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Skiing and Snowboarding : Science

The Training Tool of the Future

You don’t have to be a professional skydiver like gonzo-but-forward-thinking Jeb Corliss to envision—and utilize—futuristic training technology. Though in the not too distant future, you might credit Corliss for upping your game

First, some background. In March, Facebook announced plans to purchase California-based, virtual-reality company Oculus, and we started wondering if VR might be on the brink of changing how athletes prepare for extreme sports. 

After all, virtual reality, which has long promised—via a goggle-like screen—to immerse gamers in a simulated environment with extraordinary interactivity, seems like an ideal training tool. Using virtual reality, World Cup downhillers could run Austria’s Hahnenkamm from their living rooms. Mountain bikers might try Moab’s disorienting steeps without strapping on a helmet. 

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As it turns out, Facebook’s whopping $2 billion offer for Oculus hints of VR only continuing as an entertainment-oriented innovation, going the way of social networking and gaming in ways that haven’t yet been imagined. Maybe that’s not surprising, but in the meantime, athletes looking for tech advancements to improve their performance might turn in a different direction: toward a nascent, potentially revolutionary training technology called augmented reality.

Augmented reality—one of today’s many voguish “wearable technologies”—generates virtual images that appear on real backdrops via the aid of everything from tablet computers to helmet-mounted screens. It’s currently under development for business (think architects moving virtual trees on existing 3-D models) and marketing (think athletes jumping off cereal boxes).

But one fledgling company, three-year-old Airglass of Budapest, Hungary, believes that augmented reality will revolutionize sports training. “We’re interested in making athletes better, faster, and more precise,” says Zsolt Mihalyfi, the company's founder and CEO. 

In 2011, Mihalyfi—who’s part engineer, part pilot, and part parachute skier—considered developing a training product that employed virtual reality. “But I found VR too disorienting,” he says. “It shut out the real world.”

Instead, Mihalyfi sought out simulation technology that kept athletes far more invested in their digitally devised challenges. After all, how much can you really learn on a virtual downhill run when the worst thing you’ll encounter is the phrase Game Over?

Mihalyfi soon came upon augmented reality, which offers a compelling blend of real and virtual imagery. “In augmented reality, you’re moving in the real world,” he says, “with things overlaid on it.”

Imagine if you were a skydiver who needed to train for a dicey landing. You could program the augmented reality equipment to project virtual obstacles (mountains, cliffs, or even other skydivers) around you during the jump. That way, you get the benefits of training in the risky environment without the risks—other than the leaping-out-of-a-plane bit.   

Enter Corliss, 38, a veteran BASE jumper who’s bent on notching increasingly challenging flights. In early 2013, Mihalyfi built a prototype augmented reality helmet and screen, and several months later watched Corliss launch himself into the Hungarian sky wearing the technology. Inside of Corliss’ helmet were a gyroscope, magnetometer, accelerometer, and GPS unit, as well as data of some specific landmasses.


Corliss wanted to prepare for an upcoming jump in eastern China that required he fly through a fissure in a massive rock formation—an opening that’s only about 30 feet wide. While Corliss flew, the landmasses appeared on the small screen, sprouting from the helmet and projected just ahead of his goggles. He was put to the test. “There it was, the actual terrain that I was going to fly through in China,” he says. “My mind was definitely tricked into doing stuff.”

Last September, Corliss successfully knifed through the Chinese formation. He’s now a believer in augmented reality. “This technology is the only way that I can get all the feelings of flying and practice on new terrain—without perhaps dying,” he says.

Mihalyfi aims to rent his augmented reality helmet systems—mostly for skydivers and wingsuit flyers—by midsummer, and sell a more streamlined, sport-glasses version by the end of the year for approximately $3,000. He believes, over time, that the asking price will go down, and that all sorts of airborne and land-based athletes (the latter would include skiers and mountain bikers) will flock to the benefits of augmented-reality training. In the future, sharpening your skiing skills may very well mean taking on a super G course like the one Bode Miller faces at Kitzbuehel.

“I love the idea,” says Nicole Detling, an assistant professor of exercise and sport science at Salt Lake City’s University of Utah as well as a visualization expert for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. “You’re feeling whatever your body is supposed to feel like when it’s fully challenged.”

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Is Seawater the Next Big Fuel Source?

In April, the Navy announced a breakthrough in transforming seawater, the earth's most abundant natural resource, to fuel. Researchers used it to fly a model jet powered with an internal combustion engine like its full-sized counterparts. What are the implications of such a technology in a world scrambling for clean, efficient energy?

According to U.S. Navy research chemist Dr. Heather Wilhauer, the new process takes roughly 23,000 gallons of seawater to produce one gallon of liquid hydrocarbon fuel. You might suspect that solves two problems at once: dependence on fossil fuels and rising sea levels. The trouble with the latter is that the excess water simply goes right back into the ocean. The first question is more complicated.

To create the fuel, Wilhauer's team extracted carbon dioxide and hydrogen bound in the water and recombined those gases in a catalyst reactor to produce the liquid fuel. The process can be applied to different metals to engender methanol, liquid natural gas, gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel. "Because it's a synthetic process, you can tailor it to whatever fuel you need," Wilhauer notes.

