Sports

X Games Technology Gets Insane with Intel Curie

Deb Miller Landau iQ Managing Editor

Since 1985, ESPN’s X Games has delivered a broadcast as epic as its event. While boosting the world’s interest in highly technical and progressive winter sports, it has leveraged technology to make the games experience truly world class.

A partnership between Intel and X Games announced at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, opened the floodgates for using powerful new technologies, starting at winter’s extreme showdown in Aspen, Colo.

Competitors in the Men’s Snowboard SlopeStyle and Men’s Snowboard Big Air events will have Intel Curie modules attached to their boards. Curie is a button-sized, low-powered device that will provide athletes, broadcasters and viewers with reams of never-seen-before real-time data.

“The cool thing is that for a lot of years our challenge was, how do we break down tricks and explain tricks?” said Tim Reed, vice president of X Games on ESPN.com. “There are a lot of spins and they happen pretty quick, so actually having real-time graphics will allow the announcers, fans and the audience at home to better understand this stuff that much easier.”

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Tyler Fetters, a new concepts engineer with Intel’s smart devices innovation team, and his teammates have been working in Aspen for months to get the tech just right.

He explained that each rider will have a “garage” (similar to a GoPro mount) affixed to his snowboard with double-sided tape. Inside the garage is the “puck,” which is integrated with an Intel Curie module. The module uses sensor data to provide metrics and information to the athletes, TV broadcasters, live viewers and anyone tuning in to ESPN or ABC.

The tiny module, which is the size of a pencil eraser, attaches to several sensors, including an accelerometer and the gyroscope, along with a compass, a barometer and a GPS.

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When the puck is attached to a snowboard, it can capture everything from speed and jump height, to air time and the number of rotations and flips — all in real time. It measures things like G-force and landing impact — valuable information to athletes and exciting stats for fans.

“One of the challenges with working with the X games is everything is just absolutely huge,” said Fetters. Jumps are enormous, along with the giant walls of snow that form the course, making transmitting data difficult.

To receive and transmit the vast amounts of data, several receivers are set up throughout the course — in trees, or on trucks or media platforms.

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There are other challenges inherent in working in snow.

“In general electronics tend not to like water,” Fetters said. “When things get really cold, batteries tend to perform at 50 percent and computers tend to shut off. We have to really design and engineer a system that can withstand the elements.”

For the athletes, the information the data provides is truly novel.

Fetters said being able to tell riders exactly how high and far they jumped and the impact of their landing is rewarding. “That kind of information to them is really exciting because they’ve never had anything like it,” he said. “They’ve never actually had any kind of real data to actually understand exactly what’s going on.”

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For 2015 gold medalist Mark McMorris, the Curie integration is a welcomed way to bring viewers closer to the sport of snowboarding.

“The average person at home doesn’t understand how technical the sport is,” he said. By seeing the data in real time, viewers can understand nuances of every jump and trick.

“We were able to read data on back flips, front flips, 720s, corks, 360s, 180s,” he said. “It’s pretty cool that Intel technology can put a computer brain that’s shaped about an inch by an inch on my snowboard and can tell me everything I’m doing.”

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For 2015 silver medalist Norwegian Ståle Sandbech, the new technology opens up doors for a richer audience experience, but also brings a new level to competition.

“I think everybody executes a trick differently,” Sandbech said. “So it’s going to be really interesting to see, for example, Mark’s triple cork compared to my triple cork.”

Fetters said that integrating technology into snowboarding at the X Games will lead to more possibilities for the button-sized Curie to be used in other sports.

Perhaps Sandbech sums it up best: “Technology is insane, man.”

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