With all the hifalutin analytical tools available to sports like baseball, basketball and tennis, younger sports BMX and skateboarding probably aren’t the most statistically sophisticated events going. Fair enough — but the foundation is being built for them faster than for sports that haven’t yet undergone a statistical revolution, like boxing or hockey. At the summer X Games last weekend, that came in the form of a little motion-tracking gadget called Curie.
Curie is a pod that captures jump height, jump distance, in-air rotation and impact upon landing. The contraption, made by Intel, is just 1.5 inches by 1 inch by 1 inch and weighs three-eighths of an ounce. This year, it was attached to bikes for the BMX Big Air and BMX Dirt and to riders’ helmets for the Skateboard Big Air event at the games, which took place in Austin, Texas (although because of bad weather, it only saw action in BMX Dirt). Despite its diminutive size, the puck packs in an impressive suite of sensors, including a 9-axis accelerometer, gyroscope, electronic compass, barometer and GPS — plus a built-in 900-MHz radio to beam the stats to ESPN, which owns and broadcasts the games.1 The Curie is not available to consumers — for now, it’s mainly a promotional tool for Intel among pro riders — but its closest competitor would be the Trace, which provides a similar function for surfing and snowboarding, though with far less granularity.
Here’s a clip of the Curie in action in Austin:
The Curie made its debut at the winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado, in January. That first version of the pod was three times larger and heavier than its current iteration. In Colorado, the pod was mounted directly on to the decks of snowboards in the men’s Snowboard Slopestyle and men’s Snowboard Big Air contests. On his gold medal Slopestyle run, Canadian Mark McMorris hit the final jump at 43 mph, rotated 1,440 degrees on his backside triple cork, and landed with an impact force of 11 times the Earth’s gravity (11.1 Gs). He traveled 83.5 feet.
That setup had to change for the summer games. Because a snowboard is attached directly to a rider’s feet through boots and bindings, it was easy enough to mount the pod on the board itself. But skateboarders are attached to their boards only via gravity and friction, so unobtrusively mounting one was more complicated. If a skater was rotating in mid-air and did a kickflip at the same time, the pod would report the in-air rotation of the board, but not the skater. Ultimately, Intel and ESPN had to decide which data set would be more compelling. It chose to stick Curie on the rider’s helmet, not only because it would likely deliver better data, but also because if a rider’s foot happened to catch on the Curie while coming off the 27-foot quarter pipe, the consequences could literally be deadly. Not much chance of riders opting in for that sort of risk.
While the technology is so new that it has only been deployed at the X Games (and in private testing), there’s potential for it to be applied more widely. I talked to BMX Big Air rider Morgan Wade to see if he would be open to using it in his training.
Wade said that he primarily rides by feel but that there are instances in which more information would be a big help in training. “Sometimes the little nuances are so small that you don’t pick up on exactly what’s wrong, but you know that something isn’t right, and that’s where this could be really beneficial,” he said.
Say you’re a BMX rider who is going over a 50-foot gap jump. You’re doing a huge 360 while spinning your handlebars clockwise. The jump is under-rotated, and you go down hard upon landing. What happened? Although Curie only displays certain metrics at the end of the run, it’s recording the entire thing. It can tell you that your rate of spin was 180 degrees per second when you first left the ramp but that it slowed to only 90 degrees per second by the time you landed. Was it just the friction of the wind that did that?
The data looks similar to an EKG readout, displaying the peaks and valleys over time for each metric. So you can line up that graph against the video footage, and look! The rotational speed decreased dramatically at the moment you spun the handlebars. You might think that next time you should try spinning it the other way or launch with more initial rotation to compensate.
One of the stats the Curie displays has baffled me for the past two X Games: the G-forces upon landing. I’ve seen numbers that are higher than 20 Gs, and that just doesn’t compute. If a rider weighed 175 pounds and landed with 20 Gs of force, he would effectively weigh 3,500 pounds (roughly 1,590 kilograms). There’s no way our musculoskeletal system could withstand that.
I asked Intel engineer Tyler Fetters if this could be bad data. He insisted that it wasn’t. “That number is the spike at the point of contact,” Fetters said. “That moment is so brief that it goes by in an instant. If they had to sustain it for even a half-second, they would probably be crushed or maybe even pass out.”
I asked Wade what a 20-G landing felt like. “It sucks,” he said, wincing. “Every time, my ankles feel like they’re falling apart.”
X Games judges haven’t yet integrated Curie data into their scoring. According to Fetters, the technology is just too new, and they want to make sure that it’s accurate close to 100 percent of the time before they consider it. However, he said that athletes and coaches are already asking Intel for a more mobile system (in which Curie could send data to a phone instead of the larger suite of computers and radios that is currently used) that could be deployed at parks and ramps anywhere and could help them get ready for the next big event.