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The most interesting wearable technology on the court at this year’s US Open won’t be on the tennis players. While watching the US Open, keep an eye on the ball boys and girls — those young people chasing errant balls around the court — wearing skintight black Ralph Lauren shirts. Those shirts are wirelessly connected and they are packing some very cool wearable technology from OMsignal, which provides the capability to take readings of the various ball boys’ heart rate, breathing levels, and movement.
As can be expected from a preppy haberdasher like Ralph Lauren, the black form-fitting compression shirts do look good, especially on the male models and in-shape ball boys currently testing them out. Below the big Polo logo lies the OMsignal technology: a band of specialized fabric around the wearer’s midsection which has silver sensor threads woven through it and includes three ECG leads.
The band of sensors works in conjunction with a small device that clips to one side of the shirt that allows data to be recorded and synced through Bluetooth with a Ralph Lauren-branded app. The “black box” includes an accelerometer and gyroscope, as well as the Bluetooth hardware needed to sync with a mobile device. It’s powered by a small watch battery — so although it won’t need regular charging, it will eventually need a replacement battery. And in a nod to olfactory common sense, the black box can be detached and used with other compatible shirts, so you won’t need to wear the same shirt every time you work out.
One of the advantages to the OMsignal approach to embedding sensors in a shirt is that it can measure breathing. While there are several wearable products that can measure heart rate, far fewer can measure the rate of breathing. Since breathing can be the key to estimating biometric stats like exertion and effort, as well as provide useful feedback on its own for athletes, that capability helped tip Ralph Lauren into pairing up with OMsignal. Stephane Marceau, OMsignal’s co-founder and head of design, will discuss his approach to wearable technology and design at our Roadmap design conference this November.
“A lot of these [wearable] technology companies are small,” Ralph Lauren SVP David Lauren said. “We went with OMSignal because they had the longest list of capabilities.”
The shirts still need a few tweaks: During one demo, a model was doing pushups and the heart rate reading on the paired iPhone didn’t immediately rise. It wasn’t because he was in immaculate shape, but because of an error with the sensor. A Ralph Lauren spokesperson explained that sometimes there needs to be a little bit of sweat in order to get an accurate reading.
The shirts will make their match play debut in Flushing Meadows on Tuesday, although they’ve already been deployed on ball boys during the qualifying rounds. Although there will be ball girls working the US Open, they will be wearing the standard Ralph Lauren ball girl uniform instead of the connected sport shirts certain ball boys will be sporting. Ralph Lauren plans to release anonymized aggregated data after the US Open on just how hard those ball boys are working, and is also working with professional tennis player Marcos Giro to test the Ralph Lauren Polo Tech shirt during training. However, he will not be wearing the shirt during competition.
Expect the Ralph Lauren Polo Tech shirt to hit the market in next spring, although when it becomes commercially available it will likely come in a variety of cuts and colors besides utilitarian form-fitting black. “This is just the start,” Lauren said. “We could work this into the Polo shirt one day.”