Sensors capturing real-time data give fans unprecedented access to traditionally hard-to-relate-to sports like BMX and skateboarding.
Kyle Baldock’s passion for his sport is second only to his energy and deep desire to make BMX accessible to everyone – whether they strap on a helmet and take to two wheels or carve into the couch to watch the X Games with a drink and a bag of chips.
It’s a thrill he wants the whole world to experience.
BMX events used to be inaccessible to the masses; it was the domain of risk-taking adolescents who seemed to toe a line of youthful athleticism and daredevil drive.
Since its 1995 debut, the X Games has turned sports once considered “extreme” into mainstream international competitions. Now, with new technology integrated into some of the BMX and skateboarding events in Austin June 3-5, these formerly fringe sports are becoming even more accessible.
“When you watch these events at home, you really don’t get the perspective of how far they’re traveling or how high they’re going,” said Tyler Fetters, a new concepts engineer with Intel’s smart devices innovation team.
He said Curie collects data on everything from jump height to landing g-forces.
“With this information and technology, somebody at home can better understand exactly what the athlete’s going through as they’re doing these amazing feats.”
For the games, Intel Curie, a button-sized platform, is loaded with sensors, including an accelerometer, a gyroscope and magnetometer. The module is about the size of a box of matches and will be used in three events at the games – including Skate Big Air, BMX Big Air and BMX Dirt.
Two Curie-powered modules are attached to each rider’s BMX bike and on each skateboarder’s helmet.
“I’m really excited for the audience to be able to experience this technology,” said Fetters. “We can measure what the athletes are doing in real time and share it with the audience so that they can better engage with the sport.”
The data from the X Games tech also helps broadcasters break down the action, and helps athletes train more efficiently.
“This new technology is going to blow the world away,” said Baldock, 25, who believes better understanding of BMX will make it more accessible to viewers and young athletes coming into the sport.
Baldock, 25, grew up in a suburb of Queensland, Australia. As a kid, while his mom and grandmother worked at a nearby fish n’ chips shop, Baldock rode his bike in the nearby plaza, where he became entranced by a 27-year-old kid doing spellbinding tricks on his bike.
Baldock was enamored. That older “kid” took Baldock under his wing, showed him tricks and taught him how to drive passion into whatever he did.
“That passion and love for this sport…he gave it to me,” said Baldock. “I think about him all the time. It makes me push continuously.”
He said data from the Curie module helps inform his training – if he needs to get higher on a jump, for example, he might need to do more squats.
Many maintain the misconception that BMX riders don’t work out.
“We need to be extremely fit,” he said. “I think this is the most professional sport where we do the hardest tricks for 45 seconds. It’s like running 400 meters, having one breath, and trying to run 100 meters as fast as you can.”
Other athletes look to the technology to help with training and injury prevention. In a sport like Skate Big Air, each inch is vital and risky.
Skateboarder Bob Burnquist started skateboarding at age 10, in soccer-obsessed Brazil. He said his sport is all about feel and instinct, but technology has made him curious about the science behind his sport.
To outsiders, skateboarders seem to just launch and go, but Burnquist, also a pilot, said there’s so much more to think about – everything from altitude and wind speed to ramp angles and air temperature.
“I don’t need to know how much I’m spinning,” he said. “If I’m in my trick, it doesn’t matter whether I’m going 360 … I know how much I’m spinning. But I don’t know how fast I’m going, and I don’t know what the wind is doing – that information is really valuable.”
He said the real-time data collected from the Curie-powered module affixed to his helmet helps him adjust on the spot, but it also makes his sport more relatable for viewers.
“I definitely feel like having that information in front of the audience will get them a little bit more involved, interested or at least feel they’re not so outside,” he said. “Unless you’re a skateboarder or someone within our world, it’s tough to get and understand. For anyone not in our world, the more information the better.”
The Curie technology was also used to track snowboarder’s performance at the winter X Games in Aspen earlier this year. In winter, the snow, cold and wet environment was difficult as electronics and water are generally not friends. He said the summer games brought a new set of challenges.
“The motion they’re doing in BMX is so dynamic, we had to have two modules – on the handlebars and one on the frame, so when a rider does a 360, we capture the entire 360-degree motion,” he said.
Making sure the modules work together brought a new level of complexity.
“We really strive to be as accurate and precise as we can be,” said Fetters. “These athletes deserve nothing less. The feats that they’re doing are truly amazing. To keep up with them, we really have to push the limits of what our technology can do.”