U.S. bobsled team's secret weapon: iPad app
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Searching for important hundredths of seconds in the two-man bobsled race earlier this week, U.S. men's coaches had staffers stationed on the track at important curves, equipped with iPads.
When Russia-1 pilot Alexander Zubkov, who has the track down at the Sanki Sliding Center, entered curves, staffers used iPads to video his run. They did the same when Zubkov exited curves.
They used an app called Ubersense, which allowed U.S. men's coach Brian Shimer to watch Zubkov's run next to USA-1 pilot Steve Holcomb's run through the same curves.
Shimer and Holcomb analyzed the lines Zubkov took and compared it to Holcomb. They could watch in slow motion and at 120 frames per second.
"Those were the little things that ultimately led to that three-hundredths of difference between Holcomb winning bronze and fourth place," United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation high performance director Scott Novack said. ""We're really relying upon it."
Ubersense has several features:
- Slow motion and frame-by-frame viewing, up to 120 frames per second.
- Side-by-side and stacked viewing for comparison of two sleds in the same spot on the track.
- Drawing tools to illustrated angles and lines.
- Review sessions can be recorded, including audio, and saved for athletes and coaches to watch any time.
- A tagging system by name, date, track, result, curve, start, etc, making it easy to look up specific performances.
"Used to be, you'd take two runs, we didn't see any video at the track. We would go back to the village and upload video to a computer and then see two runs and make correction the next day," Shimer said. "Now, we can do it between runs. I'll evaluate, sit with the pilots and make the necessary changes at the track."
Ubersense CEO Krishna Ramchandran, who has a PhD in computer science, developed the app out of what he called a "personal problem."
"I wanted to improve my golf swing," Ramchandran said. "That's the reason it all started. There were not good apps to record my swing, slow it down and do side-by-side comparisons. I created the app and put it in the app store. I wasn't sure what would happen with it, other than wanting to improve my own golf swing."
After the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the USBSF switched to Apple products and Novack and skeleton coach Tuffy Latour began searching for advantageous and reliable apps. They found Ubersense and began a collaborative relationship with Ramchandran.
"Their feedback has helped us tweak our software so they can achieve their goal," Ramchandran said.
Over the summer, Novack asked Ramchandran if there might be a way to send videos over a mobile network rather than a wi-fi connection.
A wi-fi connection wasn't always guaranteed at sliding centers, but if they at least had a mobile network, video could be shared. Ramchandran and his staff ensured video could be shared quickly over a network, experimenting with encoding, algorithms and app functionality until large video files could be shared quickly and with quality on the app.
The U.S. men used Ubersense in the two-man, and the women said they planned to go home after Tuesday's first two heats and use the app.
"We only get a couple of minutes on the ice every day so to have that feedback during training and during the race is really helpful," USA-2 pilot Jamie Greubel said.
USBSF also will use Ubersense for up-and-coming and sliders as a way to teach them about tracks on which they have little or no experience.
Shimer knows all the video captured on Ubersense this week will be helpful at the 2016 world championships at the Sanki Sliding Center.
"We'll be able to go back and pull up those runs and review instead of wondering 'What did we do in this curve again?' " Shimer said.
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