Wearable Technology That Makes Some Sense

From the Aspen Daily News by Curtis Wackerle

Technology and sports are coming together in new ways at the Winter X Games this year, as sensors attached to athletes’ snowboards in the mens’ big air and slopestyle competitions will instantly broadcast to fans data related to height, speed and number of rotations, among other metrics.

The application has been developed by computer-chip maker Intel in partnership with ESPN and the X Games, which is taking place through Sunday at Buttermilk ski area. It debuted publicly with Friday night’s broadcast of the big air.

The square-shaped sensor is about 1.5-inches on each side and about a third of an inch tall, and uses a radio frequency to transmit data to antennas strategically placed throughout the courses. The device, sensing the board’s vibrations on the ground, can tell when a rider goes airborne and at what speed, how many rotations and flips the rider completes and distance traveled in the air. It can also measure the force of impact on landing. Algorithms then translate that data and can identify what trick the rider is doing.

The gadget represents an evolution of applications that track distance, elevation gain and speed used frequently by runners and cyclists, but Intel officials at a media luncheon on Friday in Aspen said the technology is still in its infancy. 

“We see applications in every sport,” said Steve Holmes, Intel’s Santa Clara, Calif.-based vice president of the new devices group.

For example, Intel and Oakley are working on an eyewear product set to debut by the end of the year that will provide data on pace and distance, but will also “coach” the user on ways to better their performance, said Intel engineer Tyler Fetters.

The X Games were an obvious choice for the company to debut the product, Holmes said, because “there is no place where [athletes] go higher and farther.” (A recent test on the big air jump showed a “carry distance” through the air of between 90 and 115 feet for most riders.) 

Snowboarder Mark McMorris, who is competing in both the slopestyle and big air at X Games this weekend, said that at first, he was skeptical about attaching the sensor to his board. But after trying it out, he said he did not notice the device, which is placed in the center of the board behind the front binding.

“These guys are ninjas at putting it on,” said McMorris, 22, of Saskatchewan, Canada.

He said he’s pleased that the fans will get better insight into the tricks that riders are bringing to competition. The real-time data will give the television viewer greater understanding of the movements they are watching, McMorris said.

One group not getting the benefit of the technology at this year’s X Games is the judges, who will not be able to see the real-time feed interpreting riders’ movements. And that is just fine with McMorris. He’s worried that having the information presented in such an automated fashion would deemphasize a judge’s interpretation of an athlete’s style, and water down competitions into something based strictly on the number of rotations completed.

McMorris added that a judge should be knowledgeable enough about the sport they are deciding to know what type of tricks a rider is doing without the aid of a computer.

How to use new information and technology to help and not hinder athletics — and society at large — is an age-old debate. For baseball fans, few concepts are more controversial than using technology, similar to what Intel and ESPN are using at the X Games, to discern balls from strikes, potentially taking the calls out of the umpire’s hands. 

When asked how far away the company was from being able to implant a microchip into a baseball that could do just that, Holmes took a pass.

“Anything is technically possible,” he said. When asked specifically if the company was developing or had plans to develop baseball applications, Holmes said he cannot talk about what projects Intel is working on next.

curtis@aspendailynews.com

 

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