Sunday, March 18, 2007

Wish List of Technology Development for Sport Fencing

We’ve all had the thought at one time or another. “We can send a Man to the moon, why can’t we make that works better than this?” One of the first things I remember noticing on my first visit to a fencing salle was all the wires hanging from the ceiling. I thought (since I am an engineer,) “gee, we can make wireless phones, why not wireless fencing?” The owner of the facility politely explained (as if this was the first time he had been faced with the question in his 20+ years of coaching,) “imagine trying to make 60 sets of these work all the time in a huge international tournament inside of a convention hall made of concrete. Now imagine trying to make sure someone in the stands doesn’t have a master button for a particular fencer’s light.” And so it begins: just when you think there is an easy solution, you discover that meeting all the needs of a particular device used by fencers worldwide, in so many different configurations, is a daunting task.

Over time, I’ve developed a list of things that “just need to be fixed.” The how and whys are presented in the list, but just as a preface, I’d like to offer some criteria I used in selecting items for the list, and how potential solutions should be evaluated.

First, the basic engineering principle of “if it works, don’t mess with it” applies generously. Consider, for example, the system used to produce a scoring light in foil or saber. Electric current passes through a weapon onto a conductive surface, completing a circuit. A light is then displayed to indicate completion of the circuit. There is no reason to radically change this basic concept – much as some of the components need updating, it is pointless (!) to try to come up with, say, pressure sensitive vests, or some radically different optical sensors to replace foil lames and saber jackets. Electrons, generally, are fast, cheap, and known technology. This said, a couple of the items below come dangerously close to violating this. Still, it is worth considering “better ways” even if they ultimately can’t be justified.

Second, any change in tech has to ultimately be backwards compatible. A good example of this is the new epee tips I’ve seen lately that have small screws instead of contact springs. A nice idea and I’d like to try one. Except for one minor problem – it appears that you have to have to compatible contacts inside the barrel, and he contacts of the usual Uhlmann wires are not acceptable. Meaning I’d have to rewire the blade. Ultimately, I might get a new wire set and try one, but I decided a long time ago that all my weapons had to have the same components. I will not stock different parts for each of the weapons in my bag, sorry.

Third, cost is a huge factor. No one will buy a $500 epee blade. Unless of course there are compelling features (see below.) A corollary here is ease of manufacturing and component fabrication. If the new tech requires, for example, a small piece of Plutonium to create the 1.21 Gigawatts of electricity needed to power the flux capacitor, forget it. I know Plutonium can be had in trade for a shoddy bomb casing full of pinball machine parts, but that too is another story.

So, with that, here’s my hit list:

10. Scoring machines with tunable/selectable audio output. This one should be easy. We can program a cell phone to play “Popcorn” as a ring tone, but could we please have the ability to set the frequency and quality of the tones associated with the scoring lights? Wish I had a nickel for the number of times I (stupidly) stopped fencing because the box next to me on the adjacent strip went off. Maybe the red/green/white lights make different tones too – one quick beep for red, two quick beeps for green (of a different note), one short-long tone (of yet another note) for white. Program the boxes to accept different “pre-sets” so you can have a room where the tones are all different. I think fencers, even sabreists, are smart enough to program their brains when they come out to test.

9. Disposable body cords. Say what you like, no one really likes to repair these things. They see lots of wear and tear given the environment they are exposed to. Why not manufacture ones with sealed plugs at each end? This would be much cheaper to manufacture that the ones with little parts to allow for repair, and then you don’t feel guilty about just throwing the damn thing out (after cannibalizing the wire for splicing into repairable cords if you want.) I’m thinking mostly two-prong, but even bayonet is constructed with the same sort of philosophy. A piece of wire and sealed plugs can’t cost more than $1 to manufacture, no assembly required. I’d pay $8, easy. That’s 800% profit. When it acts up, throw it the hell out, and put off worring about it.

