These AI-powered swim goggles are the wave of the future

High-tech gear will help you track your swimming sessions and protect your eyes.
swim goggles
The view when wearing the AI-powered Form swim goggles. Form

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The pool swimmer’s routine is one of monotony and repetition: You bounce back and forth, from wall to wall, completing laps. The view doesn’t change, and it’s easy to lose track of how long you’ve been at it. But AI-powered wearable technology can help make the endeavour more interesting and track your laps for you.

Typically, swim monitors reside on your wrist. An Apple Watch will track your performance, as will other wearables, like a Garmin watch. But a new gadget from a Vancouver, Canada company called Form does it differently: with a head-up display right in your goggles.

Slip them on, and simple yellow, pixelated text appears in front of one of your eyes, superimposed over the scene before you. Whether you’re underwater or turning your head for a breath of air, the information floats there. Two buttons on the side let you take actions like selecting the pool size, or actually starting the swim. While you’re swimming, the display allows you to see information like how far how you’ve been going and how many lengths you’ve completed. A companion app provides a place to make more granular changes and see the full results of your swim afterwards.

To create these goggles, the team at Form had to solve two big problems that traditional goggle makers don’t need to worry about.

The first is how to get that futuristic display in front of the swimmer’s eye in the first place. The optical system is powered by a small computer module that’s part of the goggles, and you can decide whether to have the screen over your left eye or right depending on how you put the goggles on (and by choosing within the app). The actual information you see in front of your eye comes from a tiny, .4-inch OLED screen, and then a system of lenses and a mirror actually places that information visually in your field of view. As a result, the data doesn’t block your view (beyond what the text itself is covering up).

The second challenge was how to accurately track the swimming—to calculate the data that the display shows you. While wearables like the Apple Watch use the motion of your wrist as you splash through the water, the goggles have to rely on the motion of your head as you complete strokes like freestyle or breastroke, make turns, and take rests. An accelerometer and gyroscope in the goggles measure your motion, but to know what that sensor data means, the company had to turn to artificial intelligence.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning need data before they can be useful. To gather that data, Form collected information from swimmers who were wearing sensors on their goggles.

“Picking the swimmers is important; you can’t just pick Olympians—you have to do different sessions with different groups of people, many, many times,” says Dan Eisenhardt, the CEO of Form. “It’s a tediously manual process just to collect the data, but then you have to label the data afterwards.”

During development, they used GoPro cameras in the pool to monitor what those athletes were actually doing. That allowed them to match up the sensor data with the ground truth captured by the cameras, so they knew that information from the sensors from specific moments corresponded to actions like a swimmer doing the breaststroke, or just resting at the edge. That allowed them to teach their software: sensor data that looks a certain way represents a specific action in the real world.

The result is that the goggles you strap to your head can capture the information they need as you swim, interpret that data using AI, and display some of it in real time in front of your eye. I tested them multiple times, and was impressed with their accuracy.

But if it seems silly to you to use a pair of swim goggles that require charging, syncing with a smartphone, and software updates, the Form gadget isn’t the only game in town for protecting your eyes from chlorinated water.

Nike swim goggles
Nike’s new Vapor goggles. Nike

Nike just released a new high-end competition-level goggle called the Vapor, although they don’t track your swimming, use AI, or have a screen. The goal with them was simple: make a performance goggle that’s also comfortable, says Erika Gentry, the lead gear designer at Nike Swim. The goggles sport a curved polycarbonate lens, a soft silicon strap, and gaskets made from thermoplastic rubber.

Traditionally, she says, goggles designed for competitions have been small, and thus uncomfortable, because they’re placing pressure on a small section of your face. But Nike found that comparatively bigger goggles can be more comfortable and also more efficient in the water.

“The larger a piece of eyewear is on the face, the less drag it creates,” Gentry says. That’s because of the way it occupies the space that the bone structure on your head creates. “If we can fill in the gaps of those orbital bones on your face—essentially making one smooth surface—you’re going to reduce drag more than you would with a little tiny goggle,” she explains.

To develop and test the goggles, Nike used a tool called computational fluid dynamics. In this case, they were simulating water flow over the goggles on a swimmer’s face. The company used the computational tool to explore both how the goggles performed when a virtual swimmer was diving in, and also how they did when moving horizontally through the water doing freestyle, breastroke, or butterfly.

“It really helps us analyze how hydrodynamic the goggle is,” Gentry says. “We did a lot of that testing—we have some pretty thick reports.”

The Nike goggles won’t keep track of your lap count, though. For that, you’ll need a wearable on your wrist, or to keep track of it yourself. Or perhaps you can just zone out and swim.