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Haverhill company testing new wireless tracking system for runners, thoroughbreds, and running backs

Posted by Scott Kirsner  February 22, 2010 12:22 PM

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When Olympic medalist Bernard Lagat set a new American record in Boston earlier this month, he was wearing a wireless tracking tag from Haverhill-based Lynx System Developers Inc.

As Lagat rounded the track at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Roxbury, running the 5000 meters in thirteen minutes and eleven seconds, the tag relayed information about his precise position on the track to a Lynx computer system in a control room above the action, which enabled a robotic camera to closely follow Lagat, and provided detailed new information for the ESPN announcers who were calling the race.

Lynx, founded by MIT grads almost twenty years ago, has high hopes for the new system, which it describes as "radar for sports." Players wearing the battery-powered, ultra-wideband tracking chips which are a bit smaller than a book of matches can be located in a stadium within about six inches. "It's sort of like having a localized, indoor GPS system," says Brian Rhodes, a Lynx project manager who has been supervising the testing of the system. "You get location updates 25 times a second, and with that we can tell how fast someone's moving, or how fast they're accelerating." (Rhodes, who ran track at UNH, is on the right in the photo below, with Lynx software engineer Jerry Reilly in the control room at the Reggie Lewis Center.)

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At the Reggie Lewis Center, the chips talk to six wireless data receivers located around the building. The collected data about players' location can be viewed in real-time on a laptop, to give announcers information about estimated finish times, for instance, or can be replayed afterward by a coach to help runners identify the points in a race where they may have slowed down.

The company is initially hoping to deploy the system for track and field events, football, and horse racing. They've already done tests at the Reggie Lewis Center and at high school football games in Andover, and this week, Lynx plans to install a system for testing at the Laurel Park racetrack in Maryland. (The first permanent installation was done last year at Texas A&M University, and at the Big 12 Championship.)

The tracking system, which the company has dubbed IsoLynx, is part of a diversification strategy, says Lynx chief executive Ed Evansen. The 39-person company already holds a dominant position in digital photo finish technology; Lynx cameras are used in 110 different countries, and at events that have included the Olympics, Olympic trials, the Tour de France, and the Indianapolis 500.

"We created the first digital photo finish cameras to give you instant results," Evansen says. "But the photo finish market is somewhat limited. If you don't have a finish line, we can't help you." 

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For the last three years, Lynx has been developing the new tracking system. "A holy grail," Evansen says, "has always been the ability to track athletes as they move around a field or racetrack," and use the information to analyze games as they unfold, or for coaching purposes afterward.

Rhodes adds, "You could have a camera that can always follow the leader, or a certain player on the field, without needing a person to operate it." (In hockey, the robotic cameras might be told to track players with a tendency to start brawls.) And there's also the possibility to use all that positioning data to create 3-D animations of a sporting event after it happens. 

For football coaches reviewing video after the game, it can sometimes be tough to understand who was on the field for a given play, explains Jerry Reilly, another Lynx engineer: "We can show you which players were on the field, and you can click on a player's name and see exactly where they ran and what they did during the play."

With horse racing, since money is involved, "there's an insatiable demand for any piece of data that might give you an advantage," Reilly says. "With this system, you can get a split for every inch of the track, and you can see all of the velocity and acceleration peaks for each horse."

Evansen won't say yet what the system will cost so it's tough to gauge just how much value it will have to deliver to announcers, bettors, or coaches for it to find a spot in the market. The company plans to team up with different distribution partners for different sports, and is clearly interested in talking to the NFL.

Several video demos of the IsoLynx technology are available on YouTube. Below are videos showing the system in use during Lagat's 5000 meter record-setting run, and an Andover/Chelmsford junior varsity high school football game.





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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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