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What is Digital Twin Technology?

Headshot of Henry Gorelik
Henry Gorelik / Apr 24, 2023
A look at "digital twin" technology—and how it's going to radically change sports

In December’s SportFWD Bulletin, we highlighted the emergence of digital twins: virtual objects created from input gathered directly from physical objects. Once created, a digital twin can be run through simulations to analyze how its corresponding physical object will perform under a variety of circumstances.

These systems are rapidly becoming commonplace. For example, researchers are using digital twin hearts to discover novel surgical techniques or treatments for heart disease.

The NFL, through its partnership with AWS, has pioneered the use of digital twin technology to improve player health and safety. They created the Digital Athlete system in 2022, which features a unique digital twin for every position. It is generated from nearly three terabytes of data per week including video review, equipment scans, mouthguard sensors, game and practice performance data, and playing surface scans. Specifically, Intel TrueView’s 360-degree volumetric video develops skeletal modeling of players, which has become crucial in monitoring players in pileups. Additional wearable data is collected from Biocore, the NFL’s Engineering partner, and their Catapult GPS and Zebra RFID sensors.

This system can maximize player safety by simulating the impact of various changes to equipment, surfaces, play types, formations, and rules in specific game scenarios. For example, there could be changes to the kickoff formation, which is recognized as one of the most dangerous plays in football. The long-term goal for the Digital Athlete initiative is to provide personalized recommendations of cleats and helmets to each player based on their position, opponent, venue, and weather. If this system is successful in mitigating injury risk in the NFL, it’s a model that could be exported to the other professional leagues and eventually youth sports as well.

And It’s Not Just Football

The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (R&A), the organizing body of The Open, have partnered with NTT Data to collect tournament data through monitoring every hole. Using Unreal Engine 4, a 3D computer graphics game engine from Epic Games, this massive data input coupled with LiDAR scans of the course create a digital twin that, through simulations, identifies the most efficient path to each hole. This could become a valuable training tool for amateur golfers, as it would allow them to compare their performance to the algorithm’s suggested approach in real time. The R&A hopes to enhance its digital twin technology by including data on swing dynamics, ball tracking, and body tracking, all of which would be immensely helpful for young golfers.

Although currently a golf-specific application, it isn’t difficult to imagine a similar system being applied to other sports too. Imagine if you had access to digital twin technology when you were in Little League. The algorithms could provide you with the optimal launch angle and two-strike approach given a variety of factors including the opposing pitcher, your bat type, field of play, weather, and more.

Using software from real estate data modeler Willow, SoFi Stadium installed and relies on its digital twin to provide information on facility equipment and current conditions to maintain efficient management of the stadium. For example, the digital twin recently identified a section of the venue with an elevated temperature setting and through the digital twin, was able to correct the issue. Digital twin technology also has the potential to improve the game-day experience for fans. Countless simulations of foot traffic on game-day can help authorities optimize the pedestrian planning and organization of its stadium. The results could include shorter wait times for entering the stadium, getting food and drinks, going to the bathroom, and most importantly, escaping out of the parking lot.

While the adoption of digital twin technology can benefit athletes at all levels, there are ethical risks related to the collection, management, and utilization of personal data. Digital twin development requires the compilation of personal and sensitive information, which if leaked, will pose obstacles to the continued progress of digital twin technology.