`I never expected skateboarding to look like this," says 20-year- old Justin Eldridge, pointing to the ping-pong-style balls stuck all over his body. Readjusting the bulky digital transmitter strapped to his waist and threatening to pull his shorts down, he jogs past the array of computers and cameras, board in hand, and climbs the ramp for another jump.
Here, at a warehouse in the hills of Orange County, California, two improbable bedfellows have joined forces: skateboarding and science. This is the Sole Technology Institute, or STI for short, which claims to be the world's first and only biomechanics research laboratory dedicated to the study of skateboarding and action sports.
Unlikely though it sounds, the STI is a serious, multi-million- dollar initiative set up to analyse, and subsequently combat, injuries suffered by participants in board sports, and skateboarding in particular. Collecting data through a range of experiments, researchers pursue three key aims, displayed as a creed on giant banners around the facility: "Reduce injuries; enhance performance; ride longer."
Professional skateboarders such as Eldridge are enlisted to pull tricks, grind rails and jump steps in controlled laboratory conditions, while complex equipment wired to their clothing feeds infor- mation back to the technicians, revealing the exact effects certain movements have on their bones, joints and muscles.
As I watch, Eldridge flies off an 8ft-high staircase, landing with a thud on an electronic pressure plate. On a computer screen nearby, a 3D image of a foot appears, coloured patches denoting everything from the point of greatest impact to the current temperature inside his trainers; after an afternoon's work, the gauge glows an angry red.
Six carefully placed cameras also record Eldridge's movement through the air, courtesy of reflective "kinematic markers"(the ping- pong balls) pinned to his feet, legs, arms and head. Often referred to as "motion capture", it's a technique more frequently used by Hollywood film studios than professional skateboarders.
As Eldridge cheerfully picks himself up for another lemming-like leap, Jeremy Determan, the manager of the STI, explains the principles behind their work: "Biomechanical testing is the study of human motion," he says, "and in [board] sports, that could be anything from looking at how much impact occurs on landing to how much traction is required to power the board. We can also look at how various segments of the body - ankles, knees, hips and so on - are being affected, as well as how much pressure is being applied through the foot."
The last of these factors is particularly important to skateboarders. High jumps, repetitive rail grinds and heavy landings can exert tremendous pressure on the feet. According to the STI, the force placed on the foot while walking is twice a person's body weight, rising to three times when running. By comparison, the impact during skateboarding can be as much as 17 times the rider's body weight - similar to that experienced by a fully-kitted paratrooper when landing.
Equipped with data such as this, the STI aims to help in the manufacture of better - in this case, safer - footwear. This, it is hoped, will not only help combat the ankle and knee injuries so common in board sports, but also help to push the boundaries of the sport, by providing a safe platform for even bigger and better tricks.
The STI, based roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego in the town of Lake Forest, is a joint venture between Sole Technology - the holding company for a number of skating brands - and the University of Massachusetts, a leader in the world of biomechanics research. Tellingly, one of the project's consultants is Professor Ned Frederick, who originally worked with Nike to develop their Air cushioning system for training shoes. …