8. Composite blades. Here’s one that is a real challenge. Remember that the blades need to be grounded, so hitting your opponent’s doesn’t cause a reaction in your circuit (i.e. off target in foil, valid light in epee.) Composite materials can be made conductive, I think. Moreover, they can be made with very special material properties, such as imbedded wires, stiffness and resting shape. Seems like some research might pay off. Would you pay $500 for an epee blade that never breaks, never needed rewiring, never had to have the bend fixed? And oh yeah, weighted about 1/3 of a steel one? Maybe….

7. Integrated chest protection. Plastic chest protectors generally need a redesign. The recent discussions involving their effect on the recent changes in foil timings not withstanding, these deceptively simple pieces of protective gear are decidedly low tech. Low tech is not bad, but there is a better solution. There is no real reason why they need to be made of such thick and rigid material. What is needed is a plastic material that will distribute a point impact. Rather than being made out of material resembling the structure of a milk crate, I think the material that is used to make the milk jugs would be better. Now integrate it into a removable vest/shirt (or integrate it into the plastron) and you’ve got something much better. And oh yeah, can you make it cover my collar bones, please?

6. Wireless blades. Bear with me here a bit. Here is the one area where I envy sabreists. Wires in the blade are just a royal pain in the ass. But remember that the electric circuitry now used is very simple, and generally quite reliable. I’ve heard of wireless fencing systems being developed, but if we’re going to eliminate wires, let’s get rid of all the wires. Imagine a completely wireless epee or foil system, one where the tips communicate directly with the scoring machine. For foil and saber, there will also have to be a clip on sensor to the lame/jacket. Screw the tip on (or for saber, attach to the pommel nut) and fence away. The tips will have to be randomly programmable at the strip, though. Some sort of at least rudimentary security to make sure that your coach in the stands doesn’t have a trigger. This is easy with an imbedded ePROM in the tip that the director sets up when necessary (with a security bypass for local use.) Reliability is going to be an issue here, since the tips will have to have self-contained power sources. A continuous self test is likely necessary too, but the grounding lights on the current boxes could be programmed for that.

5. Integrated tournament tech. All national tournaments should accept on-line registration. The stock argument that this is not possible is that there is some nebulous insurance requirement for signatures. Not sure I believe this, but OK, that’s what we have currently. Now picture this: you join the USFA giving them all the information (including release signatures for any tournament they run) and your membership card comes with a bar code on it. A PIN arrives in a separate envelope. Type that number into an on-line system when you want to register for a tournament (see for a stunning example of how well this can work) and all the information needed to register for a national tournament is displayed. Type in your PIN and a payment option is displayed. Hit OK, and you’re registered, and you get a receipt with the times you need to be at the venue. Now here’s where it gets cool: show up at the venue, and flash your card into a bar code reader. Light goes green, you’re in. It now enables all the tournament software for you. All the pool, DE and tableau information (strip assignments and times) is now accessible via web interface on your WiFi PDA or laptop. OK, so the directors have paper and pencil to record bouts as usual. Signatures at the strip are fine, and taking the little slip up after winning is fun. But since all this gets typed into a computer anyway, why not have it available to everyone real time? And please PLEASE project it onto a wall so we can read it? Even setting up a large screen to scroll information (like a stock ticker) would help.

4. Mask improvements. Masks are very personal things, since they are a prime piece of safety equipment. Some brands fit better than others, but the basic design of each is the same: a tang in back (as required by the rules) and a stretch elastic piece to hold the internal padding onto one face and head. But here’s my problem: not only do I wear glasses under my mask, but I sweat a lot. I have taken to wearing a backwards baseball or cycling hat under my mask, and it works well. But unlike people who don’t wear these necessities, I can’t flip my mask up onto the top of my head easily. It takes a few seconds to get it all in place. The new Leon Paul masks have a “catchers mask” type arrangement that seems nice, but it prohibits the under mask hat. What I think is possible is a snap lid type arrangement. Much like the Leon Paul arrangement, but hinged and adjustable with a simple one-hand fast release and closure. Think of a clamshell like arrangement affixed to the top rear of the mask. I’ve learned to deal with it all, but the current design is just clumsy (but fairly, simple to manufacture, maintain and clean.)

