If you're a driver racing in the Verizon IndyCar Series, there's good news and bad news. On the plus side, incredibly sophisticated data collection tools allow your team to understand nearly every aspect of your race car's performance - and identify ways to make it even faster.

The bad news is that, aside from years of experience and highly informed gut feel, you have almost no data to help you understand all the variables that make up your performance as a driver, much less identify ways you can become an even better driver.

Unless you're Tony Kanaan, the 2004 INDYCAR champion and winner of 17 races including the Indianapolis 500.

During every race, Tony wears a special garment created by his sponsor, NTT Data, that incorporates hitoe, a material that acts as a sensor to capture electrocardiogram (ECG), heart rate, and electromyogram (EMG) data. In simple terms, Tony's hitoe shirt collects data from his heart and muscles that his Chip Ganassi Racing team monitors in real time during the race. The use of wearable technology not only helps Tony understand and improve his performance, it serves as a practical case study for other applications of the technology.

"Tony was already extremely fit," says Adam Nelson, COO of Life Sciences & Healthcare Technologies for NTT Data. "He's a specimen. In fact, Tony was so physically fit that he was able to compensate for some of what was happening in the car."

For the first year, NTT focused on Tony's heart rate and ECG. One early finding was surprising: Tony often held his breath for long periods. "Especially on road tracks under heavy G-force loads," Adam says, "he tended to hold his breath. Going through turn after turn... Tony held his breath too long, and we knew he could help stave off fatigue if he focused on breathing."

While that sounds like a simple point, drivers expend a huge amount of energy counteracting G-forces that often range between 3 and 5 Gs and higher; to withstand that force, drivers contract their muscles to maintain physical balance and seating posture as well as to prevent blood from being forced to one side of the body. (Sounds weird, I know, but that's what happens when you experience heavy horizontal G-force loads.)

"Our engineers also noticed an unusual EMG signal," Adam says, "so in the second year we put sensors in the upper arm of the shirt to started capture muscle activity. Tony said during some races he experiences cramping, his fingers would grow numb... so he wanted help with dehydration. By plotting his grip strength and grip consistency, we could show him where he was gripping the steering wheel tightly when contextually (where he was on the racetrack) he might not need to. For example, he could relax and release his grip a little earlier as he came out of a turn."

It turns out the problem wasn't all due to dehydration; Tony was just gripping the wheel extremely tightly. "He's such a strong guy," Adam says. "It's like he couldn't help it. When he realized that he changed his training to do more cardio and lose a little muscle mass. He didn't need to be quite as strong, and that let him focus on improving his endurance."

During the third year of the project the focus expanded to include heart rate and aerobic activity during races. Tony's heart beats at 80% of his max heart rate for almost half of every race. Under breaking his heart rate spikes, and on road courses his heart rate increases significantly in twistier sections of the course.

"In cardiovascular terms, driving a race car is a lot like interval training," Adam says.

Tony lives in Miami and is an avid cyclist; that means he trains in the heat, which helps replicate his experience in the car, but even if he rides for 75 miles at a solid pace, the route is fairly flat.

"When he saw his heart rate variation," Adam says, "he decided to change his training so it's closer to what he experiences in the car. That's the goal of using the hitoe technology. We can capture comprehensive data, analyze it to understand patterns, and provide insight to Tony that he can actually use."

Unlike information that is interesting but ultimately ignores, Tony pays close attention.

"For years, I never had any data about myself while I was driving the car," Tony says. "How I could be more fit, why I cramp, how I should train... I never had that kind of information.

"Now that I'm wearing the shirt, if I'm using my left arm too much, they can tell me on the radio. They can remind me to relax my grip. They can remind me to breathe. Now I not only know all these things about myself and how I should train, my team can let me know during a race if I need to change not just how I'm driving the car but how I'm performing as an athlete."

The most actionable data is real-time data, but syncing the signals from the shirt with the race car to provide real-time data was a definite challenge. The bio-signal information itself was interesting, but adding context was all-important. The Ganassi team worked with NTT Data to run hitoe signals directly through the car's telemetry system; that way bio-signals could be paired with the car's speed, braking, steering wheel input, load forces... so what Tony was doing matched could be paired with what the car was doing.

In a broader sense, access to real-time data makes wearable technology particularly useful. It's nice to know what happened, but in many professions - like healthcare - knowing what is happening right now matters a lot more.

The premise also applies to a variety of physical jobs. Knowing when someone is tired before they do - or before they admit it - could lead to major improvements in employee safety.

For example, NTT Data studied nurses working 12-hour night shifts by placing sensors in scrubs. Their shift started at 8 p.m. and most nurses said they became particularly tired around 2 a.m. Reviewing the bio-signals showed that the majority of the shift was tired around midnight. They were actually fatigued well before they "felt" tired. Since a tired employee is a less effective employee, building in an earlier break time helped alleviate the problem.

Imagine you run a manufacturing plant and have employee dashboards that match every employee's bio-signal patterns with ambient temperature, humidity... think about what you could do to improve safety and avoid risks.

For all the workplace applications, though, there are significantly more healthcare applications. Simple example: Knee replacement surgery.

"One of the best predictors of getting back to a normal life after surgery," Adam says, "is pre-surgery exercise. The provider system says, 'Here are exercises you should do to strengthen your knee before you come in,' but many people don't do those exercises.

"A knee sleeve could help monitor activity. Pair that to a video chat and the provider could provide feedback and coach the patient, which could be a great motivator to get people to prepare themselves for surgery - and to recover after surgery."

And that's why Tony wears the shirt. He appreciates the way it helps him be a better driver, but he loves the opportunity to give back.

"What sold me on this," Tony says, "was that I could play a part in developing technology that healthcare systems will use with their patients. For me, that said it all. As a race car driver, we work with Honda to make better cars for the street. We're a lab for them. Now I get to do the same for healthcare.

"If I can be part of a project that someday saves lives... how awesome is that?"

Published on: Sep 18, 2017