One of the very best parts of living out here in Dubai is the opportunity to engage in a plethora of incredible sports, enabled in large part by the reliable weather – warm, sunny and generally perfect during the winter months; less so in the summer! The other main factor that drives the opportunities for adventurous leisure pursuits is the fact that Dubai invests and does so in a big way if it is something that they take a keen interest in. Skydive Dubai is one such example and the truth is that it has very much made a mark for itself as one of the premier skydiving destinations on the planet, a truth that was evident during the recent Winter Festival.
I love the fact that my days off get to start with questions of the nature,”what fun outdoor pursuit shall I engage in today?” Should I scuba dive? Climb? Trail run? Maybe kitesurf? Or what about skydiving? So many options and all within a sensible distance of the city itself. One of my key activities is skydiving. I have loved the sport ever since giving my mother grey hairs by signing up for a tandem when I was an 18 year old Gap Year student travelling in New Zealand. Fast forward 12 years and I had the pleasure of gaining my solo skydiving licence in the US, training at Skydive San Diego, and putting my new found skills to use at various drop zones in the state of California. It was, truth be told, the promise of skydiving at Skydive Dubai and jumping over the Palm that finally made my mind up as to whether to accept a position in the Middle East and to make the move to become an expat. I was seduced by the sky! I had experienced the sport in the UK and came to the conclusion pretty swiftly that I was very much a fair-weather skydiver – sunnier, hotter climes and bluer skies beckoned.
One of the highlights of the skydiving calendar here in Dubai is the annual Winter Festival, that generally runs from Boxing Day (26th December) through to New Year’s Day, with full on days of epic jumping with a plethora of visiting skydivers from all over the planet. I was able to jump for just two out of the seven days this year but really made the most out of that time, with back to back loads each day that saw me focus on formation belly jumps and the ultimate goal of nailing a two-point 8-way, one of the required skills for the USPA C-licence, and something that a number of my fellow sky-buddies had their sights set on too. One of the key advantages of attending the Winter Festival is that we get to jump repeatedly with coaches, something that would normally cost significantly more during normal weeks. This not only offers a really fun way to get to know the professional skydivers here and hang out with them as friends but also leads to some seriously accelerated improvement in our skills in the sky. Planning a jump, doing it, reviewing it with a coach who really knows their stuff and then going back out and doing it again and again leads to exponential improvements and was, I am sure, the prime driver of us collectively achieving our goal of securing 8-way success.
In addition to getting to do loads of really fun jumps with interesting, vibrant friends, both new and existing, there were plenty of other reasons to hang out at the drop zone during the festival. Each day ended with dinner, a great opportunity to review the day’s jumps and think ahead to the next, followed by the ‘video of the day’ screened around the desert campfire. I even had a win in one of the daily raffle draws, thrilled as I was to receive a voucher for five free jump tickets. The glider was a feature during the festival as well, going up again and again to give others the same incredible thrill of being ejected as I had experienced previously and one that everyone raved about.
Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR & VR) both lend themselves to some very exciting applications in sports, especially those where data inputs in real time can be vital. Skydiving – one of my passions in life – is one such sport and here I shall explore where AR & VR might add to our enjoyment and progress in the sport.
In the interests of clarity, I shall just define what is meant by Augmented and Virtual Reality, terms that are becoming ever more part of normal lexicon and technologies that are set to redefine how we experience the world:
Augmented Reality: superimposition of digital data over the real world, thus adding a layer of additional information or detail over that which is seen in reality.
Virtual Reality: immersion in a fully digital world, such that users experience a computer-generated world as if it were real. Using VR goggles to allow users to see the simulated world, plus or minus other inputs, such as headphones or haptic devices to simulate touch, the principle of VR is to leave the real world rather than simply augment it.
Skydiving – there are so many data inputs that are vital to a safe skydiving experience, with the most important ones and where AR offers options to add to the experience being:
ALTITUDE – the most important bit of information for any skydiver. We currently rely on a combination of wrist-worn altimeters and audible altimeters. Personally, I am more of a visual person so having my altitude displayed in front of me in an AR fashion, with pre-set altitude alerts popping up where I simply can’t ignore them would be great.
OTHER SKYDIVERS – one of the biggest dangers, other than running out of sky, in skydiving comes from others sharing the same airspace, especially when inexperienced jumpers are involved. Mid-air collisions can be catastrophic, especially if they occur at low altitude. Knowing exactly where other skydivers are, especially if they are within a certain proximity to you, is very important. We cannot be expected to have full 360 degree awareness at all times – we literally do not have eyes in the back of our heads – and so an alert system that automatically identifies other jumpers in the skies would be a great use of AR.
JUMP RUN & WIND INFO – this would be of obvious use in training new skydivers in the basics of jump runs, winds aloft and the effect on their jump of winds, including adjusting landing patterns in response to changing wind characteristics. Experienced skydivers would benefit from such a system at new and unfamiliar dropzones or to revise core skills and competencies, perhaps after a period of absence from the sport.
TRAINING/ COACHING – AR (and VR, especially for modelling of emergency situations) lends itself perfectly to the training of new skydivers and for coaching experienced jumpers in a range of disciplines. At present, new skydivers receive theory and ground schooling prior to their jumps, freefalling with a coach but then ultimately responsible for their own canopy piloting. Students who do need some assistance currently have to rely on audio instruction from a coach on the ground, who can only assess what he or she can see. What if the student could have the ideal flight path including important prompts for how best to prepare for their landing projected in from of them via AR? Important learning objectives would, I propose, be much faster to achieve and good practices established rapidly. The system could be taken a step further by enabling the ground-based coach to see exactly what the student is seeing via in-built cameras in the AR headset, thus significantly improving the accuracy and value of instructions to the student. Coaching uses could include real-time prompts on perfect body position for certain disciplines, such as tracking, and projected flight paths, to aid in flight accuracy. For example, following an AR line indicating a straight-line course in tracking would enable a skydiver to work on fine-tuning small body position perfections thus significantly enhancing progression in the sport.