Georgia Tech collaborating with students for technological innovations

Given 24 hours and the expanses of their expertise and imagination, four Georgia Tech students and a fifth from Georgia State developed software for the Yellow Jackets volleyball team to better monitor its jumping performance. Other teams of students designed computer applications to free Tech’s softball coaching staff from hours of labor, improve fan experience at games and provide instant digital feedback for pole vaulters.

The cost for Tech’s athletic department to tap into some of the brightest minds on campus? Primarily, the efforts of an assistant athletic director to bring Tech’s first-ever “Sports Innovation Challenge” to life and, thanks to sponsorship, not a whole lot more. The event, held two weekends ago, was an expression of the vision cast by athletic director Todd Stansbury for Tech to become a center for sports innovation. For an athletic department whose teams have often struggled to find their way to the top, the hope is that such an evolution can help elevate the Jackets.

“I think that for Tech, that can be a great way to maximize the human potential we have on our hands,” volleyball coach Michelle Collier told the AJC. “I think we need to be outsmarting people around us, and I think that we have the people to help us do that. It can be a good partnership if we can really get this going. It’d be fun.”

The competition was staged at the Bill Moore Student Success Center, which abuts Bobby Dodd Stadium and has a view onto the field. The hackathon – an event in which computer programmers and other software developers gather in collaboration for a project, ranging in time from several hours to a few days – brought together 24 teams formed from 130 students.

It was created by Doug Allvine, Tech’s assistant AD for innovation and a former football walk-on. Stansbury created the position for Allvine to help the athletic department collaborate with the estimable research, technology and innovation arms of the institute.

In the competition, students could take on different challenges proposed by the athletic department to develop products to improve fan experience through artificial intelligence, analyze social-media use by recruits, present electronic data collected by the volleyball team on players’ jumping, collect and analyze opponent data for the softball team and improve medical response for athlete and spectator injuries at high-school football teams.

The winning entry was a five-person team (three women and two men) – Cole Bowers, Daniel Budd, Maiya Newton, Do-Hee Park and Nancy Tao, whose fields of study include computer science, industrial design, computer information systems and management science. (Newton is a student at Georgia State and a member of the cross country and track teams. The event was open to the public.)

They attacked the volleyball challenge. For the past two seasons, the Jackets have practiced and competed wearing devices the size of jump drives that collect data on players’ jumps – including height, frequency and impact. Collier and her staff have used it to monitor players’ health, performance and recovery, but have been overwhelmed by the data. She willingly volunteered her challenge for the hackathon.

“The way we use it now, I think we’re limiting ourselves from all the data that it gives us,” Collier said. “So we were just really trying to find ways to put in an (understandable) language.”

The student team grasped the problem and came up with a potential solution, finding cleaner ways to present the data.

“We just made the data part super easy,” said Budd, who is pursuing a master’s degree in industrial design. “We just highlight some nice graphs and then (the coach) can use his volleyball and athletic knowledge to look at those graphs and make the smart decisions.”

They also received a spot in a startup launch program, which includes $20,000 in seed investment, access to workspace, coaching and connection to industry mentors. They also plan to meet further with Collier to develop their project further. Other Tech coaches have also expressed interest in learning more about the projects developed at the hackathon.

“It’d be awesome to actually leave something at the school,” said Budd, who like his teammates have interest in careers in the sports industry.

Judges included Karl Pierburg, vice president of technology, data and analytics for AMB Sports and Entertainment, who oversees technology and analytic operations for the Falcons, Atlanta United and Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Pierburg was so intrigued by the projects that he has a follow-up meeting planned with Allvine.

Another was Tech basketball coach Josh Pastner.

“All those people that got up there to present are brilliant,” he said. “I mean, a lot of it was over my head.”

It’s Allvine’s goal for Tech to one day collaborate with the city’s pro sports teams, as well as the host of technology companies in Atlanta, to solve sports-related problems of all stripes with innovative ideas and technologies. Another ambition is to use Tech athletes as part of a research lab for sports performance, which already has buy-in from at least two faculty members.

“I really believe that we can build a brand for Tech and Atlanta around sports innovation,” he said. “We have something that a lot of people don’t have and that’s the research, technology and innovation coming from the institute.”