Look under the vests of today’s top sportsmen and you’re likely to find a small red device. It’s called a Viper pod and everyone from Man U, Barcelona and Juventus to the England rugby team, Chicago Bulls and the Michael Johnson Performance Centre is using it to fine-tune the fitness of their athletes.
“The Viper pod is the most widely used wearable technology in elite sports now,” says Pearse O’Doherty, a sports scientist at Stat Sports, the company that makes the pods.
“A year to 18 months ago there were only a few teams using it, but now we have 140 clients across the world.
“The company is unrecognisable from when I started just a year ago. We’ve got offices in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, London and the US and soon hopefully we’ll have one in Asia and Australia, too.
“It’s growing exponentially and it will continue to grow. New clubs are phoning us up every day to find out about the Viper technology.”
How Viper works
Founded in 2008, Stat Sports has gradually developed its pod technology into its current successful format: four processors, a GPS module, long-range radio, a heart rate receiver and a 3D accelerometer, 3D gyroscope and 3D digital compass.
When used in tandem with the company’s Viper software, the pod allows coaches to monitor metrics such as heart rate, speed and metabolic stress load in real time as well as logging all data for post-session analysis.
“The players wear small vests that are a bit like a sports bra,” explains Pearse. “There’s a pocket in between the shoulder blades where the unit sits but the players can’t feel it. The Viper is fully heart rate compatible and is the only GPS system in the world capable of providing 10Hz GPS over live streaming.
“GPS was initially used more for endurance sports but as technology has advanced, we’ve been able to apply it to measure information more relevant to elite sports. The Viper pod has been developed in conjunction with sports scientists and continues to evolve based on the feedback of our users.”
Use in the field
Wearable technology has become intrinsic to the work of the modern football coach because it allows them to make decisions based on facts rather than guesswork.
As well as the Viper system, many of the world’s top teams are using Catapult’s Optimeye G5 to help improve the performance of their goalkeepers.
Meanwhile at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Dutch coach Louis van Gaal used Google Glass and Oculus Rift to show his players match situations from different players’ perspectives.
“All of our first team and elite development squad players train with the Viper pod on a daily basis,” says Nick Harvey, head of sports science at Reading Football Club.
“This obviously generates a huge amount of data which is used in a number of key areas for our match preparation.
All of our first team and elite development squad players train with the Viper pod on a daily basis
“The manager and coaching staff put a big emphasis on driving intensity in our training sessions. To that end, we use some key metrics to ensure our training week allows adequate recovery after games, sufficient stimulus of physical qualities and a suitable taper into the next fixture.
“The Viper system also plays an important role in our late stage rehab sessions. It is obviously crucial to ensure we achieve suitable progressions in intensity and volume to adequately prepare the players for a return to the team during training sessions.
“Position specific drills play a big part in this process and using Viper allows us to ensure these drills are preparing the players for the hardest parts of the game.
“We also make use of software features such as the step balance and fatigue index to ensure players’ movement efficiency is at normal levels post injury.”
Funny shaped balls
With its ability to measure the strength of collisions and the synchronicity of the scrum, it’s no surprise that the Viper system is becoming hugely popular with rugby clubs. The ink is barely dry on a contract between Stat Sports and the Super League whilst rugby union teams have been using the technology for a while.
“Working with Stat Sports has changed the way Ireland train,” says Brian O’Driscoll, the most capped player in rugby union history. “The information we receive back from each session allows us to understand workloads and potential for injury. The feedback we get is hugely important to our fitness staff in working out the time we spend on our feet on a weekly basis. In a nutshell it’s revolutionised professional rugby training.”
The information we receive back from each session allows us to understand workloads and potential for injury
In fact the influence of wearable tech goes beyond the training pitch. The England and Ireland rugby teams are now wearing Viper pods during games, giving their coaches the chance to assess how far their players are running, how intensive their sprints are and how much energy they have left during the heat of the battle. Could that be the future of football too?
“FIFA won’t allow players to wear technology during games yet but I expect that will change within the next twelve months,” says Pearse. “Then you’ll see clubs using it to manage player welfare during games. The data will also used by gambling companies to give people more things to bet on. And Sky Sports will use it to create more talking points.”
Power to the people
The next frontier of wearable tech could see the devices used to track the metrics get smaller whilst the number of people using them gets bigger. Cityzen Sciences is working on a product called the D-shirt that has GPS built into the fabric.
It is currently being trialled by St Etienne FC, Tolouse RFC and a couple of basketball teams in the US and is ultimately intended to pioneer a move from elite sports down to grass roots level.
“There is a gateway located at the back of the shirt or in the small of the back,” explains Tm Sagar, Head of UK at Cityzen.
“That communicates with the outside world, processes, stores and forwards the data and contains the battery to power the sensors as well as the GPS, gyroscope and accelerometer.
“The connectivity to the sensors is via conductive filaments woven into the fabric.
“The first stage of production for wearable technology is at a professional level in sport.
“However, with increased miniaturisation of the sensors and improvement of the production process marrying textiles with electronics, these products will be affordable for the general public. Our D-shirt is in the prototype stage but our objective is ultimately to manufacture them in their millions.”