Avatars Helping Athletes

Avatars Helping Athletes

CREATED Oct 28, 2013

BOSTON, Mass. (Ivanhoe Newswire) - When you think of an avatar you think of the movies or video games, but now avatars are helping athletes play better than ever before.

Nineteen year old Jake Murray has always dreamed of playing in the big leagues, but elbow pain threw him a curveball.

However, 3D biomechanical imaging is helping Jake develop a specialized training program that will help him pitch without pain.

"It gives us an ability to look at forces and torques, and position of the body," Donna Moxley Scarborough, MS, PT, Clinical and Research Director, Mass General Orthopaedics Sports Performance Center, told Ivanhoe.

 Each set of reflective markers are placed on Jake and it creates accurate measures of speed and force across the joints of the body.

Twenty motion capture cameras track the position of each marker—creating a 3D avatar. The 3D avatar is synchronized with two high-speed video cameras to provide an ultimate view of the athlete.

The 3D imaging lines up the real time action from all angles at the same time.

"We noticed that he had some limitations in muscle length and some strength issues," Scarborough said.

Jake has changed some of his pitching mechanics, as well as his workout program. Now, he's back in the game and ready to compete at the next level.

Researchers are also using this technology to help golfers get a stroke up. 


BACKGROUND: To a baseball player, their elbow is an essential part of their performance in a game. If a pitcher is struggling with elbow pain, it can be detrimental to their baseball career. Pain in the elbow is primarily caused by constant overhand throwing, which overuses the muscles and tendons in the elbow. Repeated movements in the elbow can increase an athlete's chance of injury. In the case of an elbow injury, the athlete will notice a pain on the inside of the elbow due to the perpetual force being implemented on the tendons. (Source:http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00644)

CAUSES AND SYMPTOMS: Elbow pain is typically found in athletes, more specifically baseball players. Pitchers are usually the first to notice symptoms, but other players may notice early signs as well. High stress on the elbow is the cause, but the pain and uncomfortable feeling will subside once the pitcher has stopped throwing. If a baseball pitcher has thrown pitches for an entire inning, game, day, week, month, etc. the player will notice a consistent pain once he/she throws a ball. Once alerted, the player should take note of the pain and resist throwing overhand until rest has occurred. It has also been noted that pitchers who are taller and weigh more throw a greater velocity and run a better risk of injury. (Source: http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00644)

TREATMENT: Depending on the severity of the injury, the patient can opt to undergo surgical or non-surgical treatment. Rest, anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy and change of position are all options that may help the elbow recover. However, if the solutions above do not aid in recovery, a patient may have to seek surgical treatment. If a patient is choosing to continue to throw overhand, then surgery may be their best decision. The type of injury in the elbow will determine the best fit surgery for the patient by the doctor. (Source:http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00644)

NEW TECHNOLOGY: Massachusetts General Sports Performance Center has introduced avatar technology to mimic the movement of a person. The new facility showcases technology that takes a 3-D image of a baseball pitcher and presents the image in a full-size motion that can be seen from any angle. This is beneficial to baseball pitchers due to the clear demonstration of what can be done to fix pitching issues. This new development can potentially fix a pitcher's elbow pain by slightly altering the way the athlete throws a ball and can prevent future injuries from happening. (Source:https://www.massgeneralsportsperformance.org/news/136/Mass-General-Orthopaedics-Sports-Performance-Center-Opens-to-Public)


Donna Moxley Scarborough, MS, PT, Clinical and Research Director at Mass General Orthopaedics Sports Performance Center, talks about how avatars are helping athletes.

How does all of this work?

Donna Scarborough: We use 3D technology to provide a view of the stresses placed on the body which we cannot see with our eyes. It gives us an ability to look at forces, torques, and positions of the body during an athletic activity, such as pitching. This information complements information from the physical exam which we perform on all our athletes. The first step is to put reflective markers on the athlete and create a 3-D model based on body segments that those markers are representing.

How do the markers work?

Donna Scarborough:  The markers are actually small spheres covered with reflective tape. The twenty cameras in this room have LED's  encircling the camera lenses which project light towards the athlete. This directional light enhances the reflection of the markers.

How do the markers work in conjunction with the twenty cameras that are here?

Donna Scarborough:  The cameras are tracking the position of each marker in 3D space. They're passive meaning, the markers do not self generate a signal, they use the   reflection from the lights emitted in the room to be seen, tracked and individually identified.

So, it captures the light and then what happens?

Donna Scarborough:  The cameras know where each marker is in space and how it should be placed on the body, with that information the athlete's individualized animated model is created in real time. This 'avatar', so to speak, is generated from a pre established model template. So, the computer knows that each marker has its own purpose on the body and can create the model.

Do you strategically place the markers on the athlete's body?

Donna Scarborough:  Correct, a group of markers are placed on specific boney landmarks to define the body part and others are used only to track movement of the body segment.

So, it is through the capturing of the light that the camera is actually creates the model for the 3-D imaging?

Donna Scarborough: Correct. They track each one of the 62 markers in 3-Dimensional space at 360Hz and create that model for us in real time, which is quite impressive.

What's the model do that's different from traditional?

Donna Scarborough:  The 3-D model is different than a 2-Dimensional video because it allows us to spin the person in space, 360°, and look at each body part in 3-Dimensions as opposed to traditional 2D video where you can only see the athlete's motion in the set view collected at the time of video capture. In 3D, we can view the same pitch delivery from all possible angles, including looking down at the athlete as if an aerial view. If there is a pitching fault identified from one view, the 3D analysis allows us to also see the repercussions of that fault in all other areas of the body. While the 360° view in itself is valuable, the real value is obtaining things that the eye cannot see, including velocity, torque and forces of not just the throwing arm but of the whole body. This technology is helping researchers, clinicians and coaches get closer to understanding biomechanics of pitching, such as the role that the lower body and trunk has in providing the power for the arm. 

How does that help?

Donna Scarborough:  So, that helps us understand what's going on in all planes of movement during each of the key events in the pitch delivery. It is much more valuable to understand the full mechanics of a person's body as opposed to just visualize motion in one or two planes. In particular, if an athlete is recovering from an injury. We want to determine how to improve efficient use of an athlete's whole body to help protect vulnerable areas, in particular for the pitcher his shoulder and elbow.

From the clinical aspect with Jake what were you able to do?

Donna Scarborough:  Clinically we noticed that he had some limitations in muscle length and strength imbalances, which is not that uncommon in pitchers. We were able to correlate these findings to certain faults in the pitch using the 3-Dimensional analysis. Getting the initial baseline 3D evaluation and performing the repeat evaluation today, allowed Jake and our team to see the effect of the training and instruction program and how the changes are reflected in his pitch delivery.


Donna Moxley Scarborough, MS, PT
Clinical & Research Director
Mass General Orthopaedics Sports Performance Center
Brigham and Women's/Mass General Health Care Center 
(508) 718-4800