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Alumnus propels research with donation of 16 motion capture suits

November 16, 2017

In the photo, a young man tries on a black cloth glove, which is connected to wires. It's a close up shot, focused only on the lower torso and the black suit.
John Kook, of Burke, Virginia, a sophomore studying computer science, pulls on the glove of a motion capture suit donated by alumnus Jamie Marraccini, a Class of 1993 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering who founded and serves as the CEO and president of Inertial Labs. Marraccini led two training sessions in the Kevin P. Granata Biomechanics Lab for the professors and students receiving suits for their research.

Studying balance and fall prevention. Developing more human-like robotic motion. Understanding human performance in simulated health care tasks.

These are just a few of the ways Virginia Tech researchers plan to use 16 donated motion capture suits to study body motion and injury prevention, thanks to Jamie Marraccini (electrical engineering '93), founder, CEO, and president of Inertial Labs.

The suits are being distributed across three colleges, one institute, and eight departments at Virginia Tech and one lab at Radford University.

The suits are made of wires, soft fabric, and sensors that can be worn over clothes, and they capture human motion with stunning accuracy, unlike suits used in Hollywood productions with dots placed across the wearer’s body — known as “optical” systems — that are limited in the way they can capture motion.

Once wearers strap into the Inertial Lab  "inertial" suit, they can move freely and flexibly, and can even capture motion underwater. Unlike optical suits, inertial suits need less data to record human motion because they capture the movement of joints directly, as opposed to optical suits, which track joint movement by comparing the distance from a user-designated origin point.

This makes the suit ideal for creating animations, testing for ergonomic studies, simulating military field training, and more.

One of the professors receiving a suit is Robin Queen, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics in the College of Engineering and director of the Kevin P. Granata Biomechanics Laboratory.

Queen plans to use the suits on patients in clinics and athletes in the field for her work in injury prevention and restoration of bodily function. The inertial-based suits are quicker than the typical optical motion capture Queen uses with cameras set up around her lab.

More importantly, the suits donated from Marraccini are mobile. They can be taken to the patient, rather than having to bring the patient to the lab.

“That’s the goal, to see what we can do with these suits to really be able to interact with [the patients] to provide them a little feedback on what they’re doing and how they’re moving — let them be able to visually see movement as opposed to spoken feedback — and really bring the science to them instead of them having to come to us here on campus. Hopefully this will allow us to be able to work with a wider variety of populations than we can right now,” Queen said.

John Kook, of Burke, Virginia, a sophomore studying computer science, wore the suit during one of two training sessions Marraccini hosted on Virginia Tech’s campus. Kook, who works on FutureHAUS, said the suit will be helpful in studying ways humans can interact with a home of the future — such as making gestures that control the home’s technology, like lights.

“I plan to be in this project until I graduate. So within the next two years I really look forward to what we can do with [the suit] and how much more we can improve our FutureHAUS,” Kook said.

For Marraccini, who was seeking out opportunities to be more involved with his alma mater — he already supports the Hyperloop at Virginia Tech team and is involved with the Apex Systems Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship — donating these suits to researchers at Virginia Tech was “a win-win” that was largely influenced by Pat Artis, a College of Engineering professor of practice who reached out to Marraccini.

“We have many ties to Virginia Tech. Our interns are Hokies, we employ several Hokies, our investors are Hokies, and our advisors are Hokies. Donating the equipment just seemed to go hand-in-hand with that: to get more involved with the university to try and make a difference for them as well as to help us grow our product,” Marraccini said.

One additional perk? Attracting Virginia Tech students to Inertial Labs. Marraccini hopes the exposure to an Inertial Labs product will influence students to look to his company for a job when they graduate.

This will be especially helpful for Marraccini in a major goal of his: continuing to grow his company using only Virginia Tech talent.

“When you’re a small business, you have to make good hires. There’s no room for error,” Marraccini said. “You know more of what you’re getting if the person graduates from Virginia Tech.”

Written by Erica Corder

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