Fencing gets technology advancement

A far cry from the choreographed duels you see on film and the stage, fencing is physical and mind testing combat.

“Fencing is very physical, but also intellectual, it’s like fast paced physical chess,” said longtime fencer Jake Green.

Because of the speed of this sport, it becomes incredibly difficult for the director and the audience to keep track of valid and invalid touches.

Health, Physical Education & Recreation adjunct instructor Wayne Johnson, two-time Olympian turned fencing instructor, and Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Dr. Jennifer McFerran Brock have created a piece of technology that will virtually eliminate this problem.

“This is so elementary,”Johnson said. “I can’t believe that no one has thought of this before.”

With Johnson and Brock’s technology, the director will have a small piece of equipment that receives a signal from the swords when a touch takes place. That signal is then transferred to an “actuator” (a hand held object that will vibrate) in their left hand for the fencer to their left and one in their right hand for the fencer to their right. When the right hand fencer scores a touch, the corresponding actuator will vibrate in the directors’ hand, etc. A good touch causes the actuator to emit a constant vibration, while a foul touch causes an oscillating vibration. This way, the director, without taking his eye’s from the match, can distinguish between a valid or invalid point.

“That’s one of the cool things about this technology,” said Johnson. “It allows the director to completely focus on the match. Divided attention is why most calling errors take place. It totally rules out biased calls as well.”

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This is the biggest electronic advance that fencing has seen in the last 72 years, Johnson said.

Studies have proven that when using Johnsons’ actuators, the directors’ reaction times and calling accuracy improve. The actuators allow the director to make calls using their senses of touch, sight and sound. During the development process, Johnson had an epiphany. Not only could his technology reduce the strain placed on the director, it could bring the audience from a place of observation to sensory interaction using something as simple as a cellphone.

Johnson is planning to write an app that will use a cell phone’s existing software to essentially turn it into a “receiver” and then manufacture head-phone-like objects that will act as “miniactuators.” The app and corresponding hand-held-actuators will allow spectators to literally feel exactly what the fencer is feeling, each touch, instantaneously. It will be the only sport in the world where the audience is literally “plugged in” to the action.

“We are investigating both blue-tooth and Wi-Fi to see which does not have a lag. Because latency, a lag in the signal, would be catastrophic,” said Johnson. “For accuracy sake, it needs to feed instantaneously.”

Johnson and Brock presented their technology at the National Fencing Championship this last summer, and from that presentation they merited an invitation to present at the World Congress in December.

“We haven’t heard back yet from the World Congress as to whether or not we are actually accepted,” said Johnson. “They issued the invitation and I accepted, but it has to go through the “Comite Executif” of the whole FIA.”

If this technology does indeed get off the ground on a global scale, it will change the sport of fencing as we know it.