Matthew Nurse, director of Nike Sport Research Lab, takes Dezeen behind the scenes at the laboratory where Nike tests new technologies and introduces us to Hal, a sportswear-testing robot that perspires as he runs.
Nike Sport Research Lab is part of a sprawling campus just outside of Portland, Oregon, where the American sports brand is based.
Nike has developed and invested in a range of different technologies to monitor how athletes move, the pressures exerted on their bodies when they do, and what effects different products have on them.
"We can objectively quantify athletes in motion, the environments they play in and the demands of the sport," Nurse explains.
"We can quantify and understand Nike's different product innovations, how they affect athletes in the way they perform, the way they're protected and the perception they have of those different products."
Nurse demonstrates how, using a combination of motion-capture cameras and a pressure-sensitive plate in the ground, researchers at the laboratory can analyse a sprinter's motion and the forces they exert as they come out of the blocks at the start of a race.
"We are able to collect the three-dimensional motion of an athlete and from there calculate the power that they produce and the energy that's produced or lost in the different joints," he explains.
"[This provides] an understanding of how an intervention [such as a new pair of running shoes] contributes to their overall performance as they do the different movements."
Nike uses similar technology to monitor the movement of athletes in other sports, such as how a basketball player jumps, twists and lands when scoring a slam dunk.
Nike Sport Research Lab also features a number of sealed environmental chambers, where athletes' performances and the performance of the clothes they wear can be tested in different atmospheric conditions.
"Our physiology team looks at understanding the body's regulatory systems, so what happens inside," Nurse says. "We use that information to quantify things like thermal temperature, to understand thermal regulation and skin wetness as athletes run and move and perspire."
One of these environmental chambers is home to Hal, a marching humanoid that Nurse describes as "a copper sweaty mannequin," which allows Nike to test the permeability and breathability of new sportswear.
"Hal is very sophisticated," says Nurse. "We can set the environmental chamber to different conditions, whether it's temperature or humidity, and as he moves he actually perspires. It allows us to understand how different constructions or different methods of making affect the permeability of the garment, which is ultimately going to affect the comfort of the athlete and also the thermoregulation of that athlete. He's an invaluable tool for us."
With products such the Nike+ FuelBand and Nike+ running shoes, which collect data about the wearer's exercise routines via a mobile phone application, Nike has already started to commercialise some of the basic technology developed at Nike Sports Research Lab. Nurse says that there is more to come.
"The technology is becoming ubiquitous and the ability to capture the information we collect is getting more and more robust," he says. "The willingness of different groups to spend money on the kind of tools we have is also growing. The tools that we have are going to be more and more available."
However, Nurse believes that data alone is not necessarily that useful. How you interpret that data is more important, he says.
"As data becomes ubiquitous and it becomes all-encompassing and all-informing, [Nike's] competitive advantage is the knowledge we have of how we apply that data to build unbelievable product. With that we're unsurpassed in the world."
Looking to the future, Nurse believes that individually customisable designs will become a reality, as will "smart" materials that can adapt to different conditions.
"As we move into the future, I think there are two major frontiers," he says. "One is individualised product or prescriptive product for individuals. Medicine is already starting to head in that direction and I think ultimately we will also."
He continues: "We build unbelievable product that works for a wide range of people, but as we start to slice that thinner and thinner, to capitalise on making athletes better, our ability to individually prescribe different products for different people is going to get more robust and is also going to get much more important."
"Secondly, material that adapts to different movements or different environmental conditions is also going to be important."
Nurse is confident that Nike will be leading the way in developing these products. "I know that the folks in both the footwear and apparel innovation teams are well aware of what is cutting edge and are pushing the boundaries," he concludes.
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