, while also reducing security and data analytics implementation issues.”

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