How BMW’s self-driving car tech will give American swimmers a leg up in Rio

There are a growing number of fitness trackers for swimmers making a splash (pun firmly intended) in the marketplace, but very few as clever as the system BMW has developed in collaboration with the high performance team at USA Swimming. The official mobility partner of the U.S. Olympic Committee has created an incredibly clever motion tracking system designed to analyze a swimmer’s underwater dolphin kicks and provide quantitative performance data to coaches.

“Until now swimmers typically have had to depend on the coach’s eye to help them adjust their alignment, strokes, and kicks,” Peter Falt, director at BMW Designworks, tells Digital Trends. “By tracking and measuring the movement of the athletes’ joints and limbs during the kick and delivering hard data in real time to help improve technique and maximize that movement.”

“The result is a unique learning system where its analytic techniques continue to evolve to produce insight never before possible.”

It’s a shining example of how a technology developed for one field can be perfectly adapted for another.

Whereas most activity trackers work based on broad metrics like steps run or strokes made, BMW’s system is incredibly granular — and lets users dial in on specific movements in just the way that, dare we say it, BMW researchers might do with a new car in the R&D lab.

In fact, that’s not a bad comparison. In the same way that BMW uses LEDs on its cars, the automaker’s swimming tracking system attaches miniature lights to swimmers’ wrists, shoulders, hips, knees, ankles, and toes. (Just to make things extra high-tech, the LED mounts are 3D printed because… well, of course they are.) With the lights in place to illuminate the underwater environment, an underwater camera then films the practicing athletes, and this footage is analyzed with the same computer vision algorithms BMW uses for identifying objects in the road, estimating parking distances, and the finer elements of active cruise control.

It’s a shining example of how a technology developed for one field can be perfectly adapted for another. They even call it the “tail light” system — replacing an earlier “headlight” iteration, which used “illuminated tattoos” in place of LEDs.

Falt says that one of the big challenges was coming up with a solution that wouldn’t impede the way that swimmers were able to perform in training. This is one reason the system makes reference to tail lights since, like the disappearing tail lights of a car, the ambition was to make something that would be lightweight and unobtrusive enough to disappear from the consciousness of swimmers.

After all, while a slowdown of milliseconds wouldn’t mean too much for you or I, when you’re dealing with Olympic athletes it suddenly becomes a whole lot more crucial. “[It] was important to ensure the training didn’t create a different feeling or result than would be experienced in real competition,” Falt says. “This is also why we ruled out body suits or more obvious potential solutions that would have been a lot easier.”

Ultimately the technology means that coaches can not plot not only regular measurements (such as time) over the course of many, many practices, but also compare this data to specific performance points: noting where some almost imperceptible change makes a considerable difference over the length of a race. As Falt notes, “we can use the tool to hone in on technique adjustments that work best for each individual swimmer.”

“Our hope is that the potential of its outcome can make a significant impact on the future generation of swimmers.”

So, once Team USA — fingers crossed — emerges victorious in Rio, gold medals held aloft, are we going to be able to get our hands (and shoulders and hips and knees and…) on this technology? After all, if we start now we may be in with a shot for Tokyo in 2020. “Right now, we’re just focused on Team USA,” Falt says. “The tool is an exploratory project that we’ll continue evaluating over time, but our hope is that the potential of its outcome can make a significant impact on the future generation of swimmers.”

Usually the idea that a company was so explicitly comparing humans to machines, as is happening with the car/swimmer analogy, would be taken as a slight against people. In this case, the fact that BMW is willing to use its cutting-edge automotive research to help people (who aren’t even behind the wheel of a car) is the ultimate compliment.

After all, we know BMW really loves its vehicles. We guess it feels the same about Team USA swimmers as well!