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Hollywood magic helps sport scientists deliver the Digital Athlete

Kathy Kruger | July 22, 2022

The future of elite athlete training will be realised through a whole lot of smart science and more than a bit of movie magic.

Australia’s Olympians and Paralympians preparing for the Brisbane 2032 Olympic Games are set to experience a new immersive world in which they and their coaches can gain unique insights into what’s going on inside their bodies during training and performance – in real time.

In the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics, Griffith University researchers in the Gold Coast Health and Knowledge Precinct created their prototype version of The Digital Athlete, in partnership with the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), Queensland Academy of Sport (QAS) and local film production company Myriad Studios.

The project proved they could use high-fidelity body scan data to create a Hollywood-quality avatar of Australian basketballer Maddison Rocci and then combine it with a personalised musculoskeletal model demonstrating her internal biomechanics to create her exact digital twin –inside and out.

The film industry has been animating action with precise life-like quality over recent decades, building on motion capture technologies that were originally developed by biomechanical engineers, and for film industry veteran Duncan Jones, The Digital Athlete represents a fantastic cross-collaboration.

Duncan and his team at Myriad created Maddison’s model in their high-tech mobile studio, that they had ready for filming of the new Ron Howard biographical drama Thirteen Lives, using 90 cameras set up to capture different angles, in order to construct layers of detail in 3D.

Claudio Pizzolato

Duncan Jones (second left) and team with Maddison Rocci

Duncan Jones with Maddison Rocci

“The technology we use in bringing film characters to life, we use to bring virtual athletes to life,” explains Duncan.

“This new and innovative approach to virtual sports training and development means athletes no longer picture themselves as caricatures, but as photo-real, dimensionally correct models of themselves. Not only that, but coaches also have an accurate digital twin with which to simulate competitive environments.”

Biomechatronics Engineer and Senior Researcher Dr Claudio Pizzolato, who specialises in creating the internal functional models that both replicate and predict stresses and strains in body tissues such as bones and ligaments, agrees the project is ‘a natural merging of the different fields.’

While the proof-of-concept focused on generating data for both training and injury prevention, for example visualising loading on tissues during a side-step, a common movement in basketball and cause of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries in the knee, Version 2, being developed in partnership with Cycling Australia and the AIS, will aim to answer specific performance questions.

“For example, we’ll be looking to optimise how cyclists activate their individual muscles to produce explosive power,” Dr Pizzolato says.

“We want to be able to apply it to a variety of sports and our goal is to have the top 50 elite athletes/para-athletes with their own Digital Athlete to optimise their performance.”

Griffith researchers are also partnering internationally with Stanford University’s Wsu Tsai Human Performance Alliance via a US$200,000 funding grant as part of The Digital Athlete Moonshot program to discover the fundamental biology of human peak performance.

They aim to streamline and automate complex, time-consuming computational modelling through increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) and to capture enhanced field data using a new generation of smart garments embedded with wearable sensors, which Dr Pizzolato and his Griffith team are developing.

Regular cyclists and other everyday sportspeople will be studied to drive technology development, without interfering with the training schedules of busy elite athletes.

The final aspect is to create simulated training and performance environments, and again Myriad is delivering film-quality realism, and is already partnering on a related rehabilitation project.

the digital athlete virtual scan example
The Digital Athlete 3D avatar

“Through VR, athletes are transformed from a limited range of training environments and simulations, to being able to look down and see themselves in any scenario and event they choose,” Duncan says.

“To be able to look down at their own hands and feet and actually experience competing in their own event… well that’s got to be a game changer in consistently measuring and training for Olympic success.”

Dr Pizzolato says not only can simulated scenarios create immersive environments to supplement real training, in the future the technology could also be used to give spectators and viewers a unique live perspective on how an athlete’s body is performing during events.

Griffith Director of Sports Engagement and former Olympic rowing gold medallist Duncan Free is actively promoting the potential of the technology to sport officials, coaches and athletes.

“The Digital Athlete has the potential to be the ultimate coaching tool,” he says.

Griffith is Australia’s most successful university at the Olympics – student and alumni athletes medalled in 14 Olympic events in Tokyo, including key member of Michael Bohl’s Griffith High Performance Swim Squad on the Gold Coast, Emma McKeon, contributing to more than 30 per cent of all of Australia’s medalled events.

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