In 2013, three young men founded a fitness app startup in Munich - with a YouTube video, a newsletter, and three PDFs. Today, Freeletics, a leader in the so-called fittech scene, has over 53 million users in 175 countries worldwide and employs 150 people. This spectacular development shows how rapidly AI has found its way into sports.
The Corona pandemic has further accelerated this development. According to a study by "AppAnnie," health and fitness app downloads jumped 60 percent in the second quarter of 2020, when numerous lockdowns went into effect worldwide. But even since then, the number of fitness app users has continued to grow: while there were 1.97 billion fitness app downloads in 2019, AppAnnie's "State of Mobile Report 2022" recorded 2.48 billion downloads for 2021.
And users are also spending more time on their mobile workouts. Clearly, the mobile AI coach is on the rise. But AI is now indispensable not only in training apps: it also plays a major role in professional sports, in marketing and at the interface with the health sector.
"AI has already begun to dominate the fitness sector. Freeletics, Zwift, Peloton or Mirror provide people with the electronic resources to achieve their fitness goals without the need for human-to-human communication," says John Persico in an exclusive interview with ISPO.com. The Australian is founder and director of the Sports Tech World Series (STWS), a leading international sports technology community.
Freeletics has been a pioneer in the AI fitness industry since 2013 just like Peloton, which was founded a year earlier. The now publicly traded U.S. company recognized the Corona crisis as an opportunity to attract new spinning customers through increased marketing. In the meantime, Peloton has moulted with its Plus program to the workout complete provider and advertises even in the TV program at prime time.
The online training platform Zwift, which is successful in the field of cycling and running, is also one of the largest virtual fitness providers with two million paying users worldwide. And the startup Mirror, which offers a mirror with speakers and a camera as an AI fitness assistant, would be sold in the middle of the pandemic for a whopping $500 million to the company Lululemon Athletica.
These examples show: Artificial Intelligence is becoming more and more prevalent in sports at all levels from the coach to the athlete to the fan. The basis for this is that through wearables and other smart technological observers, so much data and statistics are available as never before.
The world's leading provider in soccer, Opta Sports, calculates valuable statistics such as individual players' running kilometers, passing rates or goal-scoring efficiency from thousands of individual pieces of information. In top professional leagues such as the NFL, NHL and NBA especially in team sports coaches have long used AI-based data and video evaluation programs to analyze the weaknesses of opponents and develop strategies.
"AI is also increasingly being used in media technology in stadiums. This involves grouping spectators, for example, to provide suitable ads depending on demographics," Persico
It is impossible to imagine sports without AI, he says: "Digital marketing and digital communications are becoming the standard for viewing and consuming sports, both in stadiums and at home. AI is helping to ensure that audiences can consume sports with the maximum amount of relevant information."
This is also and especially true in difficult times like the Covid 19 pandemic. Here, AI can help combat the spread of the virus. The Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute has achieved spectacular success by matching wearable data with AI models: Corona infection is said to be detected with 90 percent certainty three days before infected individuals notice their first symptoms. Many fitness wristbands and smartwatches measure heart rate and blood oxygen saturation in addition to resting pulse. They also provide permanent sleep and activity information. These data change with acute respiratory diseases such as Covid-19.
At all, the combination of health and sports seems more important than ever at the moment, especially when it comes to health metrics. Even in the Spregnancy can be monitored by a tool from Garmin. Artificial intelligence also helps here.
"Wearables for health and fitness are gaining traction. Another good example is Griffith University in Queensland, Australia's joint work with Vald Performance on an AI program. It is being used to develop workouts that are directly tailored to individual physical data and muscle fiber capabilities. This can improve recovery and prevent the risk of reoccurrence of illness or injury during rehabilitation," reports Persico.
The most familiar AI tools for most ordinary users, of course, remain those in the fitness industry. On the one hand, those like Mirror, which help users execute movements correctly or better. Or applications like Freeletics, which recommend a variety of individual workouts.
"The main benefits for users are access to workout planning, monitoring and even motivation at a fraction of the current cost, reaching many more people than ever before," says Simon Alger, Lead Data Scientist at Freeletics, speaking to ISPO.
In addition, the AI technology can process incredible amounts of data from wearables and other connected devices, which would be simply impossible for a human trainer. Information, experiences and feedback from users all over the world flow together centrally in the apps, are grouped according to criteria such as performance level, age, gender and sporting preferences. An endless number of individual programs can be put together from the results. The highlight: Through the constantly advancing machine learning with AI, the personal workout plan from the app coach becomes more and more precise over time.
That's why people will want to take advantage of this new technology - just as they do, for example, in robo-based asset management. There will still be room for traditional gyms and personal trainers, according to Alger: "There will probably always be a place for personal trainers. Some people just want a human touch; others need accountability to a real human being. And overall, I expect that person-to-person communication in the fitness industry will actually increase as a result of digitization. Groups of people around the world can already be supported, encouraged, and compete against each other in ways never before possible."
Thus, AI and virtual reality (VR) are even creating entirely new hybrid sports. The development of AI in sports has just begun...