If that sounds like the jackpot, it could be—in a perfect world. Like water that's pumped uphill using electricity and later released to generate electricity, the CO2 and hydrogen extracted from the sea end up back in the water where they started. "You have to put more energy in to get the fuel than you get out of the fuel when you use it," says Brentan Alexander, founder of the Stanford Energy Club and Senior Mechanical Engineer at Wrightspeed. "So it's still net-energy negative. When you start applying that towards generating fuel on a larger scale in the United States, you're going to run into a really hard wall to make that cost-effective, because natural gas is cheap."

But for the Navy, which moves 1.2 billion gallons of fuel annually, it makes perfect sense. "Our aircraft carriers are nuclear powered, but we still have to get fuel out to there to fly the airplanes," says Rear Admiral Kevin Slates, who works on the Navy's environmental and energy programs. Barges must frequently haul resupply fuel across oceans to aircraft carriers, and other ships protect those barges, all of which require their own fuel. "This would allow us to produce fuel at the point of consumption and basically untether that ship," says Rear Admiral Slates. It also eliminates risk of potential fuel spills during transport. "The delivered cost of fuel to our fleet at sea is obviously more expensive than what we're paying at a pump. Then [seawater fuel] becomes cost-competitive much quicker than for, say, commercial automobiles."

The same may be true for powering remote islands like Hawaii, which have unlimited access to seawater and whose fuels also need to be hauled in from afar. If seawater processing plants existed on Hawaii shores, it, too, could be untethered. The fuel could even power cars in this scenario if the price is right. And because no chemicals are added in the conversion process, there's effectively no waste, only water released back into the ocean at its initial pH. But this, too, is likely a far-away reality.

"It all hinges on whether it can scale up to produce the quantities that we need," says Rear Admiral Slates, which could take ten to 15 years. "It's clearly a game-changing, innovative technology that we're really interested in."

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What We've Learned from Fish Guts

It’s important for the human body to have a diverse set of bacteria in the gut; after all, low diversity is linked to many diseases. But mixing up your diet might not lead to a wider spectrum of microbes living in your midsection. 

According to researchers led by Dr. Daniel Bolnick of the University of Texas at Austin, the more diverse a fish’s diet, the less diverse the microbes in its gut. “We're still scratching our heads as to why,” Bolnick says. “We also don't really know yet whether this reduced microbial diversity is good or bad, though some diseases (colitis, for instance, and obesity) are associated with low microbial diversity.”

Studies have shown that diet and environment can affect the bacteria in the gut, but most studies have only looked at a single factor at a time, for instance the amount of fat in a person’s diet. Bolnick and his team wanted to go further to test how combinations of foods could affect bacteria in the gut. 

“Treating diet as a set of discrete and different options isn't realistic though,” he says. So they turned to two species of fish, the threespine stickleback and the Eurasian perch, and monitored their diets. The researchers thought the fish who ate a variety of foods would have more diverse gut bacteria than the fish who stuck to one type. It turned out the opposite was true. 

Fish and humans are very different, but they do share many of the same immune cells and genes in the gut lining. At the same time, our intestines are structured differently, and our diets are different. 

“It remains an open question whether the patterns identified in our study will also apply to humans,” Bolnick says.  He’s game to look into it, though. Bolnick plans to conduct diet experiments in humans to see if diverse diets lead to the same effect in humans. 

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A Tall Glass of SPF

Drinkable sunscreen might sound convenient, but the science behind it is dubious.

A company called Osmosis Skincare claims that a three-milliliter dose of its UV Neutralizer Harmonized Water can protect your skin from 97 percent of UVA and UVB rays for a three-hour period, and also help you tan. According to the company, the product is “imprinted with unique, vibrational waves which isolate out the precise frequencies needed to protect you from UV rays.”

Dr. Ben Johnson, the product’s creator, claims users have found it to be effective. “This has been for sale for two years and the right candidates (those not on sun-sensitizing meds or illnesses) prefer it over sunscreens in almost every case,” he says. Though Johnson says he has tested it on about 50 people, the FDA has not reviewed the product and its literature, nor has it gone through an independent clinical trial. Johnson says that will happen next month. “This is a new science. What I am describing sounds too good to be true for many.”

Meanwhile dermatologists outside of the company are skeptical that the product will be an effective replacement for sunscreen.

“It’s not something that has a slot of scientific evidence behind it, and certainly nothing that’s been presented at any of the major scientific meetings,” says Dr. Thomas Rohrer, a dermatologic surgeon in Boston and a member of the American Academy of Dermatology. “There isn’t any scientific literature supporting it. If someone is using that as their sole means of sunscreen, I think it would leave them very vulnerable to UV rays.”

Dr. Brian B. Adams, a professor in the Department of Dermatology at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, is also skeptical. “I would love to see the data on this,” he says.

Sticking with proven sun protection is a safer bet. Rohrer recommends sticking with standard sunscreen, using an SPF of at least 30—though he tends to use the highest SPF—and reapplying often. If you’re going to be outside a lot, he suggests you try to avoid being exposed to sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and wear a hat.

“I always tell patients, even skin cancer patients, you don’t have to live under a rock,” Rohrer says. “Just be responsible.”

And remember, skin cancer isn’t the only danger. “Long term sun damage doesn't only cause skin cancer, it causes wrinkles and premature aging of one's skin,” Adams says.

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What's the Best Workout for Weight Loss?

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