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Tiny camera, big impact: How GoPro transformed sports

Tiny camera, big impact: How GoPro transformed sports

Posting in Technology | From Issue 21 June 30, 2014

GoPro has fueled $1 billion markets, influenced the traditionally stodgy Olympics and spawned the "super selfie." Its latest achievement? A public offering.

Standing each day on the railing of the Perrine Bridge in Twins Falls, Idaho, 486 feet above the Snake River, BASE jumper Sean Chuma says he feels nothing but Zen. "People who do this like adventure and they like to fly," he says, of his daily morning jumps off the iconic span. Thanks to the wonders of tiny video camera maker GoPro, which he wears on his helmet, the bridge now draws hundreds of jumpers from around the globe, who have been wowed by Chuma's daredevil triple twists, uploaded to YouTube. "I never use the words adrenaline junkie," says Chuma. "To me, it's the most peaceful thing."

There was a time not so long ago when BASE--an acronym that stands for the structures jumped from: building, antenna, span and earth--was a solitary pursuit. You climbed a building or a cliff and you jumped strictly for the thrill of it. Today, thanks to GoPro, the sport has practically gone mainstream, seen by millions, and has created stars like Chuma, who runs one of the country's only two BASE jumping courses. Last year, he performed a tandem jump, strapping onto his chest a 102-year-old woman, the oldest ever to BASE, in a GoPro video viewed some 208,000 times.

"GoPro has changed this sport tremendously," says Chuma, who has been jumping since 2009. "People see what can be done and they want to go outside and do it."

In case you've been living under a modem, here's the deal with GoPro. Their tiny cubed cameras have disrupted every single action sport they've touched. They are the must-have accessories of BASE jumpers, trail cyclists, big wave surfers, half pipe snowboarders, kite boarders, Tough Mudder racers and thousands of other play-hard athletes around the world. These daredevils not only want to record their moments of gutsy glory but upload them to the universe. In fact, many say that the ten-year old GoPro, which pulled in $986 million in revenue last year--up 87 percent from the year before--is the little engine that is now driving the booming multi-billion dollar action sports industry. Not only that, they've also made traditional sports seem, well, kind of sad and lame.

"They've pushed fringe sports into the mainstream," says Jeff Wise, a science and tech expert, and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind In Danger. "Watching in the first person, from the top of the World Trade Center, as a guy gets ready to jump, is a visceral experience. And you're getting that from a few seconds of viral video. You don't have to watch 90 minutes of football. That now seems boring."

This week, GoPro--founded by 38-year-old Nicholas Woodman after a surfing trip to Indonesia inspired him to shoot his exploits--went public, giving the company a market capitalization of $3.9 billion. But more than an amazing startup, GoPro is changing the sports we watch, the way we watch them, and how we think about ourselves and communicate that to others, all while managing to shake up stodgy institutions like the Olympics. Last winter, the International Olympic Committee introduced a dozen new highflying and fast-moving sports to its lineup, several of them--like ski half pipe, ski and snowboard slopestyle, and the snowboard parallel slalom--the type of acrobatic sports favored by the GoPro-wearing and YouTube-loving X Games crowd. They did it to keep up with the adrenaline-soaked obsessions of the youth audience.

"With all the amplitude out of the pipe, the counter-clockwise spins, the crazy upside-down views from mid air, all that is made for GoPro," says Steele Spence, a former pro skier and competitive free skiing judge on hand at the 2014 Sochi games. GoPro sponsored 12 athletes at the Olympics, including snowboard slope-style champ, Sage Kotsenburg, who won a history-making gold in his event's first Olympic appearance. "These kids grew up on GoPro," says Steele. "It's part of why they became athletes."

What GoPro does, of course, is simple. It allows us to experience things firsthand. We're social creatures. We have empathy. We see someone experience an emotion and we experience it, too. "We have a natural gift for virtual reality," says Wise. But in traditional televised sports, or even in movies and TV shows, we see others going through these things. With a GoPro, and competitors like the Samsung Galaxy Camera, the point of view shifts. "These technologies are enablers to our empathy experience," says Wise. "You feel as if you are doing it. And it's intense."

In 1992, a team of neuroscientists at the University of Parma, in Italy, discovered what are now referred to as "mirror neurons" in macaque monkeys. By embedding electrodes in the monkey's premotor cortex--a region that initiates signals that direct muscle movement in both macaques and humans--they found that the same neurons fired when a monkey performed an action, like eating a banana, as when he saw someone else perform the action. They realized that, from our brain's point of view, doing and seeing are somehow closely related. Later research found that about one-fifth of the neurons firing during an action also fire on seeing that action.

Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), argued in a landmark 2005 study that these mirror neurons are so congruent they can actually determine if someone picking up a cup from a table planned to drink from it or merely clear it from the table. The cluster of mirroring cells, he says, allow us to understand gestures, facial expressions add body postures, which are all social signals. "Without them," Iacoboni has said, "we would likely be blind to the actions, intentions and emotions of other people." And with them, we understand, in a micro-second, a BASE jumper's death-defying plunge from a river bridge or a snowboarder's air flip--images that make our hearts pound and breathing spike.

The tiny camera is even becoming a tool for psychologists. At a February meeting of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, in Knoxville, Tennessee, graduate researcher Sklyar Jewell made the case that cameras like GoPro can revolutionize his field and the larger field of psychotherapy. It can help people overcome phobias and social anxieties, like facing job interviews or meeting someone in a bar, or allow them to confront abusive spouses, intimidating parents or estranged siblings, all by putting them into first-person scenarios and focusing on their emotional responses and by that learning how to control them. This type of visualization exercise--combined with breathing techniques and meditation--have long been a staple of the psychologist's office. Jewell argues it can be heightened and improved by using these little cameras, an appeal he recently made to 50 or so of his colleagues. Sport psychologists have been using visualization strategies for two decades to give athletes a competitive edge, improve focus, and conquer pre-game anxiety. It's an important tool at university athletic programs and at the U.S. Olympic Committee's training center, in Colorado Springs, Co. But Jewell is advocating using GoPro videos of the athletes themselves--and of superior competitors--to impart mastery of a sport.

We learn something new in two ways--by doing it or by watching someone else do it. But learning to do something from a training film, like throw a football, grill a steak, or perfect a karate move, is a third-hand experience. "Our perspective has been stagnant," says Jewell, who earned his master's in kinesiology at Georgia Southern University. "With this new technology, we can gather perspectives we couldn't previously and we can create a new approach to visualization and control."

This could be a huge game changer because research has shown that watching an instructional video actually improves the self confidence of viewers, convincing them that they, too, in most cases can perform the task or the activity demonstrated in the video. Remarkably, gaining that type of belief in yourself actually improves your ability to perform more effectively than if you hadn't watched the video. "The challenge is always to make something as vivid as possible," says Jewell. "Then go through the senses you might feel, so you're practicing in your head." And in turn firing neurons that will eventually move your muscles and your emotions.

All this makes GoPro the ideal disruptive tool for film and TV auteurs. It's the perfect device for our handheld, shaky camera, hard-breathing, reality TV moment. It's the type of in-your-face, intimacy-creating camera that makes you part of the action. Mark Burnett, the five-time Emmy winning producer of Survivor, has said his crew uses GoPro "to capture and share fascinating new perspectives that previously weren't possible or were too costly, which in the end makes for better story telling."

And that's what GoPro is now trying to sell the world, a camera that tells your story and brands you. While companies like Nikon and Canon fine tune their optics and ease of shooting, GoPro is disrupting these legacy brands by offering something much bigger: a lifestyle. Last year, it sold four million cameras, up from 2.3 million in 2012, with customers churning out an estimated 6,000 video uploads--every day.

In the process, the company has disrupted the way we see ourselves, by creating a new genre of portraiture, known as the "super selfie." There are daredevil images of skydivers and surfers, of course, but also regular folks jumping off a beach pier or kayaking down a river. And this, in turn, is creating other new markets. Last week, two companies made their debut on Kickstarter, selling drones equipped with GoPro brackets, that will take your sky-high selfie, or dronie, on demand. One, the HEXO +, is selling "an intelligent drone that follows and films you autonomously" either while you're heli-skiing, out fishing, or just in the backyard grilling a steak.

"This generation shares more online, and is more transparent, than any that's come before," says Dan Schawbel, founder of the website Millennial Branding and author of Promote Yourself. "And the smart ones want to leverage it, by doing stunts or creating a cooking or fashion show that YouTube will pick up and make them famous. A decade ago, it would cost thousands of dollars to make a professional reel and send it to Hollywood and hope you get discovered. GoPro is changing that business model, just like it changes everything it touches."

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Photo credit: Marcus Ertl

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Kevin Gray

Contributing Writer

Kevin Gray is a freelance writer based in New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, New York, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Details and Men's Journal. Disclosure