A view from Tracey Follows

Mixed reality will mean all athletes become superhumans

Sport as we know it could be changed forever with people's desire and ability to optimise themselves through biology, chemistry or technology.

Let’s face it, drugs are going to become part of professional sport in the not too distant future. 

It seems hard to imagine drugs being permitted in sport because there is a not insignificant business involved in doping, testing and policing drugs "cheating" in professional sport today. But the truth is, in a world in which drugs become taken on a daily basis by everyday people to augment their performance, it’s going to be very difficult to police – let alone justify – the banning of performance-enhancing drugs in sport. 

People are already turning to nootropics, molecular biology and autogenic experiences to be more mindful, think smarter and last longer. Call it "upstream wellness" if you like, but we are already entering the world of "the optimised self". This is the widespread consumer quest for personal optimisation. In a way, it is a quest to be more human, to be the very best we can be, while we are able. It is showing up even more among Gen Z, a generation who drink less, use less heroin or meth, get into fewer fights and have fewer babies than generations who have gone before. They are interested in excelling – physically and mentally – and will enhance and augment the machine that is their mind and their body to stay ahead of the rest. 

The optimised self

If performance-enhancing drugs are being used by amateur athletes, and become part of a "personal optimisation" story, then we may face the bizarre situation in which amateur athletes are faster than Olympic athletes. It then becomes questionable what the Olympics is really testing – 21st-century speed, skill and agility, or 20th-century speed, skill and agility. In which case, what is the point?

And the point is not to test human qualities alone versus performance-enhanced versions of humans because we are all finding ways to augment ourselves, and we will all have the opportunity to optimise ourselves through augmentation of one kind or another –through biology, chemistry or technology. 

In October, the Swiss are hosting an Olympics for bionic athletes. The Cybathlon championship is run by a consortium of doctors, roboticists and consultants, and encourages all kinds of assisted devices in all kinds of disciplines, some of which include brain-computer interface racing,  a powered-leg and powered-arm race, and functional electrical stimulation bike races.

Pilots with arm amputations can compete in this race using prosthetics with any kind of controller. In each Cybathlon race, four arm-prosthetic pilots will compete on four parallel tracks including a series of six tasks, some of which must be mastered using the prosthetic device only. The pilot who solves the most tasks in the least time wins the race. In the brain-computer interface racing, the reliability and precision of BCIs will be challenged in a virtual game in order to develop BCIs with varying applications in daily life.

The Cyber-Olympics

Back in the UK, Claire Lomas has already walked the London Marathon in a robotic suit. And whether you see this as a physical augmentation or as a wearable, tech is going to bring more and more disruption to the notions of sport and competition than you can imagine.

In fact, get ready for a time when the Olympics and the Paralympics no longer coexist but come together as one Cyber-Olympics. 

As we begin to accept and live 100-year or even 150-year lives, the possibility of a very long athletics career becomes a reality and so augmentation, not just optimisation, becomes increasingly popular as a coping strategy for one’s lifelong career. 

One can’t help thinking that the whole idea of participation and even sponsorship will be disrupted as a result. How will we experience sports? 

Probably some of it will be via virtual reality and augmented reality. A new "mixed reality" approach to experiencing sport could put you right alongside the athlete, in an immersive experience, feeling all of the exhilaration the athlete feels but without having had to get up at 5am for the past 20 years to train. 

Virtual reality may actually become one of the best places for some athletes to train. Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab is already experimenting with training American football quarterbacks, helping them to improve their decision-making skills and speed up their reaction times. That’s really optimisation, increasing your skill and speed in ways that don’t even involve having to get dragged on to the training field. 

In fact, we could see a whole new category of sports that actually takes place only in virtual reality. If you take physical fitness along with mental fitness and combine it with some gamification in an immersive reality environment, there’s no reason you couldn’t become an athlete in the Virtual World Championships. It’s certainly a space (quite literally) that has potential for global media sponsorship mega-deals. Then again, maybe it becomes just one more fundraising, spectator-led element of the Cyber-Olympics of the future. We’re all superhuman now.