Your Body Is a Race Car. McLaren Wants to Optimize Its Performance

Sensors and analytics developed for cars find use in elite athletics and medicine

Photo: McLaren Applied Technologies
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It’s probably not good for the soul to think of life as a race to be won. But if you do accept that metaphor, you’d likely be happy to have McLaren managing your pit stops as you make your way along the course.

The engineering company is famous for building Formula One race cars featuring computerized engine control systems and dozens of sensors that transmit data to remote analytics teams. Over the last few years, McLaren first began applying lessons learned from managing race cars to managing elite athletes, and now it’s bringing its tools to health and medicine.

Today at SXSW Interactive, Geoff McGrath described the origin and evolution of McLaren Applied Technologies, the business unit he founded within the company. McGrath also articulated three conditions that must be met in order to turn our bodies into high performance machines, with instruments and analytics helping us operate at our peak capacity. 

McLaren got drawn into human performance by helping British teams prepare for the 2010 and 2012 Olympics. “We understand data, remote analytics, and monitoring,” McGrath said, “but the real value is in the actionable intelligence you extract from that data.” His engineers embedded sensors in racing gear like skeleton racing sleds and bicycles, then fed the data into sophisticated models that examined the interplay between equipment, environment, and human behavior and physiology. Such models produced “prescriptive intelligence,” McGrath says, and could determine which design changes to a sled or bike would produce the best outcomes. 

After gaining this experience with Olympic athletes and their gear, McLaren next struck up a relationship with the UK rugby team, which is preparing for the Rugby World Cup this September. The coaches wanted to know whether training sessions, which include regular tackles, increase the athletes’ risks of injury.

McGrath said his team originally pulled out all the technological stops: They outfitted the rugby players with accelerometers, vital sign sensors, and body area networks, and used satellite tracking to precisely map their movements on the field. “But we were gathering so much data, it took hours to process,” McGrath says. “By the time we’d processed it the training session was over, and maybe they’d over-trained, but it was too late to do anything about it.” 

That experience led McGrath to his first principle of wearables: Instead of what he calls the “ham-fisted approach” of measuring things just because they can, McLaren tries to measure as little as possible, and ignores the bulk of relatively unvarying data to focus on the meaningful anomalies. “Let’s transmit the insights, not the data,” McGrath said. Using simple accelerometer data from the rugby players, the McLaren team built models showing each individual player’s typical playing patterns, and could then watch for changes that might signal the precursor of a serious injury. 

McLaren’s experiments in sports involved highly motivated participants, since these elite athletes were eager to improve their performance. But getting the broader public to embrace wearables and the quantified-self movement is a much bigger challenge, McGrath said. That brought him to his second principle: Wearable biometric gadgets must offer meaningful insights that typical people are willing to pay for, he says, and they just don’t do that yet.

In cooperation with the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, the McLaren team is looking for those valuable insights in the medical sector. The companies are collaborating on clinical trials for drugs that treat disorders like stroke, lung disease, arthritis, and Lou Gehrig’s disease. They’re starting simple: Patients in these trials wear accelerometers and vital sign monitors to determine how their medications affect their mobility and general wellbeing.

GSK’s head of digital clinical trial research Julian Jenkins, who was also on the panel at SXSW, said such data not only provides a better understanding of how patients fare between clinic visits, it also reduces the burden on patients. “It seems incredible that we still ask people to come in to the clinic to measure something like blood pressure or pulse,” Jenkins said. It remains to be seen, however, if this data will give GSK new insights into its products and ultimately result in better treatments for patients. 

Even if such wearables do ultimately prove themselves in pharmaceutical trials, McGrath argues that biometric monitoring won’t go mass-market unless designers satisfy his third principle of wearables: “I think these will take off when they fit into things [like clothes and accessories] that we’re already used to wearing,” he says. He believes the technology in today’s sensors is more than adequate for our needs, but says their awkward forms prevent wide-scale adoption. Devices that require users to change their behaviors (even in small ways) typically get put aside after a couple of months, once the initial burst of motivation wears off.

McGrath said his company’s designers are experimenting with sensors that vanish into collars, earrings, earbuds, and other existing trappings of daily life. As those designers work for a company that makes some of the sexiest race cars in the world, it will be interesting to see what they come up with.

About the Human OS blog

IEEE Spectrum’s biomedical engineering blog, featuring the wearable sensors, big data analytics, and implanted devices that enable new ventures in personalized medicine.