Olympians turn to wearables, virtual reality and other digital health tools for an edge in Rio

By Jonah Comstock
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The Olympics aren't just for athletes. It's also an opportunity for sports tech companies – including makers of vitals-monitoring wearables, fitness and training apps, and other digital tools – to show off their technology on an international stage. In Rio, athletes are looking for every edge to compete, and that includes the latest gadgets.

Samsung offered gifts to every athelete and included a little bit of digital health flair. As reported by Engadget, Samsung gifted 12,500 Olympic athletes with a special edition Galaxy S7 Edge phone. In addition to an Olympics-inspired design and a built-in Rio Olympics app, the phones came with Samsung's Gear IconX heartrate-tracking earbuds, which can send data to Samsung's S Health app.

So what technology were Olympians using to gear up for the Summer Games? Well, virtual and augmented reality, for starters. The US Cycling team tapped Solos, a recent Kickstarter sensation that makes smart cycling goggles, to help them train. Solos goggles can display movement tracking data as well as heart rate data streamed from other wearables, giving cyclists near-realtime feedback. The goggles can also communicate with cycling apps like Strava and MapMyRun.

One triathlon athlete, Gwen Jorgensen, also used virtual reality to prepare herself for the cycling part of the actual course she'd be biking in Rio. Popular Science has the remarkable story:

"To perfect her form, her trainers brought in virtual-reality pioneer Joe Chen. He is a former product lead at Oculus, and now at Vrse.works, the production house that makes VR movies and VR content for big media companies. Chen flew to Brazil and attached a bunch of GoPros to the hood of a car, matching it to the eye height of a cyclist. 'Then we just drove the course,' capturing it in 360 degrees, he says. He then converted the entire thing to an MPEG viewable on a Samsung Gear VR headset."
 

There's also RideOn, an augmented reality startup for skiers. RideOn is one participant in a startup competition happening onsite in Brazil, hosted by the Hype Foundation. Other participants in the competition include BodiTrak sports, which makes force-sensing mats to help golfers and other athletes perfect their stances, and Halo Neuroscience, which makes a neurostimulation wearable for athletes.

Halo makes Halo Sport, a set of headphones that provides pulses of energy signals to the motor cortex, purportedly increasing neuronal “excitability,” during a “neuropriming session.” Several Olympic athletes said they were using Halo Sport in a recent release from the company: Hafsatu Kamara, a 100m sprinter from Sierra Leone who will be running in her first Olympics; Michael Tinsley, a 400m hurdler from the United States who won silver at the 2012 London games; Mike Rodgers, a 4x100m relay sprinter for the United States who won gold at the 2015 World Relay Championships; Mikel Thomas, a 100m hurdler from Trinidad & Tobago who made his first Olympics appearance in the 2008 Beijing Olympics; and Samantha Achterberg, a modern pentathlete from the United States who won gold at the 2012 U.S. Nationals.

For a lot of athletes, the role of wearable tech has simply been to provide data-driven feedback to help them train smarter. And they're not relying on mainstream consumer wearables, either. One device, Hyskus, was cofounded by a professional boxer who just missed the cut for the US's 2012 team, according to a report in WareableTommy Duquette's company makes a sensor just for boxers that uses multiple accelerometers and a gyroscope to give insight into the number and speed of punches as well as distribution of different kinds of punch. Members of the US and Canadian teams are using the device, which is not yet available to the public. Boxers in England are also using data analytics to train, in their case a software called iBoxer.

US swimmers Ryan Lochte, Dana Vollmer, and Connor Jaeger; US wrestler Adeline Grey, and US basketball player Kyle Lowry are all using Whoop, a wearable tracker for athletes that raised $12 million last fall, according to a feature in USA Today. The Whoop Strap is a 24-hour, always-on wearable for athletes that is worn on the wrist and tracks heart rate, heart rate variability, skin conductivity, ambient temperature, and movement, and can also deliver insights about an athlete's sleep quality. The device sends that data via Bluetooth to a smartphone or tablet app used by a coach or trainer. USA Today says that other US swimmers, including Michael Phelps, are using apps like SleepRate to track their sleep.

Finally, after they're done training, some athletes are using wearables to relieve muscle and joint pain. US gymnasts are using a device called Lumiwave, from Colorado-based BioCare Systems, to eliminate soreness. It uses infrared pulses to induce the release of nitrous oxide, promoting healing on the cellular level, according to Business Insider. The device has been used by Olympians as far back as 2004, but is just now being made available to the public.

These are just the apps and devices we know about. Since the goal is to maintain a competitive edge over other teams, there are doubtless plenty of other technological innovations that athletes around the world are keeping to themselves. When you tune into the games, just remember: digital health played a role in the performances you see -- and it will only play a bigger role in future games.