Red Bull, as a brand, has never been one to be deemed as self-effacing. Rather, they have been bold enough to experiment as early adopters across the gamut of sports, especially non-mainstream ones. The foresight to imbue themselves into American soccer, eSports, and even ultimate frisbee denotes their commitment to emerging sports–building its own media niches potentially to be fruitful in the long-run.

Its wings have skyrocketed extreme sports to new heights. Red Bull understands the benefits of providing the resources to develop the sporting infrastructure from the ground up, where they garner positive brand association coupled with diversifying its reach. They strategically pursue the communities that best reflect its products’ intended halo effect.

Red Bull’s eye, though, towards being cutting edge for one of its domain sports, surfing, delves into unchartered depths.

Recently, Red Bull went down to one of Mexico’s ocean shores to conduct a series of scientific experiments, where they would beta test new technologies on their surfing athletes and push the sport of surfing forward. Science, naturally, pervades surfing in a sundry of elements, including weather conditions, swell models, and wave mechanics. Their objective was to implement high-tech equipment in order to further propel the development of these new technologies, especially under real life parameters and not confined in a incubated state. By probing the technology’s functionality and producing tangible outcomes, the takeaways, in theory, will serve as a framework to improve athletic performance in the water as well as sports played on land.

The types of technologies explored ranged from video, the AirDog drone, motion-capture sensor by Notch, Trace’s surf session tracker, PPS pressure-sensing booties, and wearable-sensing’s dry EEG. Yet, arguably the most intriguing experimentation that opened eyes-literally and figuratively–pertains to eye-tracking technology from SensoMotoric Instruments (SMI), a German-based leader in dedicated computer vision applications.

After examining the various eye-tracking technologies on the market, Brandon Larson, Red Bull’s High Performance Technologist, informs SportTechie that they elected SMI not only due to its strong offering with their product and expertise, but because they shared the same adventurous spirit as the brand to fulfill the obstacle of incorporating something that’s never been done in an ocean setting.
The eyes of a user stand as a critical source of information input in surfing. Through SMI’s technology, the ability to identify precisely what a surfer is seeing and focusing on while riding waves becomes available for the first time.

The SMI eye-tracking glasses, accordingly, were developed and debuted in the market more than three years ago. Thereafter, they consists as an established tool in scientific and professional research; proven with upwards of 100,000 participants in training, market research, UX, and psychology.

“When we started with the customization for this surf project, we noticed the challenge was not to just seal electronics inside the glasses using a normal coating to be waterproof. The intruding water changed the magnetic fields around our electronics; and by this, the electronics stopped working, so we had to make sure that no water at all is getting close to the electronics,” tells Dr. Arnd Rose, SensoMotoric Instruments’ Product Manager, to SportTechie, with regards to the construction of the goggles from the outset.

Two waterproof goggles were made for this endeavor. Once built, SMI stressed each unit in a 12h high pressure salt water test, stimulating the extensive pressure transpiring when surfers dive through the waves. Only after both units proved to pass this protocol, they went on with the rest of the project’s processes.

The design and form factor of the goggles and pertinent recording equipment must be lightweight in real-world applications, so as to not interfere with the specific task that user attempts to complete. SMI’s glasses are immediately ready to be utilized, which is important in real-time training situations. Again, for the purposes of this project, no water to come between the eye cameras and the surfers’ eyes in order to not impede with the quality of the tracking.

Marshall and Moniz simply had to put on the glasses, which were connected to a smartphone device that was housed inside the fanny pack mounted on their backs. The glasses can then be controlled from a remote computer via a Wi-Fi connected system. The connectivity enabled them to follow the apparent gaze behavior experienced live from their beach outpost. In case of technical difficulties, sometimes these surfers would have to stare briefly at a particular point in the environment, assisting for calibration.

A surf session by these athletes lasted between 30 minutes to two hours. Red Bull and SMI analyzed the individual gaze videos from every session and compared the visual behavior in key sequences, including preparation for action, decision-making prior to surf, attention to trainer, and surfing–all of which data extracted from the goggles was juxtaposed with the other surfer’s similar tasks.

“Actually, we did not really know what would happen–especially if the system would work under such harsh conditions,” states Dr. Rose, with respects to the team’s initial expectations.

“What we found was that the eye-tracking worked from the first minute without any problems as usual. So, in the end, we were really impressed with the results. Though this was just a pilot study, we could detect some characteristic gaze behavior; and, thus, help athletes improve and maintain peak performance,” Dr. Rose added.

While most current technologies are robust enough to sustain data collection in extremely hazardous climates, the testing modules relevant to this project shows signs that it can transferred over to other extreme sports, like skiing or wingsuit piloting. The door is open to share their findings with those that are, too, researching or scientifically practicing in the fields where visual insights makes dividends.

“If we can hack talent at the elite level, there may be a great benefit for the rest of humanity, Larson believes, particularly in the areas of concussions, debilitating diseases, and cognitive decline.

It’s worth noting that Red Bull and SMI were able to leverage to bring a few complementary technologies together. By doing so, new questions and new ideas came about, conversing on the best ways to bridge technology and performance. The conception of using eye-tracking in a virtual reality setting, but also being open-minded to virtual training opportunities; segueing into studying and assessing concussions and head trauma collectively in shorter interval of time, too, present synergies still to be discerned. Mother nature, of course, can quickly dismantle any technological pursuit–no matter how well-thought-out a project of this exploratory scope can be.

Eye-tracking technology, though, has been around for nearly a decade now, but it’s just honing its potential as a viable method across numerous use cases. It can be installed in various form factors as well, with the gaming arena a likely boon for it. Here, it increases the bandwidth between the gamer and the game, itself, where it it function as a tool to recall past sessions or serving as a third layer to depict something to those watching the action. Pattern recognitions would materialize to the point that gestures based from the eyes will determine character movements, leaving hands occupied on the controller to maximize activity in the game.

Dr. Rose explains its hardware and software capabilities further in relation to eye-tracking technology: “Our glasses provide objective data on a user’s visual behavior in addition to the scene a person is viewing. This helps to determine which visual information is perceived prior to initiating an action. The final goal is to determine which type of visual behavior and visual cues help to improve performance. Google Glass is a display presenting information to the user. The system does not track where the user is looking at.”

SMI’s goggles, thus, purports visual analysis and visual training to happen simultaneously in sports, considering its natural gaze headgear and wireless functionality. Real-time feedback systems in order to help athletes reach an accelerated pace to their performance is the next step within the eye-tracking ecosystem.

Larson believes that just allowing all the parties to have a playground to explore such technology’s impact on surfing, and later on to other sports, is a win, striving to make better decisions about the design and future uses for it.

Red Bull and SMI’s collaboration to test eye-tracking technology poses the possibility to distance users away from generalities, and more towards individualized programming in sport.