An alumnus' generosity spurs innovative research in body motion and injury prevention.
Studying balance and fall prevention. Developing more human-like robotic motion. Understanding human performance in simulated healthcare tasks.
These are just a few of the ways Virginia Tech researchers plan to use 16 motion capture suits to study body motion and injury prevention, thanks to the donation of the suits by alumnus Jamie Marraccini, a class of ‘93 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering who founded and serves as the 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.
Able to capture human motion with stunning accuracy, the suits are made of wires, soft fabric, and sensors that can be worn over clothes, 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 the wearer straps into the suit produced by Inertial Labs — known as “inertial” suits — they can move freely and flexibly, and can even capture motion underwater. Unlike optical suits, inertial suits need less data to capture 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, simulated 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, a sophomore studying computer science from Burke, Virginia, was on hand to wear the suit during one of two training sessions Marraccini hosted on Virginia Tech’s campus. Kook, who works on FutureHAUS, says 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 — on top of his support of the Hyperloop at Virginia Tech team and involvement with the Apex Systems Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship — donating these suits to researchers at Virginia Tech was “a win-win,” and 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.”
Marraccini would know. A native of Roanoke, Virginia, Marraccini always wanted to be an engineer — following in the footsteps of his father — which is what brought him to Virginia Tech.
“I always liked just the idea of creating something new that didn’t exist before and solving problems. And I was good in math and the other things you’re supposed to be good at in order to be an engineer,” he said.
What he didn’t anticipate was how entrepreneurial he would become throughout his engineering career, though it was always in the back of his mind.
After graduating Virginia Tech, Marraccini began working at a fellow Virginia Tech grad’s startup, before diverging to create a startup of his own.
In 1999, Marraccini founded a server automation software company called Plesk, which would eventually become Parallels. Today, his software hosts 11 million websites and is used by companies like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon Web Services.
In 2001, Marraccini incorporated Inertial Labs, which focuses on delivering “low-cost, high-quality” products that focus on position and orientation tracking. Among their work in motion capture, the company also develops products for gaming systems, robotics navigation, virtual and augmented reality, unmanned vehicles and more.
Today, the company is situated in a quiet corner of Paeonian Springs, Virginia in a converted farmhouse where Marraccini and his staff — composed mostly of Hokies — work on government and commercial contracts alike.
As for working with Virginia Tech, Marraccini hopes the faculty who are receiving his suits will help him find even more uses for it.
Queen, for one, is confident they will.
“It’s a great partnership back and forth between industry and academics, which is how some of the best innovations can happen,” Queen said.
If you want to have an impact on our students and faculty like those featured in this magazine, go here to support the College of Engineering. For more information, call Lindsay Arthur, advancement associate in the College of Engineering, at (540) 231-3628.