MIT students hit, run, field, and then tinker

Deep in the heart of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus, in a room full of winking machines and dangling power cords, you'll find a professor in Lycra chatting economics with a huddle of guys talking sports - and technology.

Welcome to MIT's Laboratory for Sports Innovation, the place where great sports inventions are hatched. Launched last August, it joins the 68 other labs, centers, and research programs at MIT.

But sports at MIT - citadel of the nerd, bastion of the math whiz? It's a hotbed for sports technology and has a long history of sports research, says Kim Blair, director of the sports lab and a triathlete. Calculate this: MIT fields one of the broadest collegiate sports programs in the nation, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

New England, Dr. Blair says, is thick with sports industry. Saucony, New Balance, Reebok, Burton, and Spalding are all located here. With these companies in their backyard, MIT-student projects have a chance. "Were going to be more like industry than lab," he says.

While most projects are internally generated, Blair hopes to attract outside investors who will look to MIT for research.

At the same time, he understands that business demands shouldn't get in the way of innovation. "If you're always looking at ... the next problem you're not innovating, just making marginal improvements," Blair says. "I'd love to see a bunch of start-ups come out of here," he adds.

At the rate MIT is going, that might just happen. A study by BankBoston's economics department showed that since MITs founding through 1994, graduates started 4,000 companies, employed 1.1 million people, and generated annual sales of $232 billion.

Blair is also quick to point out that the lab is just as much about product development and recognizing market forces as it is about research.

Take Rory Pheiffer, a sophomore mechanical engineering major who is part of the "strike-zone crew." Four athlete-inventors are keen to introduce electronic strike-zone detection that would improve the consistency of strike calls in baseball, but they admit they are still in the warm-up stages.

Blair lets the young inventors lead the discussion in the class. What starts out as banter one might hear at Fenway Park suddenly turns to chat that would make Adam Smith proud.

Soon charts are pulled out, reports read, and competition analyzed. "The technology is there: particle detection," says Charles Toye, a senior aeronautics and astronautics major and a lacrosse player.

The group doesn't know what form the strike-zone detection system will take, but they do think it's necessary. With instant replay reintroduced into the National Football League and technology creeping into other sports, Mr. Pheiffer says, "baseball, I don't think, wants to be left behind."

"You want to make sure the market drives your product and not the other way around," Blair says.

Other projects range from improving safety in the sport of bouldering (where boulders are climbed without safety ropes) and reducing weight in rock-climbing gear to developing a mesh sock that scans the contours of a foot for a better running-shoe fit.

Jamy Drouillard, an aeronautics and astronautics major, is working on correlating fuel-gauge readings in racecars with reliable accelerator readings. Most racecars don't have fuel gauges because the high speeds and wildly sloshing petrol make them unreliable.

But Mr. Drouillard plans to fill an aquarium with liquid and drive it around a parking lot to develop an accurate fuel-level reading.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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