Frontiers

Life in Motion

Larry Rome and John MacDermott introduce students to cutting-edge motion analysis technology. Three biomechanics students share their eye-opening videos below.
April 2011

When the Matrix was first released, the slow motion shots of Neo, the hero, leaping mid-air through fields of bullets, quickly became iconic. Imagine having access to a camera, in class nonetheless, that could slow time to a fraction of those shots.

"The purpose of the project is to relate muscle function to locomotion. Originally I told students to study the biomechanics of their favorite activity, but after a good bit of giggling from the class, we decided to switch it to their second favorite activity," Larry Rome, Professor of Biology, laughs.

Rome approached John MacDermott, Director for Instructional Technology with a proposal for an SAS Instructional Technology grant to buy a special video camera capable of shooting at very high frame rates. They were looking for something both easy to learn and durable because students would be taking it out into the field.

"Being a bioengineering student and a member of Penn's football team," student Dan Lipschutz says, "I have always been interested in combining the two. Once I heard about the project, I decided almost immediately that I would study myself kicking field goals. Not only did this project expose me to some state-of-the-art technology and help me learn more about everything that goes into kicking a football, it gave me an entirely new perspective on my kicking form."

"Being a bioengineering student and a member of Penn's football team, I have always been interested in combining the two. Once I heard about the project, I decided almost immediately that I would study myself kicking field goals." – Dan Lipschutz

Students, having filmed themselves or a friend participating in an activity, use the camera to capture 250 (or more) frames per second without blurring. They then use software and frame-by-frame analysis to calculate power, energy consumption and other variables involved in the exercise.

"The particular model of camera we decided upon is called the Troubleshooter," MacDermott says. "It can slow video down 25- to100-fold. It's normally used to detect subtle errors in factory assembly lines."

Maureen French, another of Rome's students, decided to study her running form. "I couldn't help but notice people at the gym wearing these strange five-fingers shoes that emulate running barefoot," she says. "Having dealt with running injuries myself, I thought it would be interesting to try and see whether they were actually helping people run better or if they were just some kind of fad."

Some students even went out of their way to hone old skills. Josh Eisenberg, an amateur juggler in the past, returned to the activity for his project.

"The footage revealed that I was misjudging the location and timing of the objects in the cycle," he says, "so I was forced to compensate for it. Overall, I developed a newfound respect for those who have mastered more complex patterns."

In the future, the technology will likely be used by other departments—such as physics—to help bolster research and student application there as well.

"Turning courses like this into active field participation is really a unique opportunity—one we're realizing here at Penn," MacDermott says.

Josh Eisenberg demonstrates a three-ball cascade pattern.

Eisenberg says his analysis helped him pinpoint errant throws.

Dan Lipschutz executes a football field goal.

Lipschutz discovered that the football deforms over 10% upon contact.

Maureen French looked at her running form.