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McLaren Applied Technologies on the future of wearables

McLaren Applied Technologies takes wearable technology to the next level

After decades as a favoured topic of futurologists, wearable technology is an idea whose time has come. Smart watches, eyeglass displays and electroluminescent clothing are among the many headline-grabbing devices under development or already in the marketplace. But the most promising applications are those that can offer individuals an insight into their own physiology and behaviour, and then help them use this information to reach their full potential.

McLaren Applied Technologies (MAT) is developing wearable technology that not only collects personal data in real time, but uses complex analytics to predict future outcomes and make suggestions for lifestyle improvement. All of MAT’s designs are driven by data. By identifying and measuring performance gains, the company is able to create intelligent products that break boundaries in design and deliver new levels of performance. 

A proactive approach

Wearables have already gained widespread acceptance in sport and fitness. Many devices on the market feature heart-rate monitors, GPS location finders and accelerometers, tracking personal data such as distance covered and energy expended. Smartphone apps connected to these devices allow users to record their performance, compare it with others and share it on social media.

However, Duncan Bradley, MAT’s Head of High-Performance Design, believes this is only a small subset of what the technology can accomplish. Many products currently on the market work on a generic rather than individual level, and lack accuracy, personalisation and the smart use of contextual data. The next generation of wearables – now being pioneered by MAT – are able to offer insights fully geared to each user, generating more useful insights that can inform long-term behavioural change.

Self-monitoring has as much potential in the home or the workplace as in the gym, says Bradley. “The applications we’re developing will be far more proactive than the ones available at the moment. When you’re doing a particular task, it might record vital signs, but it will also record what you were doing to make those vital signs behave as they did.

“So the next time the algorithms start to see a similar pattern, the app will recognise that the last time you did this, your body reacted in a certain way. It will then make a predictive leap to say that if you continue on that path, this is how you’ll feel. We’ll then tell you the interventions you can make and what the likely results would be of those changes, so you can be proactive and take control.”

One context in which this might be very useful is long-haul travel, and researchers at MAT are exploring ways that wearable technology could help to minimise the negative effects of travelling by air. Bradley says: “At the moment you’ll choose a flight and then manage the jet lag, change of environment, time difference and other disruptive factors. Everyone just accepts that when they travel by air, they’ll feel slightly peculiar when they arrive at their destination.

“But what we’re imagining developing is a scenario where you can turn that on its head – we’ll get people to think about the condition in which they’d like to arrive somewhere, and then make it possible for them to achieve this. What we’ll be able to do is take your body’s vital signs, look at your travel details and actually predict the best way for you to travel and get to a point in time where you’re feeling as good as you can be.

“So instead of looking backwards, we’re looking forwards, and we’re able to do that by collecting information about your body over a period of time, and knowing how your body reacts in context. You’ll be offered information about interventions, even if they’re counter-intuitive.”

Executive performance management is another promising application for the real-time analysis of biometric data. Workers in high-pressure or safety-critical roles could have their stress and fatigue levels constantly monitored – providing an accurate assessment of when rest periods are required.

Global leaders in predictive analytics

It’s not difficult to gauge why MAT’s approach to wearable technology should be unique. McLaren’s long and distinguished history at the cutting-edge of motorsport innovation has brought the company an unparalleled pool of expertise in high-performance design, data management and predictive analytics. This knowledge has already been applied to great effect in human performance contexts. MAT has deployed its technology in successful projects with high-profile partners including the British Olympic Team, the Rugby Football Union and Chelsea Football Club.

Caroline Hargrove, Technical Director at MAT, says: “My background, and that of many colleagues, is in Formula 1. And we thought that if we could put sensors in a car, we could put them on a person. Where we really have an edge is not just in the actual sensor technology itself, but in how we’re using it: how we develop algorithms and simulations using the information that is supplied. In Formula 1 we collect lots and lots of data from different places, as you never know what might happen or potentially go wrong.”

