After a car accident left him unable to walk or pursue his dream of becoming a professional swimmer, Mark Finch has dedicated the past six years to creating groundbreaking technology that helps athletes recover from injury.

The University of Auckland bio-medical engineer and his collaborator, Thor Besier, have developed small wearable sensors that can precisely measure the impact placed on athletes' bodies, with potential to determine their best course of rehabilitation and prevent further injury.

Their start-up, IMeasureU, was recently acquired by motion-capture giant Vicon, the company behind the technology that created Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, and the characters in Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers.

"The sensors in here are kind of like the same sensors in your phone when you turn left to right ... but it's the maths that you put behind it that makes it interpretable and useable," Finch says.

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IMeasureU co-founder Mark Finch says his technology, which has just been bought by motion-sensor giant Vicon, will enable athletes to more quickly recover from injury. Photo / Brett Phibbs
IMeasureU co-founder Mark Finch says his technology, which has just been bought by motion-sensor giant Vicon, will enable athletes to more quickly recover from injury. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The technology has already been snapped up by American NBA team the Philadelphia 76ers, as well as New Zealand's the Breakers.

Among those who have been strapping IMeasureU sensors to their legs are basketball mega-stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, who was last year the number one overall pick in the NBA draft.

"These guys are worth millions, so we gave their trainers and coaches data to help them manage their return to play," Finch says.

"If you think about it, the NBA loses US$1 million a day due to lost salaries through injuries.

"That stat is similar across NFL and [English Premier League], so you put the three of them together and it's about US$1 billion a year lost due to injury."

The company is working with other teams that Finch is unable to name.

Finch was a New Zealand open-level swimmer with dreams of Olympic glory when, aged 18, he was involved in a horrific car accident which left him bed-ridden for 15 weeks.

"I broke basically every bone in my body, so I was pretty lucky," he says today. "I spent a year learning to walk again."

After a remarkable recovery, he was inspired to find ways to help others recover from injury.

Mark Finch had dreams of becoming a professional swimmer when in 2001 a car crash broke nearly every bone in his body. Photo / file
Mark Finch had dreams of becoming a professional swimmer when in 2001 a car crash broke nearly every bone in his body. Photo / file

The technology uses "inertial measurement units" and was initially developed to enable researchers to detect body movement outside a laboratory environment.

"The idea is that you have these unobtrusive units - and they could still get smaller - which you can just strap to the athlete."

At the moment, the focus is on lower-body motion but the company is looking to translate it to upper body movement, too.

"With what we're doing with the NBA, they'll have one strapped to each ankle and you're able to measure the impacts on either leg and you can compare the two," says Finch.

"The idea is that we measure at such a high level, high frequency that you can characterise the impact. So every time an NBA player's foot hits the ground we can measure it ... and feed that into mathematical models that we've developed."

The data is shared with coaches and trainers who are then better able to determine a programme of rehabilitation.

"We're giving the coaches information they've never had before," Finch says.

"They typically would return an athlete from injury or manage their workload by gut feel, and that's what the great coaches are good at.

"But ... these tools are so small and you can get so much information out of them it makes sense to integrate it with the coaches."

Andy Serkis in his Gollum suit for the filming of Lord of the Rings. Photo / Grant Maiden
Andy Serkis in his Gollum suit for the filming of Lord of the Rings. Photo / Grant Maiden

The technology could also be used to help prevent athletes from suffering any further injuries if the data from the system shows any variation from the norm.

"If you're measuring every training session and ... you see a big spike, you might need to lay a player off the following week."

Finch says the sensors could potentially be used in all running sports such as American football, soccer, tennis or rugby.

One day, it could also be used to enable sports people to improve their technique by precisely measuring body movement and ascertaining flaws.

The company was acquired by Vicon just a few weeks ago, with the plan to integrate Vicon's camera systems with IMeasureU's sensors.

"It's just a dream," says Finch. "When we started the company it was always an aspiration of Thor and mine because they're the gold standard of any biomechanics research."

Basketball mega-star Joel Embiid is among those to have used IMeasureU sensors. Photo / AP
Basketball mega-star Joel Embiid is among those to have used IMeasureU sensors. Photo / AP

As well as using its high-tech cameras for entertainment, Vicon's technology is used in many other areas, including clinical sciences, engineering, biomechanics and sport.

IMeasureU is useful for Vicon, says Finch, because while its high-tech cameras can detect reflective round markers attached to bodies, and interpret movement, they cannot detect markers that are out of shot.

IMeasureU's sensors transmit data whether or not the camera can see a sensor, Finch says.

These two technologies combined could create a "super system" with implications reaching beyond sport to entertainment, engineering, life sciences and virtual reality.