Tuesday February 16th, 2016

At the X Games in Aspen last week, substance challenged (slope)style—and Big Air—thanks to a device called Curie developed by Intel. Attached to each snowboard between the athlete’s feet was a nondescript white box about a couple of inches long and an inch high. Inside that was a slice of silicon less than the size of your thumbnail that recorded and analyzed everything that happened to the board as it slid down the slope or flew through the air.

In 2014, a handful of engineers at Intel rigged a couple of pieces of existing hardware together as the company explored entering the burgeoning wearables market. But Intel wasn’t satisfied with simply joining the crowd. Curie doesn’t just have accelerometers and gyroscopes for measuring movement, but also a Quark processor that incorporates pattern matching and can learn about what you do.

“Wearable technology before was really useful for recording your performance,” says Steven Holmes, the Intel VP responsible for the company’s New Devices Group, “but it wasn’t really good at giving you in-the-moment recommendations that allow you to enhance your performance.”

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Curie is intended to be used pretty much anywhere, not just on snowboards, but somehow the X Games seemed the perfect place to start. Tyler Fetters, a new-concepts engineer at Intel, grew up snowboarding, wakeboarding, and BMX biking, and when the idea for Curie was first floated at Intel he immediately volunteered to help out. The first time Intel CEO Brian Krzanich saw Curie in operation, it was a chunky prototype attached to a skateboard.

Krzanich views adventure sports as an easier place to start because there is far less red tape to deal with than in the Big Four pro sports, and because X Games athletes are by nature a little more adventurous, a little more open to experimentation. Events like slopestyle and big air also have far fewer existing metrics behind them—they’re judged on style—so Curie offers athletes in those sports a way to quantify their runs for the first time. “They can become much more repetitive,” Krzanich says, “they can start to get numbers behind their feelings, and know for sure exactly what they’re doing.”

“What I was most interested in was the G-force,” says Ståle Sandbech, a Norwegian snowboarder who won silver in the slopestyle at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games. “In G-force they say a number and I have no idea what it is.” Sandbech wants to be able to tie the numbers from Curie to the feeling he has out on the snow.

Last December, Intel invited Sandbech and Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris to Aspen to demo Curie, but they only got to briefly experiment on small jumps. That trip was really for the benefit of the company’s engineers, as they tried to ensure their system worked well in freezing temperatures and at high speed. “The athletes are performing these tricks at such high rates. They’re in the air for maybe two, two-and-a-half seconds, but in that time they’re flipping upside down twice, they’re spinning 1,080 degrees,” Fetters says. “All of that is happening in such a short period of time.”

ESPN X Games

X Games owner and broadcaster ESPN’s interest in Curie focused on improving the experience for fans watching both in Aspen and at home. “People are now desperate for facts,” Sandbech says. “Every 15 seconds you need new facts,” Receivers placed along the course relayed the data from Curie back to Jumbotrons and the broadcast feed, giving spectators live stats on jump entry speeds, distance, rotations, and landing forces. “Not a lot of people can notice the difference between a 1080 and a 1260,” McMorris says. When a snowboarder is spinning fast for the few seconds they’re up in the air, working out exactly what trick they just did isn’t always easy, or wasn’t until now.

McMorris came to Aspen this year as the defending champion in both Big air and Slopestyle, but was edged by fellow Canadian Max Parrot in the first of those. In Slopestyle, though, McMorris held onto his title with a 92.66-point run on his second attempt down the course. He also made X Games history by becoming the first ever to land a front-side triple cork 1440 followed immediately by a back-side version of the same trick. According to Curie, his landing impact from the first of those two registered 16.3 G, and he hit a high of 43 mph coming into the second jump, sailing 83 feet, six inches down the slope.

None of that data was fed live to McMorris, but there are no real technological reasons why it couldn’t be in the future. Oakley already makes snowboarding goggles with inbuilt head up displays. Both McMorris and Sandbech, however, are reluctant to see that happen. “If you have a screen in your goggles,” Sandbech says, “I don’t know if my brain could capture that fast enough to react and change my speed.”

McMorris sees both the power of Curie and the downsides of focusing too much on data in a sport that is all about flow and feeling. “If this technology goes into the judges’ or the riders’ hands, it’s not going to be good for the sport,” McMorris says. “It needs to stay in the homes of the people watching on TV.”

Sandbech agrees. “Everyone rides differently and there’s no correct way of snowboarding,” he says. Even though he lost out on a gold medal in at Sochi 2014 due to a controversial judging call, Sandbech doesn’t want to lose the human element from the sport.

Data from each athlete’s jumps might, though, offer amateurs a way to copy their favorite pro. Learn to triple cork like McMorris or Sandbech, for example. Curie’s algorithms might also turn it into a virtual coach, debriefing riders after each trick and helping them learn the skills needed to try something new.

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Next up, Intel plans to fine tune Curie and perhaps release it as a commercial product with the right partner. “My job in life is to keep making things smarter and smaller, and cheaper,” Krzanich says. “Right now it fits inside a coat button, next is a shirt button, and then after that it could be embedded in your clothing.”

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