Over the course of a normal grand prix weekend, a race team will deal with more than a billion pieces of data from over 200 sensors on each car. This information has to be mined in real time, so that engineers and strategists can make mission-critical decisions. The same skills and techniques originated at the trackside now underpin every project undertaken by McLaren Applied Technologies.

Technology proven in healthcare

In all the consumer applications that are under development, MAT will be relying on technology that has proved itself in exacting circumstances. Much of the initial research has been in medical care – a field in which wearable technology has shown great potential.

For example, monitoring patients in their own homes can provide objective insights into what is happening to them between hospital or clinic visits. This can help clinicians to determine how they are responding to treatment or medication, how their recovery is progressing, or whether they are suitable for surgical intervention. It can also reduce the need for stressful and expensive hospital appointments.

LIFEINSIGHT™ is MAT’s flagship biotelemetry product. Wireless sensors worn by the patient capture medical-grade data, which is then delivered by Bluetooth to a small hub device. The data streams are then sent securely and dynamically over a mobile network to LIFEINSIGHT™ servers, which apply advanced algorithms to deliver clear and meaningful insights to clinicians and study teams.

In collaborations between McLaren and GSK, this technology has formed the basis of important clinical trials. Most notably, it has been used to monitor patients recovering from strokes or managing neurological disorders such as Motor Neurone Disease. By accurately charting an individual’s movements at home, doctors could come up with a personalised plan to make the right interventions and best improve medical outcomes.

One pioneering study with stroke patients involved processing a large amount of data, which was supplied by a device worn on the base of the neck – a discreet patch that could be worn under clothes and even left in place for showering. “It was all about activity levels and the detailed analysis of that activity to a level far beyond what is possible in the consumer world today,” says Hargrove. “We were finding out how much walking the patients were doing, how many times they sat, stood or lay down. We could look at their gait, their pace of walking and how much left-to-right asymmetry was present.”

The medical uses of wearable technology include developing the skills of physicians as well as improving patient outcomes. MAT is currently working with the University of Oxford to monitor surgical students as they learn. “We’re interested in using sensors and simulations to help surgeons do their job better,” says Hargrove. “We’ve got some projects under way that have just started, looking at how monitoring can help surgeons with their continuous training.”

Elite sport has proved to be another valuable test bed for research and development. MAT has worked extensively with UK Sport, the body charged with supporting and developing top-level competition in Britain. It has also helped rugby teams draw ever-more valuable inferences from players’ wearable devices – not only helping with tactical decisions but potentially improving safety standards in a gruelling contact sport.

Hargrove says: “Teams had been making use of GPS data, but we realised that they weren’t using the accelerometers worn by players to their greatest potential. We started doing some studies with them and realised we could offer a lot more information about the intensity of physical impact faced by players during a game. We could tell them how this changed their behaviour – such as whether they were taking longer to get up after an impact in the later stages of the game.”

Making it personal

The challenge for MAT is to engage a wider audience with wearable technology. Caroline Hargrove believes that for this to be achieved, it must be able to offer real, tangible and ongoing benefits. She says: “If you’re suffering from an illness or you’re an elite sportsperson, you don’t need any further incentive. You’ll want to get better or to improve your performance. But when we talk about mass-market applications, if it doesn’t bring you something useful, why would you wear it?

“We feel that these benefits shouldn’t be vague and nebulous. Wearable technology has to be about something that you specifically want to monitor, change and improve for a reason.”

Duncan Bradley says: “The holy grail is to create a personal map of you that you can then use to lead a better life, because you can react more positively to your body’s responses. That’s ultimately where we see these apps going, from holistic measuring through to technology that can recognise you as an individual. Everyone does similar things but we all react differently; and the richer the data, the more it’s about you.”

It is an exciting prospect – and through world-class research and development, McLaren Applied Technologies is starting to fulfil the full promise of wearable technology.