If the X Games were a person, this year they'd be able to walk into a bar to buy their first beer. And while they've evolved over time—from the "Extreme Games" into the X Games, into summer and winter iterations, from Providence to San Francisco to Philadelphia to L.A. to Austin, to international events, and more—the basics are still pretty much the same: Do incredible things on a BMX bike, or a skateboard, or a dirtbike, and try to be even more impressive than the dude or lady who did the stunt before you.
That's not about to change anytime soon, but the next evolution of extreme sports and the X Games might end up—like so much in our world these days—being data driven.
That's something that Intel is interested in, anyway, as it introduces wearable technology that allows athletes to quantify what they're doing. The Intel Curie module—a tiny, button-sized piece of equipment—gives athletes real-time analytics that they've never had access to before. They can learn their speed, the height of their jumps, the degree or rotation, and the force of landing as they compete in the BMX and Skate Big Air competitions—those are the ones with the gigantic ramp—as well as the BMX Dirt event.
The technology will have an immediate impact on viewers watching the Games on ESPN—they'll be able to see the data Intel captures during the live broadcast—but it's also a big deal for the competitors themselves, who have had to rely on ad-hoc methods of making sure that they weren't going to be jeopardizing their lives while engaging in death-defying stunts.
"Last year, at X Games, I was doing a first trick that had never happened before. I didn't want anybody to know about it, but I needed to make sure I was going high enough to have the time I needed to do the trick," explains three-time X Games medalist in the BMX Big Air competition, Colton Satterfield. "So I took two iPhones I filmed it on and put them side-by-side, and paused and played them to make sure I had enough airtime to do the trick. That was my way of making sure I wasn't going to get severely hurt."
The new technology improves that process, as you might expect.
"During our testing, I did a Cork 7 over the ramp, and I thought I over-rotated. I asked the guy, and he said, 'It looked like you were trying to do a 720°—you went 722°.' That was the moment that was like, 'Holy...'," Satterfield says. "We do so much to gauge how we're doing—mostly we ask other riders, like, 'How high do you think that was?' But it's really interesting now that you can work on it by yourself and take out the middleman and learn exactly what you need to perfect and learn what you did wrong, and then even go back and see all of the jumps that you've had and how you've improved throughout the way. The potential here is just barely hitting me."
The specifics that Satterfield talks about might seem insignificant—how different is a 720° spin from a 722°?—but if you've ever been in the air on a bike before, you know that they really matter. Especially on an event like Big Air ("it's one of the gnarliest events that there is," Satterfield explains), knowing that he went to 722° on a jump lets someone like Satterfield know that he's pushing the red, and reaching a place where he could get hurt. "It's a slap in the face that says, 'Hey dude, make sure you chill on your spin a lot harder so you're not doing it again, because if you take it past 722°, you're going to jackknife and get sent out of the contest."
All of this is good news for athletes, and it's neat for fans. But when it comes to changing the nature of the competition, Intel wants to be sure that they don't end up going too far. What's the future of the technology behind the Intel Curie, and what does it mean for action sports going forward?
Tyler Fetters is the Intel Concept Engineer who was the project lead on the Curie, and he's been testing the device with the X Games athletes. He doesn't gush like a lifelong action sports enthusiast—when he talks about the athletes, you get the feeling that his appreciation for their events is something he acquired fairly recently. And the way he talks about it makes clear that his vision of the future for technology in the X Games is one that uses devices like the Curie as a tool, not a metric.
"One of the things that I think is important about the technology is that it's used for the benefit of the sport, and that the direction is actually dictated by the stakeholders," Fetters says. "I would hate for us to come in and say, 'This should be used for scoring, and that's the best application for it!' and then it turns out that we've changed the sport for the worst, and it becomes a technical sport rather than a creative one, where people are just trying to master the sensor the best they can to win the competition."
It's all very new, in other words, and Fetters is aware that Intel and the X Games are entering the Wild West here, in terms of mapping some uncharted territory. But that newness brings opportunity, and everyone involved—from Intel to the athletes to ESPN, which organizes the X Games—seems pretty ready to adapt on the fly, if they see a way to better the experience early on.
"One of the things that's really exciting about working with ESPN is that they told us, 'If the athletes think something might be cool, let us know, and we'll experiment with it literally days before the competition, and see if we can't make a change on the fly to make sure we're using the technology to optimize the experience for everyone,'" Fetters says. "If it represents what the athletes are doing well, and it might be a good view for the audience, we'll experiment with that."