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!

Product Review

This Porsche has a turbo, a hybrid system, and enough room for your whole family

The 2020 Porsche Cayenne Turbo S E-Hybrid is the most powerful Porsche Cayenne SUV model you can buy. It’s also a plug-in hybrid. Who said electrification was only about saving fuel?
Movies & TV

Skip the sunshine this summer and watch the best shows on Hulu

It's often overwhelming to navigate Hulu's robust library of TV shows. To help, we put together a list of the best shows on Hulu, whether you're into frenetic cartoons, intelligent dramas, or anything in between.

Infiniti will take on BMW and Mercedes-Benz with its own crossover coupe

Launching in 2020, the Infiniti QX55 will be a crossover coupe similar to models that have proven successful for BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Infiniti said the QX55 will have styling influenced by its early 2000s FX.

Camaro vs. Mustang: Differences and similarities between two premier pony cars

The Chevrolet Camaro and the Ford Mustang are two of America's favorite sports cars. In this comparison piece, we highlight the main differences between the two machines when it comes to their design and performance, among other factors.
Emerging Tech

Astro the dog-inspired quadruped robot can sit, lie down, and… learn?

Move over Spot! Researchers from Florida Atlantic University have built a new dog robot called Astro. Thanks to deep learning technology, it promises to be able to learn just like a real dog.
Health & Fitness

We spit in a ton of test tubes to find the best and most unique DNA tests

DNA tests aren’t just limited to ancestry. You can test for your risks for certain diseases, the best workouts and diets for your health and fitness, and more.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Racing drones and robotic ping pong trainers

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

Artificial tree promises to suck up as much air pollution as a small forest

Startup Biomitech has developed an artificial tree that it claims is capable of sucking up as much air pollution as 368 real trees. It could be a game-changer for cities with limited free space.
Emerging Tech

Mars 2020 rover now has a rotating array of drill bits for sampling Martian rock

Most the key components in the Mars 2020 rover are installed and ready to go. The next phase of construction was to install the bit carousel, an important mechanism for the gathering and sorting of samples from the Martian surface.
Emerging Tech

NASA selects landing site candidates for OSIRIS-Rex to sample asteroid Bennu

Last year, the OSIRIS-REx craft arrived at asteroid Bennu, from which it will collect a sample from the asteroid to be brought back to Earth. Now, the NASA team has selected four potential sites to choose from for the sampling mission.
Emerging Tech

NASA wants to send two more missions to Mars to collect rock samples

With its Mars 2020 mission, NASA hopes to collect samples from the surface of the planet. The challenge is how to get those samples back to Earth. Now, NASA has revealed its plans for two followup missions to Mars.
Emerging Tech

Eric Geusz: Apple engineer by day, spaceship designer by night

An Apple software engineer by day, artist Eric Geusz spends his nights drawing everyday household objects as amazing, science fiction-style spaceships. Check out the impressive results.
Emerging Tech

The black hole at the center of our galaxy is flaring and no one knows why

At the heart of our galaxy lies a supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*. Normally this giant monster is relatively docile, but recently it's been a hotbed of unexpected activity, rapidly glowing 75 times brighter than normal.
Emerging Tech

SpaceIL’s crashed lander may have sent thousands of tardigrades to the moon

When the SpaceIL craft Beresheet crashed into the moon earlier this year, it left more than just an impact mark. Thousands of micro-animals called tardigrades were along for the ride and may have survived the crash.