Athlete/engineer Antoine Ravisé finds his calling developing next-generation sports gear
WHAT HE DOES
Designs and tests sports electronics devices.
where he does It
Rides bikes, swims laps, and runs through the hills in pursuit of better sports equipment.
Antoine Ravisé opens a secret door wedged between fire gear and bike tires at the back of a sports store in Villeneuve d'Ascq, a university town in the northern corner of France. A white industrial door shuts behind him as he waves an entry card to unlock the revolving glass door that separates him from a busy laboratory. Ravisé speed walks through the high-ceilinged workspace, hailing colleagues along the way. He arrives at a walled-off room, laces up a pair of running shoes, steps onto a stack of wood, and puts on a blindfold. "It's a surprise for my body," he calls out, just before stepping off the stack and landing on a pressure sensor embedded in the floor. He clearly delights in the work, running over to a computer after each step to save the data.
Ravisé is an R&D engineer for Oxylane, the product-development branch of the international sports chain Decathlon. Over the past four years, he has spent long hours performing tests—often on himself—in the name of better sports gear. This latest experiment is devised to show how he might determine whether shoes cushion a runner's footfalls better than bare feet. He's also shivered for 5 straight hours in a climate chamber to evaluate thermal apparel. He's taken to the Alps and the Pyrenees to check out GPS devices and tent lights. Closer to home, a 600-meter-long stretch of cement outside his office is a favorite place to assess running and cycling gear.
Bright-eyed and spiky-haired, Ravisé has come to Villeneuve d'Ascq to take advantage of the lab's pressure sensor. But he spends most of his time in an office in nearby Lille, where he develops and tests sports electronics for Oxylane's newest brand, Geonaute.
Ravisé's first love was sports. When he was 6 years old, he decided he wanted to be a professional athlete and spent the next six years training in gymnastics before discovering fencing in high school. But he also liked to tinker. When his grandfather gave him a small gasoline-powered Solex motor at age 14, Ravisé looked up directions on the Internet, disassembled the motor, reassembled it, and then attached it to his bicycle. Some modifications later, he had a moped that ran at up to 60 kilometers per hour.
For a long time, though, Ravisé's technical interests took a backseat to sports. After high school, he enrolled in an engineering school near Nice. But he found that he couldn't carve out enough time for fencing in the demanding academic schedule, so after a year he switched to physics at the University of Bordeaux. By a special arrangement with the university, he was allowed to reduce his class hours to keep up with his fencing. He trained hard: He swam laps in the morning, spent his lunch hours lifting weights or doing yoga, and squeezed in hours of fencing at the end of the day. He even found unpaid work as a sparring partner for the French women's Olympic team. But in 2007, just before his last year at university, he tore a ligament in his knee during a competition. The setback, combined with the growing realization that professional fencing offered limited career prospects, led Ravisé to rethink his aspirations.
There was no way he would give up athletics altogether, so instead he looked for a way to combine sports and research. He contacted surfing companies in southwest France, met people from Nike, and introduced himself by e-mail to about 20 people from Decathlon, a company that's best known for its sports stores but also develops a range of products in-house. He was looking in part for a good project in order to complete a second degree in management. He ended up joining Decathlon's research training program, which assigned him to a project evaluating the comfort of sports clothes. He tested fabrics for permeability and used temperature and heart rate sensors to assess how well they worked when worn.
Just a month after graduation in 2008, Ravisé was hired full–time as the company's first test engineer specializing in electronics. One of his first tasks was to set up two device testing labs, one in Lille and the other in Shenzhen, in southeast China. His visits to China offered the opportunity for a personal research project: new food. Ravisé says he can't resist sampling snake, fish heads, and other dishes that are hard to come by in northern France. He has a container of chicken feet at home, which to his disappointment has largely been avoided by his friends.
Once he had the labs in operation, Ravisé dove into a project: a waterproof MP3 player for swimmers that also functions as a distance meter. The design specifications called for a device that could detect each time a swimmer turns around to start a new lap. So Ravisé and colleagues rigged up a few prototypes and tested them on a range of swimmers. He also hopped into the pool himself to test the gear. "Afterward we had a lot of data, and we had to find an equation [to fit it]," Ravisé says. One equation would have to work well for almost every swimmer. With some number crunching, the team eventually found a way to count laps using just one gyroscope, which helped keep costs down. The device hit the market at the end of 2010 and costs about €75, or around US $100.
These days, Ravisé is investigating ways to build devices that don't need battery power and instead harvest energy from the environment. He is also exploring flexible printed circuit technology that could allow electronic devices such as heart monitors to be embedded directly into clothing. A native of sunny southern France, he says he had to make some sacrifices for the job. "For example, I spend most of my time in the north of France," he quips, gesturing at a typically overcast sky. But he says he couldn't be happier he made the move. The weather certainly doesn't slow him down. After putting in a full day at the office, he hops into his Volkswagen with a trunk full of gear and speeds off to the gym.