3. Automated tip weight and travel tester. For epee and foil, I think it is important to know by just how much your tip is passing the weight (and for epee, the shim) test. Sucks to have a tip that is legal, but goes off at 1500g. All one needs is a clamp on device that fits onto the barrel. Then have a mechanical device, not a weight, press on the tip with the equivalent of 500/750g. For the shim test, the mechanical device rests with no force on the tip as a “tare.” It then depresses 1mm. If no light, you’ve passed. If it can’t get 1mm with 750g, it fails. Now allow the same box to accept hooking up of a body cord to it and the weapon. The tests can be repeated (IOW, the box doubles for weapon repair and tournament testing) with a display of both weight and distance to activate. Be nice if the box could apply a side load of a small amount to see if you have a “crunchy” tip, but really, there is no need to replicate the function of a human thumb.

2. Blade conditioner. This is the easiest one of the bunch. In the absence of something new, steel blades have the drawback that they need to be periodically shaped with the proper curve. I find that the easiest way to do this is with a box wrench. Slip it over the end, and work the proper curve into the blade. In the heat of the moment, we sometimes resort to just laying the blade on the floor, and pulling it under your foot. Be careful with this latter technique. If the blade is cold, and if the bend in it is too severe, it is easy to break the blade. Of all the blades I’ve broken, I think about half are “in action.” The rest were when I was trying to get a gnarly bend out. It might be nice if we had a hand held lever actuated roller to place over the blade to work the curve properly. Think of a pipe bending tool with rollers. It would also be nice to design one that sits on the floor that you can drop your blade into, roll the curve into it while pressing down on a plunge lever to actuate the rollers. More or less pressure on the plunger presses the blade harder. Sure would save wear and tear on the shoes, and a good device to warm the blade up in to bend it properly.

1. Technologically elegant training systems. I have a very good coach. I have taken several lessons form different coaches, and I value all of their experience and teaching methods. But every lesson is essentially the same: hit the leather. Admittedly, there are lots of ways to get to the leather, and lots of reasons for organizing those ways. There are tactical lessons and technique lessons. Imagine this system: a series of external digital cameras capture the content of a lesson form various angles, including the mask-cams. Now the images are presented on TVs or digital displays, with split screen capability (multiple views) as well as image processed graphical representations of the movements. There were great examples of this presented during the Olympics for both diving and for long jumping. Essentially a series of stop action pictures is presented so the athlete can visualize the path their body takes through the equipment or apparatus. I believe a system like this is in place for swimmers as well. Surely such a system is expensive, and requires a big investment. The benefits to fencers should be obvious. Do you really know how badly you lunge when presented with a certain signal? Can the coach see this as well? The video can be archived, so you can compare progress over time. Even though recovery of the development costs is dubious so few fencers in the world (significantly fewer than long jumpers, swimmers or divers,) a “traveling road show” could be used to make this economically viable. If the system can be portable, coaches that travel for “clinics” can bring them with them, and have them available for intensified sessions. With enough “takers” in one place at one time, and the costs can be justified. (And of course, a system at the Olympic Training Center might be available for rental or use?)

So, there you have it. My list of 10 things I’d like to see developed. I’m sure others have had similar thoughts, or thought of things I haven’t listed. By and large, I’ve found fencers to be tech and engineering savvy. Not sure why that is, but certainly a subject for another article.

1 comment:

Roland said...

Great summary of desirable advancements!

Partly being worked on: item 10
See videos in
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Point 8: Composite blades would allow the saber rules be reinstated that the touch has to be made with the edge, not the flat part.

Point 6: Why does he most sensitive, complicated and costly part of the weapon have to be exactly where it gets the most punishment?