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Body-gauging gadget helps athletes -- and insurance firms

Picture this: It's spring training, and the coach is working with his star pitcher. As the pitcher winds up and goes through his motions, the coach is watching intently. After some observation, he's got suggestions to make: Release the ball a little sooner, really put your shoulder into it, change your footing a bit.

That sounds like coaching as it's been since the days of Babe Ruth. But add these ingredients to the picture:

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This is not taking place at a baseball camp in Florida, but in a laboratory in California. The pitcher's arms and legs are strapped with diodes, and instead of standing on a pitcher's mound he is positioned in front of a computer , which is bathing him in a field of infrared light rays. After each pitch, the computer rapidly calculates the force exerted by the pitcher's arm and the velocity and acceleration of different parts of the pitcher's body when he makes the throw.

Thus, when the coach offers his suggestions, these are not drawn simply from his innate sense of what makes a pitch work. Rather, they are derived from equations based on the laws of physics and body mechanics. Could this be the training scenario of the future?

Actually, it's taking place already. Five years ago, a group known as the Computerized Biomechanical Analysis Company (CBA) crossed a Mega Tech graphics system with a Data General computer and produced a system capable of analyzing body movements. It borrowed formulas of body parameters worked out by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which uses a $22 million Cray computer to analyze body movements in no- gravity situations. CBA's $1.2 million system is much less sophisticated than the complex hardware at NASA, but it is able to perform functions that make it attractive to a number of users, including the US Olympics Committtee, professional sports teams, designers of sports equipment, and various insurance companies.

Three months ago, CBA's system was updated in a fashion that made it even more valuable to its users. Due to a Mega Tech innovation known as a "vector generator," CBA's computer now can not only record and calculate the acceleration and velocity of the movement of variious parts of the body, but it can also display the performance on a screen in three dimensions. The picture on the screen can be rotated to provide a view from above, beneath, and all sides.

The Olympics Committee finds this system so useful that it has had one installed at headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. Any other would-be users must make the trek either to Amherst, Mass., where the system was first created, or to Coto Research Center in Coto de Caza, Calif. In these locations are housed what Gideon Ariel, cofounder of CBA, believes to be the only three such systems in the world.

The US Olympics Committee is employing the setup to improve US performances in 14 sports. The system has also been used by professional athletes, including the Dallas Cowboys and the Kansas City Royals. In addition, designers of athletic equipment such as gymnastic mats, golf clubs, and various kinds of footwear have made use of the computer's calculations.

But the system has its applications in other fields as well. According to Mr. Ariel, insurance companies find it very helpful in calculating disability compensation and liability insurance rates. For example, if a gymnast has an accident and blames it on the quality of the gymnastics mat, CBA's computer can help determine, through simulations of the gymnast's movements, to what extent the mat was actually responsible.

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According to Mr. Ariel, Coto Research now has about 25 corporations using its computer.

"We don't advertise," he says, "but we do a lot of 'in the halls' business. We have more business now than we can handle. We could expand if we wanted to, we don't really want to." Seven people work at Coto Research Center at present. Mr. Ariel says, "We like it this way, 7, maybe 10 people at the most."

He says the "mastermind" behind the system is Ann Penny, a PhD who studied both computer science and the little-known discipline of exercise science at the University of Massachusetts. She wrote most of the software for the system. She began working on programs analyzing body movement in 1969 when she and Mr. Ariel founded CBA at Dartmouth College.

CBA updates its programs for the three computers in Coto de Caza, Colorado Springs, and Amherst almost monthly. The next technological breakthrough Mr. Ariel hopes to achieve will be a method of recording the movements of a body without first strapping that body with diodes.

"But right now," he laughs, "we have so many goals, it would take about 250 years to complete all our goals for this system."

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