Like all good wearable tech ideas, SwimAR was born out of the frustration of not having a solution to a problem. In the case of creative engineering and product design studio Imagination Factory, that problem was when its co-founder Julian Swan was training for his first triathlon around five years ago. While there were plenty of products available to make the most of his running and cycling training, it wasn't quite the same story for swimming. He opted for a waterproof watch but even then it struggled to do the basics really well.
"Julian was swimming recreationally but he was being introduced to new things like swimming to pace and trying to increase his critical swim speed to perform better in a triathlon," says Mark Hester, technical director on SwimAR. "He needed visual real-time feedback of what he was doing, especially now that he was thinking a lot about open water swimming."
Read this: The challenge of building smart swimming goggles
The team at Imagination Factory started an internal project to develop a solution to this problem and it was SwimAR that, to use Hester's words, "floated to the surface".
The SwimAR itself is a heads-up display that can be attached to a pair of swimming goggles and is able to provide a transparent display for swimmers to view a host of metrics in real-time. No more looking down at that watch. It uses an accelerometer, gyrometer and compass to measure movement and count laps in the pool. There are a couple of buttons to set pool length, to ensure that data is accurate, and in addition to that you'll see overall time, split time for the last lap and number of laps. Hester explains that by capturing all of this data, it can then provide a critical piece of information for coaches – and that's pace over 100 metres.
A design first approach to wearables
While there is now a prototype to show how the tech works, SwimAR is still very much in the development phase and there are more features that the team is planning to implement. From a design point of view though, the decision to create an add-on as opposed to a full pair of smart goggles was made very early on in the process. "We went to swimmers and coaches and the first thing we found was that people spend a lot of time trying to find the right pair of goggles," Hester tells us. "We've been told it needs to be retrofitted for a range of goggles. We've literally got dozens of 3D prints and boxes of goggles to get them to fit. It's not an easy task."
Essential reading: Swimming with heart rate monitoring wearables
It's no surprise to hear that the team behind SwimAR is paying close attention to similar products that are already available or currently in the works. It knows all about startups we've covered previously like Ovao, Instabeat and Zwim. It's also well aware that the likes of Garmin and Apple are playing in the space as well. By keeping a close eye on the competition and getting swimmers of all levels and abilities to test the tech, it's learning about what features swimmers will benefit from most on a heads-up display that works underwater.
"We are looking at the potential for GPS," said Hester. "Our current demonstrator doesn't have GPS simply because we focused our attention on getting something waterproof and getting the display right. We are not sure yet if we will end up doing two versions. That gives us the ability to wayfind through a visual means. We know a lot of people go training and they have to guess the distance, and use visual landmarks to work it out and try and guess what distance they covered. GPS with visual feedback would be able to give you a clear picture of your distance."
While there's a feeling that GPS would make sense on SwimAR, it doesn't feel it's the same story about heart rate. We've talked a lot about swimming and heart rate monitoring wearables. Chest straps like the Garmin HRM-Swim or the Polar H10 are still regarded as the best options to deliver heart rate data in the water. Based on its own research though, the SwimAR team believes tapping into heart rate isn't actually as vital as seeing other metrics in the pool.
"We know people are interested in heart rate based on our research," says Hester. "But for swimming it seems to be less important in comparison to something like running and cycling when we speak to coaches.
"It might come down to the fact if you get critical swim speed right over a distance then you are doing well. Heart rate would be useful, but we are conscious how hard it is in water.
"If it was a dealbreaker like GPS, then we would elevate it, but the coaches are not saying, 'If you can't measure heart rate there's no point doing it.' Coaches are desperate for people to swim and not stop to look at their watch all the time. They've got to use their time in the pool effectively and if they are stopping to check their watch, then they're probably not doing that."
Sony at the visual core
Building wearables is hard. We know that because we've spoken to enough companies over the years to realise that from shrinking components to fit inside a wearable form factor to getting software and algorithms just right takes time. Then factor in building something that has to survive in water and you have a whole other level of complexity. We've heard it from startups and even the major players like Apple and Fitbit.
Read this: The best augmented reality glasses
The Imagination Factory has all of those things to overcome and more, but it's the display that can be clearly viewed underwater that posed the biggest challenge. That's why it has started with the display first. It looked at a whole host of solutions including Google Glass and even miniature projectors to see what would work. Then it came across what Sony was doing with its holographic waveguide technology and they felt they'd found something that would work.
"When we first saw it an exhibition, it's the closest thing you get told about augmented reality when you are looking at the films," Hester explains. "When you are looking through a clear lens and you as the wearer you can see this bright green data that floats in front of you. It's the equivalent of looking at a 60-inch display. It's very clear, bright and natural." Hester tells us that a bit of refocusing is required, but not to the extent as with something like Glass where it could have the potential to strain the eyes.
The sole waterproof demonstrator for SwimAR involved getting kit from Sony and working out how to drive that display, which unsurprisingly was not easy. Right now it has a simple interface that offers a stopwatch and lap counter to give people a sense of what is possible. It's also taking cues from Garmin to offer the ability for users to set up their own data fields.
Putting crowdfunding on hold
With a prototype that is able to show that the display can work, plans were afoot to launch a Kickstarter campaign. But the team has decided to halt those plans. It's not abandoning the project, but as Hester explains there were good reasons not to jump into the crowdfunding realms just yet.
"We thought we were ready to go for it", he said. "We'd been talking to various electronics firms, we'd progressed the design a lot and were encouraged from the feedback we've had from swimmers who had tested it. We knew what we needed to raise money for development. But there's two reasons we've decided to postpone it. The first reason was the Sony displays are not currently available at the mass manufacture level.
"We can buy them at a sample level but in terms of a Kickstarter we couldn't commit to a big number. With the electronics firms we have been talking to we had a good idea of timescale and were confident we could deliver something in 9-12 months but we put the brakes on. While it's painful to press pause, we don't want to make any silly moves."
There's still a feeling that 12 months is a reasonable development time to make it happen and SwimAR still hopes to get to manufacture in a year's time. It's also reconsidering ways of raising the funding and has considered focusing on swim teams to help that.
Speaking of money, SwimAR was not going to be cheap. At least for the intended first small batch of devices. The RRP planned was £1,200 with rewards schemed out for £600, £800 and £1,000. "When we asked how much people would pay for this, some said £60 and others said £500", Hester said. "You have to remember the cutting edge nature of the display. These are not watches where displays are made in their hundreds and thousands."
So a fully fledged SwimAR will not be gracing the open waters or swimming pools, at least in 2018, and maybe it's ambitious to think it will be next year as well. Mark, Julian and the team are not preparing to throw the towel in just yet, though, and we're sure there are a lot of swimmers out there hoping that they don't give up on that dream.
How we test