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MIT runners to be wired for Boston Marathon

Associate professor Michael Hawley of the Media Lab will be a "live wire" as he runs in the Boston Marathon for the first time next Monday. He and two of his students will be wearing several of his lab's new microelectronic monitoring devices--both on and inside their bodies.

Four small devices will act as "personal flight recorders" during the race, transmitting data on the runners' vital signs and position that will be uploaded directly to the Internet, said Professor Hawley, the Alex Dreyfoos Jr. Career Development Professor of Media Arts and Sciences.

Joining him on the 26-mile run will be Bradley Geilfuss, a graduate student in architecture, and UROP student Craig Wisneski, a senior in brain and cognitive sciences. Other nonrunning members of the team are graduate student Maria S. Redin, senior Matthew Lau and junior Oliver Roup, all of electrical engineering and computer science.

Mr. Geilfuss will also wear an electromyography (EMG) sensor attached to his body with a glue developed for NASA astronauts by Dr. Carl DeLuca and colleagues at Boston University's Neuromuscular Research Center. The sensor will track frequency shifts in the EMG during long-term lactic acid buildup, which results in muscle fatigue.

Among the devices that all three runners will carry is a plastic-sealed battery and radio transmitter the size of a vitamin pill. Each runner will swallow one before starting to run. "It's halfway between an oral thermometer and the other kind," he quipped.

The capsule, developed by Tom Blackadar and colleagues at Bolt, Baranek and Newman, transmits pulses at a known frequency. The received frequency of the pulses changes in proportion to fluctuations in the transmitter's surrounding temperature, so colleagues can monitor the runners for rising body temperature during the race--often a sign of dehydration.

The trio will also wear accelerometers in their shoelaces that will count their footsteps, and thin plastic straps around their chests to measure pulse rate ("more of a `bro' than a bra," Professor Hawley said), modeled on a heart monitor made by the Finnish company Polar.

There will also be a GPS (Global Positioning System) sensor plus a 1-by-2-inch board in a pouch that together will continually log the vital statistics. That device was originally developed by Draper Laboratories to track the whereabouts of Alzheimer's patients. The ensemble will be topped off with an antenna and Motorola's smallest cellular phone plus earbud, so Professor Hawley and his students can have constant voice as well as data contact. Finally, there are batteries--"too many batteries," he said. "It would be nice if your shoes generated all the power for the electronics. Maybe next year."

As well as conveying data to colleagues, the devices will send the information to a computer linked to the Internet, so anyone with World Wide Web access can monitor the runners' Marathon progress--"and my mother can watch in real time while I collapse from a heart attack at Wellesley," Professor Hawley joked. The URL will be .

Humor aside, the researchers hope the experiment will yield valuable information for their Black Boxes research project, which grew out of the Media Lab's Things That Think initiative. The project aims to develop many forms of wearable monitoring technology. "When your clothes know more about you three times a day than your doctor does once in a blue moon, the world changes," Professor Hawley said.

Researchers in this area are also working on scalable readers for pedestrians, cars, cameras and other venues. Such devices could some day take information from the Internet and the immediate surroundings, then pass it on according to the user's interests and location. "You could be out on a Sunday drive and your car might say, `Psst, there's a hot antique sale if you take a left at the next intersection,'" he said.

The Black Boxes project is funded by Kay Nishi, CEO of ASCII Corp. in Japan. Special equipment for the Marathon run was donated by Media Lab sponsors Motorola and Trimble Navigation.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 16, 1997.

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