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Motion Capture Trends in Biomechanical Science

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My journey with motion capture technology is a personal one. A nasty anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) snap as a teenager, and the subsequent knee surgery and rehabilitation programme, introduced me to motion capture at a young age, and ignited an interest in sports biomechanics and gait analysis that became my career.

My more recent PhD used a motion capture system to explore the effects of age on gait and functional movement characteristics in older adult populations. Through my work at Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Essex, I examined how technology and research can come together to open new possibilities and illustrated the impact motion capture can have on a patient’s rehabilitation.

This background has provided me with a unique perspective on motion capture – as an academic, a technologist and as a patient. In this article, I’ll draw on this experience to discuss current examples of how motion capture technology can be applied across the life sciences industry.

Motion capture’s journey to today

Motion capture was first used in the life science market for gait analysis in the late
1970s. Forty-or-so years later, and biomechanics research remains the technology’s most common application.

Today, motion capture technology is at the frontline of cutting-edge clinical movement research. From helping the rehabilitation of wounded soldiers to improving the form of world-class athletes
it is critical to the work of leading research centers, universities, hospitals and private medical practices around the world.

Optical motion capture systems are used in a variety of applications. For example, gait analysis is helping medical practitioners to gain a deeper understanding into the movement of the lower limbs. In motor control and neuroscience motion capture technology is enabling big advances in the treatment of patients with a range of complex neuro-musculoskeletal injuries, like cerebral palsy and myelomeningocele.

In sports performance, motion tracking technology is actively used by coaches and athletes across a huge range of sports
from football to swimming, tennis to golf, from athletics to basketball, and pretty much everything in between. The measurement and assessment of players and athletes supports coaches in improving technique, correcting actions to prevent injury and enhancing performance. The technology also plays a big role today in accelerating the return to play of athletes after injuries, ensuring recovery is done safely and minimizing the chance of re-injury.
As motion capture systems have adapted and evolved, they have become ever more accessible. For those working in the broad biomechanics field, motion capture is a true facilitator a tool that empowers users with more data-driven methods to interpret how their subjects move. The increasing proliferation of the technology is giving medical decision-makers access to far more data than previously possible and as a consequence, it’s helping to improve the quality of not just patient care, but also quality of life for hundreds of thousands of patients and athletes around the world.

Making an impact on subjects’ lives

The Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre Stanford Hall

Stanford Hall in the UK is arguably one of the world’s most advanced rehabilitation facilities. Utilizing motion capture technology, near virtual reality, cutting-edge software and more, the laboratories offer Military of Defence (MOD) researchers some of the most sophisticated and precise tools available to assess, treat and research key conditions and injuries affecting serving military personnel.

The core of the facility is the Biomechanics Performance Lab (BPL), used to study human locomotion and capable of recording the movement of markers down to the millimeter. However, Stanford Hall is also the first facility in Western Europe to feature the high-end, immersive multi-sensory system for clinical and research applications. CAREN (Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment) is a system that uses a combination of virtual reality, interactive inputs (including an instrumented dual-belt treadmill, a 6 degrees-of-freedom moveable motion base, 360-degree projection, surround sound and 18 motion capture cameras), to allow patients to go a step beyond traditional rehabilitation and experiment with novel techniques and scenarios.

The facility allows the researchers to study important areas in military rehabilitation whilst offering clinical support to the patient’s multi-disciplinary team. The goal isn’t just to help the patient during their stay, but train them to understand how their injury is manifesting in their movement in order to recognize it and continue the rehabilitation on their own.

Along with the goal of individual patient rehabilitation, the laboratories act as key facilities for movement analysis and military rehabilitation research. With the support of the MOD, staff have the perfect facility to research both current and new approaches to treatment, the findings of which will help to inform future strategies to rehabilitation.

The National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine (NCSEM) at Loughborough University

Motion capture is a very repeatable process and, with some small adjustments, can be applied to many different activities – this is particularly true for sport.

Loughborough University, one of the world’s best places to study sport, has a long-standing partnership with the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), and the two organizations are currently working together to make ground-breaking changes within the sport.

The School uses its motion capture system to deliver education, research and clinical services in sports, using the knowledge gained to understand, predict and push the boundaries of athletic performance. This allows the ECB to blend science and sports performance to inform its coaching methods.

The ECB employs unique, personalized training regimes that push each individual’s performance envelope. The motion capture system is part of its pathway for bowlers, helping to identify and grow talent. The system helps to distinguish the how and why of bowlers’ technique by providing the highest quality of data and analysis, to help them become faster, more skillful and less susceptible to injury.

In tandem with this, the School is conducting a number of PhD research programs. Because the motion capture system’s modelling can help predict factors that drive pace or injury, these can then be validated by the extensive research. This, in turn, is feeding into an important piece of work that is under way to improve the future of cricket as a whole: an update of the ECB’s bowlers’ guidelines to help minimize injury risk.

This work also feeds into other sports. A huge amount of research has been conducted at the School around golf, tennis and badminton techniques –  and that’s not an exhaustive list of sports – demonstrating huge potential to further understand and improve performance, and mitigate injury risk for the benefit of a wider audience.

A better understanding of human motion

The examples given are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how motion capture technology is used by the life sciences industry in delivering life-changing research, which is fundamentally improving patients’ lives both physically, mentally and emotionally.

Technology is always developing, and the supporting academic research is constantly enhancing our knowledge of human movement. For example, Vicon is currently funding research in the development of the CGM 2 project. The Conventional Gait Model (CGM), first developed in the 1980s, has been a widely used biomechanical model for clinical gait analysis. Although it has many strengths; it also has several well-known weaknesses. This project will develop and validate an updated version of the CGM which maintains those strengths and corrects the weaknesses. The project remains in the early stages of development, but represents a promising new chapter in motion capture’s evolving role in the biomechanics and life sciences industry.

In other areas, highly advanced inertial capture sensors are making it possible to integrate the most accurate, real-life data from “the wild” into the lab for further study, bringing a new depth to biomechanics research.

Advances in motion capture systems have also led to increasing automation of the data processing pipeline: from labelling, to event detection, biomechanical modelling, data export, and post-capture analysis. These advances are helping more research to be conducted more efficiently – benefiting researchers and patients alike.

Motion capture is already deeply embedded in the life sciences sector. With the continuing development of the technology and closer collaboration with researchers and coaches, we will continue to extend our understanding of human movement.