Tech for your connected self

Sync or swim: The challenge of building smart swimming goggles

Bringing connected smarts to the swimming pool is proving tough

Despite its huge popularity, swimming has been left behind as far as innovation in the wearable space is concerned. According to Sport England's Active People Survey, more than 2.5 million people aged 16 and over swim at least once a week. That makes it England's most popular mass participation sport, above athletics, cycling, football and golf. It's similarly massive in the US; in 2015, more than 46 million Americans went for a dip.

With so many hitting the pool or the open water, you'd think companies would be falling over themselves to make swimming-specific wearables. While Apple, Fitbit, Samsung and Garmin now all offer swim tracking, swimming as an activity is often treated as the poor relation to running and cycling.

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Sure, most smartwatches count your laps and tell you how efficient your stroke is. But where are our augmented reality goggles, complete with heads-up displays giving us real-time readouts of our performance?

The good news is there are a number of wearables on the horizon that promise to do just that. The bad? Production isn't exactly going swimmingly.

Drowning in delays

Sync or swim: The challenge of building smart swimming goggles

Right now, there are three main devices we'd refer to as 'smart goggles': Instabeat, Zwim and Ovao. Instabeat and Zwim promise to give the swimmer a full heads-up display, showing them stats like pace and heart rate in real time. Both are struggling to get into the water.

Instabeat promised to launch back in 2013, but we're still waiting. The latest on the Instabeat website promises to launch in spring 2017. Well, they clearly missed that release window. Zwim hit its funding goal on Indiegogo just before Christmas last year, and aims to start shipping in May. Zwim's wearable is a standalone pair of goggles, rather than an accessory to your current pair, which could make it a tough sell. It can take a long time to find goggles that fit just right. Will swimmers really give up their trusty pair for one made by a company with no proven track record?

Goggles inevitably need replacing too; rubber perishes, visibility diminishes. And hundreds of pounds is a big ask every couple of years. There's a reason no one builds step counters into running shoes.

We reached out to both Instabeat and Zwim to give us an update on progress with their smart goggles, but we didn't get a response from either startup.

A coach in the corner of your eye

Sync or swim: The challenge of building smart swimming goggles

Ovao is a simpler proposition. It clips onto your goggles – it claims to fit 90 per cent of the most popular indoor pairs – with an LED in the corner of your vision. This changes colour telling you to speed up or slow down, depending on which heart rate zone you should be in for your selected training programme. It has a built-in metronome that beeps at your target pace – match your stroke to it, and you're on target – plus a heart rate monitor, and gives you a more detailed breakdown of your swim in the accompanying smartphone app. It should launch this summer.

In designing the device, Ovao surveyed 400 swimmers to understand their exact needs, and what's important for them while training. "We believe we've come up with a solution for swimmers of all levels," Ovao CEO Aldas Juronis told us. "It's essentially a coach that sits in the corner of your eye and guides you through various training programmes."

But not everyone is convinced. "A light that changes colour doesn't provide that much information," says David Wuolle, president of Swim.com. "And it's a big ask, getting the swimmer to wear something on their face that they don't have to."

"It's the nature of the sport – swimmers don't like having too many things on their bodies," agrees Filippo Antoniello, digital brand manager at swimwear maker Arena. "They like to swim pretty much naked."

But what about the metronome? Swimmers have been strapping these to their heads for years in order to time their stroke rate perfectly. It shows they're willing to wear extra gear as long as it actually improves their swimming, and it's simple to use. Add in the fact that a smartwatch isn't the perfect device for swim training: it can't read heart rate in the water; it doesn't count some one-armed drills; some pools don't allow them because of the risk of injuring an oncoming swimmer during a collision. A case for smart goggles then starts to mount.

Out of their depth

Sync or swim: The challenge of building smart swimming goggles

"In order to succeed, a smart goggle would have to be unobtrusive, robust enough to withstand a water environment, and to give feedback on the important areas – pace, split, stroke rate, and maybe heart rate," says Karl Cooke, head of sport science and sport medicine for British Swimming.

That sounds simpler than it is. Just making an electronic device waterproof is a headache in itself. Fitbit admitted it had production issues with the Flex 2, its first waterproof wearable. Then it has to endure changes in direction, waves if being used outside, knocks against lane dividers or other swimmers' heads, and all while measuring movement across different planes and minimising drag. Developing this hardware costs a lot of money – "millions and millions and millions" according to Cooke. "Some of the people trying to do it might struggle to get that kind of investment," he adds.

"If it feels any different from a normal goggle, it will fail the market. Guaranteed," says Fares Ksebati, CEO of swimming app MySwimPro. "If the display takes up half your vision, or is obstructive in any way, it will also fail. Trust me, if there are eight other people in my lane, I'll have a lot more to focus on than stroke count."

He also says it would only appeal to elite swimmers: "A novice swimmer doesn't care about a lot of these stats," he says. "They just want to know how far they went and how many calories they burned."

Smart goggles for all

Sync or swim: The challenge of building smart swimming goggles

Maybe it's just us, but the prospect of underwater Terminator-vision sounds pretty exciting, and we're a long way off being elite swimmers. We're not alone. "A device like this won't just appeal to performance swimmers," says Jonny Higham, brand manager at Speedo. "As screens become more hi-res and the type of feedback possible advances, there are some real opportunities to help people get that emotional and physical buzz that swimming provides."

Both Speedo and Arena confirmed that they're open to working with smart goggles makers. So maybe for the first time there's a real sense that smart swimming goggles can become the next big thing.

Even the cynics admit that a smart goggle could be a huge boon to swimmers. "It has definite value," says MySwimPro CEO Ksebati. "It comes back to how good the experience is. The technology is there, as we've seen from swimming apps. It's just a case of taking it from the wrist and putting it in a goggle."



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