Technology Innovations in Swimming

We have noticed some trends in the swimming world recently that seem to reflect a broader movement of increased reliance on technology and data. Below is a high-level summary of new products and ideas that reflect these trends. It's always interesting for me to see what people are working on in the world of swimming and I thought you might enjoy it as well.

Blind Cap by Samsung:

Blind Cap is the first swimming cap provided with a vibration system and Bluetooth technology that removes the touch signal used so far to alert blind swimmer at the exact moment of the turn.

Blind Cap works like this: a small vibrating sensor paired via Bluetooth with a phone is placed inside the swimmer's cap. As the blind swimmer approaches the wall, the coach pushes a button on the phone which makes the sensor inside the swimmer's cap vibrate. This vibration serves as an alert for the swimmer to prepare for the turn.

The traditions system works like this: as a blind swimmer approaches the wall, the coach on deck taps the swimmer with a pole to alert the swimmer to prepare for the turn.

The Blind Cap replaces a tapping pole with a vibrating sensor which requires a phone, a phone app, and a Bluetooth connection. It does not, however, eliminate the need for a person to alert the blind swimmer about the turn. It also introduces multiple points of technology failure in addition to the singular human one shared by both approaches. While it remains to be seen if the Blind Cap is more effective than the regular tapping pole, it does show the potential of sensors and wireless technology in swimming.

SmartPaddle by Trainesense (Finland):

The patented technology measures the magnitude, direction and timing of the force during the strokes.

couldn't find much information about SmartPaddle available in English. As you can see in this video (in Finnish) SmartPaddle is a small piece of hardware that attaches to a swimmer's fingers, much like finger paddles. As you swim, SmartPaddle collects all kinds of data, including the power of the stroke. When you finish the swim, the data is transmitted to a computer where it is then analyzed and presented to the swimmer and the coach. The final graphs show the power output at various stages of the stroke. The aim is to identify flaws in the swim stoke and help the swimmer improve by working on those weaknesses.

SmartPaddle is a very good idea and an impressive technological achievement. What would make SmartPaddle even better though, is instantaneous feedback. From what I understand, the current version has a delay between swimming and data feedback. This delay makes it harder for the swimmer to make an association between the data produced by SmartPaddle and each phase of the stroke. Another change that I think would make SmartPaddle better is changing the placement position by moving the sensors down to the lower palm, which is where power is originated. (See this article for more on the origin of power in the lower palm and not fingers.)

Swimming Sonification Project from University of Bielefeld:

The objective of the project is to use sonification technology to expand swimmers’ perception and awareness of the water – and their movements in it. Sonification is a process in which measured data values are systematically converted into audible sounds and noises... [T]he majority of swimmers are not very aware of one significant factor: how the pressure exerted by the flow of displaced water on their bodies changes. If during their training swimmers were to take into account the pressure of water flows, they could enhance their feel for the water. This, in turn, would help them to swim with the least possible amount of resistance and drag.

Swimming Sonification is a very interesting project that tries to solve the same problem as the SmartPaddle (above) but takes a different approach.

The Sonification system includes 2 gloves fitted with pressure sensors that are connected to the computer via wires. (There are plans to make it a stand-alone product in the future.) During the swim, the pressure data is fed to the computer where it is translated into sound and transmitted to the swimmer via headphones. The sound generated by the Sonification system varies based on the pressure data. The idea is that the swimmer can associate the sound input with the position of her hands during each phase of the stroke and make instantaneous adjustments to generate more power.

The advantage of the Signification Project over the SmartPaddle is in the instantaneous feedback. It is much easier to make adjustments to your hand position when you receive just-in-time feedback rather than delayed feedback. The disadvantage of the Significant Project, however, is that the gloves in the current system cover most of the receptors that engender "feel for water." By covering the touch receptors with solid material, you are preventing the receptors from registering crucial tactile information necessary for feel for water. It is ironic to me that they are introducing one sensory input--auditory--at the expense of another--tactile. (You can read more about the "feel for water" in this article that I wrote in 2015.)

I have only mentioned three projects here but there are many more that attempt to use technology and data to help swimmers improve. It is getting easier to capture and analyze massive amounts of data for swimmers and coaches. What we still don't know, though, is what data are truly important, how to capture the data while maintaining the integrity of the swim, and how to provide feedback to the swimmer and coach in a manner and timeline that is most beneficial. I admit that I am skeptical--it seems that everywhere you look people are looking for data to answer questions--but they are not necessarily asking the right questions or they're not looking to other areas for the answer.