BMW's Camera Technology Helped Develop Better U.S.A. Olympic Track and Field Stars

By Jacob Brown | July 27, 2012
Since BMW is the official automobile sponsor of the 2012 London Olympic Games, the German automaker set out to make more of the event than simply putting its name on it. BMW wanted to make an impact, helping the athletes have better performances. It set out in search of some projects. BMW's technology office broke off into two separate teams—United States and the United Kingdom—to help the countries with particular sports. They weren't allowed to share their secrets with one another. But in the end all would be able to use what they learned in technology development back at BMW HQ. The U.K. team focused on using cameras for reducing friction underwater for swimming. For the U.S., BMW's focus was track and field. Or, more specifically, the long jump event. With a six to seven cameras in most of its cars, measuring everything from distances between cars to parking lot spaces, BMW used some of its technology to shape a stereo camera to measure three-dimensional aspects. The goal: To help correct long jump runners' form in real-time. Cris Pavloff, an advanced technology engineer at BMW's technology center in Palo Alto, California, said he saw an opening for new aids based on that technology. "Look at all the information a car is processing at one time," he said, noting how ubiquitous in-car cameras had become in helping drivers avoid collisions and measure distances, such as in conjunction with smart cruise control systems. Pavloff's team would handle the science behind the technology. But Olympic track and field's Doctor Melvin Ramey would handle the art. "With their experience, [long jumpers] are more like artists than athletes," says Ramey. "When studying them, we use a lot of qualitative information, not quantitative." For the longest time, the U.S. track and field team had relied on a camera taking still shots and studying each of those shots for when the jumpers would launch from the springboard and what line they would take in the air. Film cameras would take days to process, as sports doctors would take about 10,000 pictures of an athlete at 200 frames per second. "Gold metals are won by centimeters," said 2008 Olympic decathlon gold metalist Bryan Clay, who did not qualify for the 2012 games. He said that the BMW camera technology simplified stop-motion capture and showed him and his teammates their flaws faster than still-frames could. "If I can even shorten my day by 10 minutes," he said of the expediting technology, "it's important to me." So how did these technologies work? Placing sensors atop a long jumper's head in a hat, BMW was able to track an athlete's stability and movements. A long jumper is supposed to be able to run without bobbing and keeping his or her head straight forward. An athlete is supposed to have plenty of rotation in his or her torso. BMW's camera technology can measure all of the vital points to jumping a world-class distance. And it can provide feedback instantaneously. While BMW used existing technology—the cameras—to create three-dimensional motion tracking, not all of that is in cars quite yet. BMW will likely use what it learned during its tests and adapt it for collision-avoidance technologies. "We want to interpret the environment, and make the driver safer," Pavloff said of the technology. "This technology helps us enhance awareness."