Hopkins Undergrad Creates Advanced Computerized Sports Trainer
The program, designed by 20-year-old Peter Zapalo, could be used to reduce athletic injuries by helping coaches and athletes pinpoint the cause of injury. But it could also be used for a multitude of clinical and research applications, said the Johns Hopkins junior, who designed the program when he was a sophomore in assistant professor Harry Goldberg's Applications of Interactive Multimedia course.
Zapalo uses a standard camcorder and off-the-shelf multimedia computer hardware to film and analyze a skater's performance. First he dons a pair of skates and gets on the ice so that he can shoot video of the skater in action. Then he integrates the video with his software program, which digitizes the images while rapidly calculating data such as the height of the skater's jump, speed and rate of rotation. Video from two skaters can be played side-by-side, or video from the same skater taken at different training sessions can be compared, injecting a scientific approach to analyzing performance.
His method is far less expensive and easier to use than systems presently used for sports medicine. Those systems cost in the $25,000 range, are bulky and require much more expertise to operate. They use a combination of three stationary cameras and force the skater to perform jumps in a fixed space between the cameras, whereas Zapalo's strategy is to move with the skater.
"A person with a handicam can move anywhere on the ice," he explained. "So the skater can perform the jump wherever they feel most comfortable."
After Zapalo developed his program, he started working with amateur skater Derrick Delmore, a 15-year-old from Fort Washington, Md. Soon the skater's coach, Shirley Hughes, had Zapalo working with all of her students, inviting him to hold a clinic this summer. Word quickly spread to other coaches in the Professional Skaters Guild of America. In August the Tampa Bay Skating Academy flew him to Florida, where he worked with aspiring Olympic skaters.
"It was just an overwhelming response," he said. "They just loved it."
Because the images are digitized the athlete's movements can be broken into 30 frames per second, and each digital frame can be frozen with clarity, without the distorting lines that appear when frames are frozen with a standard VCR.
"One of the nicer things is that we can play backward, we can stop each individual frame, which would be nearly impossible with a regular VCR," said Zapalo, who has been working with computers since the age of 6.
"My parents always thought it was important for us to be competitive academically," he said, noting that when he was in high school, and his father was unemployed for a short time, his parents still scraped up enough money to buy their son a computer.
The aspiring doctor said his goal is to practice sports medicine. "My dream is to be an Olympic Training Center doctor," he said. "I love working with athletes, and I hate to see kids who are chronically injured."
Dr. Goldberg, a neurobiologist at the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Hopkins, stressed that the purpose of his course is not to foster software development but to teach students how to solve problems while working in a research environment. "In Peter's case, skating was simply a model for this broader aim," he said.
The program developed by Zapalo could just as easily be applied to a wide range of sports and therapy settings. For example, it could be used to maximize a swimmer's performance or to help a runner prevent a repeat of previous injuries. Possible non-sports medical applications include speech therapy and other therapies for disabled people.
Zapalo's new-found success has demonstrated the value of Dr. Goldberg's course objective, teaching students to use multimedia computers to solve problems. But success also has reminded him of his long-term goals. In the immediate future, he will have to focus less energy on his innovation and spend more time working toward getting into medical school.
"My goal is not to become a software developer; my goal is to become a doctor," said the 1992 graduate of Oxon Hill Science and Technology Center, a magnet school in Prince George's County, in southern Maryland.
He plans to graduate from Hopkins in the spring of 1996. Zapalo grew up in Brandywine, Md., but his family recently moved to Greensburg, Pa.
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