It’s likely fair to say that most of us don’t think twice about how our bodies move. Walking, running, stretching, dancing — it all comes naturally (okay, maybe not dancing well but dancing all the same). Unless you experience mobility challenges — a difficult reality for many people — you’re probably not thinking too much about how you go about your day.
For biomechanics experts, however, every movement you make provides a piece of information.
The National Institute of Health defines biomechanics as the application of mechanical principles to living organisms. For humans, it’s the study of kinematics (the movements of the body) and kinetics (the forces acting on the body). The information gleaned from biomechanics research can be hyper valuable when it comes to injury recovery, to improving quality of life, to refining athletic performances and much more. Just ask the team at Theia Markerless, a pioneer in markerless motion capture in the field of of biomechanics.
Motion capture has long been a valuable tool in biomechanics research. Early motion capture research can be traced back to the 1920s, but it really emerged as an important tool in the 1970s and ’80s. It was initially academic in nature but, as the technology became more widely accessible, motion capture began to crop up in athletics, animation, video games, film and TV, and more.
But up until fairly recently, motion capture was a cumbersome process. In order to get an accurate look at movement, the subject had to be fitted with myriad sensors (or a suit fitted with sensors). These sensors, or markers, would reflect or emit light, which could then be picked up by infrared cameras in a lab. It’s effective but, given the time and effort it takes to just set up the process, not entirely efficient. Markerless technology is just as it sounds — motion capture without the need for markers. “Theia Markerless is working to revolutionize how motion capture is delivered in life sciences, sports performance and any other application where people are interested in biomechanics,” says Peter Sheahan, Theia’s head of sales and marketing.
Theia Markerless builds on the legacy of CEO Scott Selbie, who had previously developed a product called Visual3D and founded its distribution company, C-Motion. Visual3D analyzed motion capture data and allowed users to visualize a patient or an athlete and manipulate the data however was needed. But around 2012, one of the developers working at C-Motion (Marcus Brown, now Theia’s president) recognized that the industry was moving toward machine- and deep-learning and floated the idea that motion capture data could be built without the use of markers anymore. “Marcus saw that, given the way pattern recognition and machine learning were going, we should be able to use high-speed video data to teach algorithms to pick out anatomical locations without markers at all. We
can train a neural network to understand where the wrist or the elbow or the shoulder is,” says Sheahan. (Fun fact: Brown and Sheahan have been friends since high school and both
have their Master’s in biomechanics from Queen’s.)
The resulting innovation was much faster to execute, but it also opened up a whole new opportunity to capture athletes and patients in the real world, rather than having to bring them into a lab. “We use an array of video cameras — typically six to eight — to study 3D biomechanics. So, essentially we give you all of the historical data you could get with the marker system, but through video data. The data collection occurs much faster and the environment doesn’t matter,” says Selbie. This is a gamechanger when location has an impact on performance, as in the case with professional athletes.
Theia Markerless’s client roster
now includes organizations, companies
and academic institutions around the
world — including German-founded
multinational athletic wear and footwear
company Puma. The company
uses Theia to create custom footwear
to suit the needs of some of the world’s
most elite athletes. “Theia allows us
to do full body assessments so we can
accurately address the needs of an
athlete,” says Laura Healey, manager of
footwear innovation at Puma in Boston.
Healey is Canadian and a former
colleague of Sheahan’s; she completed
her undergraduate degree in kinesiology
at Queen’s, followed by her Master’s
degree in biomechanics at the University
Healey was first introduced to the idea that she could become a biomechanics expert for a footwear company when she was in her second year at Queen’s. “It’s fascinating. Every person who comes into the lab is different and wants to achieve different things,” says Healey. “There are still so many questions about what works best for each person, so we use different tools — like Theia and others — as well as different combinations of materials to hopefully achieve what the athlete is after.” Healey mentions watching Puma athlete and long-distance runner Molly Seidel medal at the 2020 Summer Olympics as a highlight of her career.
But not all of Puma’s research is concentrated on making the fast run faster, either. “The focus can seem to be on top-performing shoes,” says Healey, “but a lot of our time is spent on creating footwear for people who just want to enjoy their run.” Puma wants to create shoes for the masses, but not just any shoe. They want the shoe to feel prescribed to the runner, and they use community members to test everything from cushioning to ride to stability. “We want to look at the person as a whole as much as possible.”
Admittedly, Theia and Puma sound a bit like a match made in heaven, but in reality, they’re just arriving at this point in history at the same time.
“The idea of image and pattern recognition is so salient now, and I think it’s just going to get bigger and bigger,” says Sheahan. “We’re really excited to see what’s ahead.”