Local Engineers Developing The 'Holy Grail' of Human Performance Labs

Mar 9, 2017

Wearable technology like FitBit, AppleWatch and Garmin are predicted to be a $25 billion industry by 2019. The feedback you get from those devices can help you stay fit or lose weight.

Now, San Antonio's Southwest Research Institute is working on new technology that will help athletes, soldiers, even patients perform at their peak.



Whether it’s on the sports field or the battlefield, human performance is key to success. But even for non-soldiers, non-athletes, our daily tasks depend upon our bodies working at optimal levels.

David Chambers of Southwest Research Institute looks at some of the imaging of subjects being captured for the Human Performance Initiative.
Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio


"You move. You walk. You run. You climb stairs. Lifting boxes and putting them on a shelf," all of those fall under the area of human performance, said Dan Nicolella, a mechanical engineer who is part of the 14-month- old Human Performance initiative at Southwest Research Institute.

Performance Labs measure functions like reaction time, accuracy, flexibility, speed and agility. Most of these scientific measurements require reflective dots placed on a person whose movements are then picked up by motion sensitive cameras. Some of the systems require the person to be fitted with wires to connect to monitors.

The Southwest Research team is trying to create a more user friendly approach that doesn’t take as much time to set up and operate. Manager of research and development Kase Saylor says the fitness monitoring would be more portable, making it available outside of settings like universities.

By triangulating movements, researchers can get a three-dimensional translation of physical motion.
Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio


"It’s very labor intensive to put the markers on and to instrument the subject," Saylor emphasized. "And that’s great for research but not really good for an actual operational environment."

The Institute’s clients are the military who call their subjects tactical athletes and more traditional athletes who want this new technology: amateur, college and professional sports competitors.

Down the line, less cumbersome human performance feedback could be used for physical therapy or rehabilitation when someone needs to learn to move again after an accident or illness.

Nicolella says the market is hungry for streamlined technology to measure movement, strength and motor skills.

"This is considered the Holy Grail," he stated. "If you can do this without markers in an efficient manner, there are a wide range of applications that we can use. And so we’re looking at a lot of different market areas."

Motion sensor cameras are an important component of Human Performance Laboratories.
Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio


Engineers and scientists are drawing on the vast technical depth and experience the Institute has in developing new technologies. Saylor called human performance “a great fit" for their researchers. "We’ve developed a lot of different techniques and technologies," Saylor said. "We look at the Institute and we can take those technologies and apply that to a new domain. This is our challenge. And it’s an exciting challenge because we believe we can actually meet this challenge."

In fact, members of the Human Performance Initiative team say they may have something more consumer-friendly and ready to use in the next year or so.