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Amer Sports’ Heikki Norta: IoT is leading the pack in the sports tech industry

Heikki Norta Heikki Norta
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Amer Sports' EVP connected devices and digital products discusses the IoT-enabled technology his brand has already introduced, redefining fans' experiences.

The sports equipment industry was early to the IoT space. Sports enthusiasts love gadgets. They also love data. So the smart watch that tells runners and cyclists how far and fast they have travelled? It was inevitable.

But other developments were not so easy to foresee.

Introducing: The (American) football that tells you how good you are at throwing.

This is the Wilson X, a product launched by Amer Sports in 2016. The Wilson X houses a sensor that records the velocity, distance and the ‘tightness’ of the spiral in a throw. It sends this data to a phone via Bluetooth. Players and coaches can then use this information to refine technique and to see tangible evidence of improvement.

The Wilson X points the way to an entirely new way of thinking about technical development.

“Previously you would judge a good throw just by the sound of it,” says Heikki Norta, Amer Sports’ EVP of connected devices and digital services. “But now we can qualify it with a sensor inside the ball. It’s the classic IoT story: there’s the sensor, the algorithm that detects movement, a showcase on a mobile interface and data stored in cloud.”

Norta says products like the Wilson X demonstrate the immense potential of IoT for the sports equipment industry. Amer itself has been exploring the technology for many years. The Finnish company, which owns brands such as Salomon, Wilson, Atomic, Arc’teryx, Mavic, Suunto and Precor, currently makes wearables and gym consoles that deliver personal information.

What makes Norta excited about the next phase of IoT is the improvements in two key enabling technologies. “The first is wide area connectivity,” he says. “Either through cellular or some other means to build low cost, low power solutions that let IoT devices communicate.

“The other would be any technology that makes it easier for companies [to] exchange data with each other – typically software technologies that let you build APIs.”

But he believes the most profound change will come when the IoT embraces artificial intelligence. And this development is already racing ahead.

Norta says: “Two years ago, it looked to us that IoT sensors were ahead of AI and machine learning. Now, it’s the other way round. AI has matured so fast. There’s so much we can do.”

He gives the example of how AI has changed Suunto’s smart watch experience. “Previously, you would record your exercise session on a smartwatch and look at your diary on a web interface,” he says.

“Now you can have a highly curated view of peer groups. So let’s say you’re training for a half marathon and you want to run under two hours. We can pull from hundreds of millions of workouts, so you can see how much you need to run per week for your age group to get to that two hour race.”

But AI is not just about better feedback. It can also deliver entirely new types of experiences. A good example here is Suunto Movie.

This is an app that tracks the journeys made by adventurers. At the end it generates an animated film of the expedition showing the route taken, distance travelled and altitudes reached. Users can add in photos and then forward the movie to friends or upload to YouTube.

“People are amazed by it,” says Norta. “At the end of a trip, you have a memento and a kind of social object that you can share with others.”

Products like Suunto Movie turn previously private experiences into public ones. And the evidence suggests that people value this. However, that switch inevitably raises the specter of data privacy and security breaches.

Self-evidently these are not areas that makers of basketballs and gym equipment had to consider historically.

Now, they do. Norta says that, as a Finnish company, Amer is bound by the new GDPR guidelines. He is full of praise for the regulation. “What the EU has done with GDPR is a great start. It’s raising the bar and helping consumers get peace of mind. Just by implementing it, the industry will go a long way.”

But more specifically, he agrees there are fundamental principles that individual companies need to follow too. “The best way to secure privacy is to follow the ‘secure by design’ principle,” he says. “There are a couple of elements that come with that. One is making sure data that flows are encrypted. The other is ensuring that we store the data from the device separately from personal data about a user. That makes the job of a hacker much more difficult.”