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May 16, 2018

figur8: Digitizing 3-D body movements for everyone

Nan-Wei Gong and figur8 are spurring the growth of wearable technology within the sports medicine and digital health sectors, where they aim to commercialize digitized 3-D body movement technologies.

Daniel de Wolff

Nan-Wei Gong is an MIT research affiliate and engineer with a penchant for turning wearable technologies into viable tech startups. Her most recent venture, figur8, Inc., is an MIT E14 company that straddles the sports medicine and digital health sectors with the aim of taking digitized 3-D body movement technologies out of the lab and into the hands of everyday users. She holds a PhD and MS in Media Arts and Sciences from MIT and a MS in Materials Science and Engineering from National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. During her time at the MIT Media Lab, she co-founded and was hardware engineering lead at her first startup, 3dim Tech Inc., an MIT spinoff that designed and developed gesture control and 3-D sensing software.

Nan-Wei Gong,
Cofounder and CEO,
figur8, Inc.
In 2013, 3dim won the grand prize at the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, followed by a successful exit in 2014. She is also the founder and CEO of Circular2, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in wearable computing, hardware system design and manufacturing. Other notable successes include her stint as R&D Lead of Project Jacquard, which saw Google partnering with Levis to develop everyday wearable textile technologies. Her fluency in both the engineering and industry aspects of wearable sensor technologies means she knows what she’s talking about when she says of her latest venture: “We’re certain that figur8 is uniquely positioned to become the low-cost, easy to use, hardware platform capable of democratizing 3-D body movements for everyone.”

The growth of the wearable technology market shows no sign of slowing down, though it is evolving beyond the typical wrist-worn devices most consumers are familiar with. Nan-Wei Gong and figur8 are at the forefront of this transition. “We go beyond the one point of measurement utilized by products like Fitbit and translate that into a modular platform allowing users to take measurements from any part of the body.” One might recall the brightly colored strips of kinesiology tape that first came to prominence during the 2008 Olympics and have since become ubiquitous in the realm of professional sports. “It’s a form factor that is widely accepted in sports medicine,” says Gong. “At figur8, we take that form factor and make it smart through our movement platform, or what we call a Kit.”

To do form analysis, existing platforms rely heavily on a room full of cameras. Gong’s unique vision, actualized in the form of figur8, minimizes the technology so it’s wearable and tracks the movement and 3-D contour of the human body. The individual sensors used to track the movement of a user’s back muscles or the laxity of their knees, for example, are composed into a network of sensors which then transmit signals through Bluetooth or a smartphone, allowing users to receive specific suggestions for improving their body movements. Whether you’re interested in improving your golf swing or your gait as a runner, figur8 would help you reach your goal.

They’ve been working with hospitals and sports science doctors since the early stages of development—including their Director of Sports Science Donna Scarborough, former Director of Sports and Analytics Lab at MGH—and the entire system is built to be HIPAA compliant, meaning that data gathered is treated as medical records, with all the requisite privacy protocols that entails. This year they’ll be rolling out their developer SDK’s and KPI’s and they already have several early adopters, primarily research groups, interested in using the figur8 hardware platform for analysis and studies in computer interaction design, gaming design and sports training. “We want to be the platform that is focused on content management to allow everyone to create, download and upload content using our kits,” she says. “We see the potential for movement data to become something interesting, exciting and valuable, potentially even to be traded as a commodity.”

As Gong and her team engage new clients, they are particularly interested in working with industry partners that rely on camera-based models for movement analyzation and want to take this outside of the lab. They’re also looking to partner with groups that have may have never used this type of technology but have a part of their system or business that relies on the movements of people. “Imagine you have a factory with workers of different skill sets. Our platform can be used to analyze and improve craftsmanship or even the fatigue and stress levels of workers.” The implications are fascinating. figur8’s platform could, in theory, be used to help determine who is best fit to do a particular type of job or how much break time is necessary for the body to recover and function at an optimal level.

She credits much of the figur8 ethos of innovation and experimentation to her ties with the Media Lab. “I’m interested in bringing my expertise to other fields,” says Gong, echoing the Institute’s emphasis on eliminating silos and effectively engaging specialists with disparate backgrounds to solve the pressing challenges of our time. “At figur8, we are not just about engineering ideas and engineering solutions,” she says. Rather, they’ve collaborated with doctors, physical therapists, sports scientists and athletes to create a product based on specific needs. Her choice of team members reflects a similar mindset. figur8 boasts a group of top engineers who also have experience bringing products from prototype to production, including co-founder and CTO Tim Ren, Hardware Lead Marius Gailius and Software Lead Keith Desrosiers. “I want figur8 to be driven by collaboration between experts,” says Gong. “This includes bringing people like our Business Specialist, Yi-Yun Chao and our Design Lead Mian Wei together to ensure that figur8 is peerless, not just in terms of hardware, devices and engineering, but in every aspect of what we do.”

About MIT Startup Exchange, STEX25, and MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP)
MIT Startup Exchange actively promotes collaboration and partnerships between MIT-connected startups and industry. Qualified startups are those founded and/or led by MIT faculty, staff, or alumni, or are based on MIT-licensed technology. Industry participants are principally members of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP).

MIT Startup Exchange maintains a propriety database of over 1,500 MIT-connected startups with roots across MIT departments, labs and centers; it hosts a robust schedule of startup workshops and showcases, and facilitates networking and introductions between startups and corporate executives.

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MIT Startup Exchange and ILP are integrated programs of MIT Corporate Relations.