Two expert martial artists, clad head to toe in high-tech articulated armor, going at each other full force with ancient and modern weapons. Staff against nunchuk, Kendo against Kali – the flag drops, the bullshit stops. An all-out, to-the-virtual-death contest to decide who is the greatest weapons martial artist in the world, and which fighting styles are more flash and form than function. That's the concept behind Unified Weapons Master, a futuristic new gladiator sport being developed out of Sydney, Australia. It's the first fighting sport that will be able to give its fighters a virtual health bar to show how much damage they'd be taking if they weren't in armor.
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is the fastest growing sport on the planet – and the UFC, by some estimates, may be the world's most valuable sports organization. This is a wonderful time to be involved in martial arts.
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Unless, that is, you're involved in weapons-based martial arts. While MMA fighting pits experts of all different fighting styles against one another in full-contact competition, it's much harder to do when there's weapons involved.
The first and main issue is safety. A well-placed fist or knee might be a devastating and dangerous weapon, but weapons are far more lethal. If you want to go full contact with weapons, you've got to wear armor ... and it had better be good armor.
But when you do, you run into the second issue – if both fighters are wearing armor, how can you tell who really won? One of the main ideas behind MMA was to answer the question: if you really want to win a fight, which martial art is the most effective? The answer, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, emerged pretty quickly, and the vast majority of MMA fighters now include BJJ in their training. But how do you work out which is the most effective weapons-based fighting style without actually letting people kill each other?
One Sydney-based startup believes it has the answer. Unified Weapons Master, or UWM, is a full-contact weapons-based fighting competition that uses extremely high-tech suits of armor to protect the combatants while providing real-time updates on how badly they'd be getting mangled if they were fighting unprotected.
Essentially, it's live weapons fighting with a video-game health bar to keep score – and the folks behind UWM believe they've got the next great global entertainment enterprise on their hands once they get this modern gladiator sport ready for the arena and pay-per-view circuit.
David Pysden, CEO of Chiron Global, believes the sport will instantly resonate with a television audience: "People will intuitively understand the way this stuff is displayed," he tells us, "because they've seen it before in Tekken, or Mortal Kombat or any number of video games."
The UWM intelligent armor
The prototype suits pictured here are made from a variety of materials: composites, polycarbonates, carbon fiber and elastomeric foams. They take a long time to put on – in fact, you need somebody to dress you as you put it on piece by piece. The prototypes are incredibly heavy, and it must be hard trying to fight in a 25 kg (55 lb) suit. "The primary design criteria was safety," says Pysden, "so we overengineered them quite deliberately. They were heavier than they needed to be, but we needed to make sure the people in them weren't hurt - or this business would stop very quickly."
The next-generation suits will weigh about a third less, they'll articulate better, be quicker to get in and out of, and will feature a compressed air cooling system to keep the fighters from overheating. They'll also be packed with in-built cameras and microphones to transmit the fighting experience from the fighters' points of view – something that's obviously been impossible in MMA previously.
The fight scoring system relies on dozens of sensors embedded in the armor that are capable of measuring the force, angle and location of a strike. The strike data is measured against carefully complied medical blunt trauma data to determine what kind of damage each blow would do to an unprotected body. "We know, for example," Pysden tells us, "how much force it takes to shatter the jaw, or knock somebody out, or to break an arm or to crack a skull. We're starting with blunt force trauma simulation, and we already have the medical data for that. We'll know who killed who, or who incapacitated who first."
It's important to note the suits won't just use weapon strikes to determine damage – this will be a true free-for-all. Kicks, punches, knees or repeatedly whacking your opponent's head on the ground will all contribute damage, although perhaps not quite as much as donging them on the head with a dirty big stick.
Psyden says the UWM team are hoping to expand the system to be able to cope with bladed weapons like swords and spears in the next few years. "Edged weapons will be a little trickier, we're looking at a couple of years before we can incorporate blades and the like, because funnily enough nobody's done a lot of experimentation in that area." Part of the challenge will be to incorporate internal organ and vein/artery damage that's inherent to a blade strike, so that'll be interesting!
UWM competition slated to begin in 2016
With testing and suit development progressing well, Pysden says the first step towards making UWM a global sport will be a series of invitation-only "underground" events to be held in Australia in 2016: "We're doing a lot of stuff that's never been done before, so obviously timelines can move around a bit. But we certainly hope to have our first public facing events in 2016." While it may start small, there is serious levels of investment behind it and the team is very much focused on creating a global entertainment package to rival the UFC.
As such, he tells us to expect the production suits to be tailored to each individual fighter - and if the fighter chooses, they can have them designed to mimic the traditional dress associated with their primary fighting style. With each suit expected to be "lots of zeros" expensive, finding the right mix of fighters to start the competition off will be a critical choice. "Later this year, we'll be starting our Call to Arms: In Search of Warriors campaign. We'll be getting people to submit videos… The public will vote on them, and a panel of experts will vote on them, and from those we'll select a number of fighters to go into our first competition next year.
"We've had phenomenal feedback from martial artists all around the world. Overwhelmingly the response has been 'when can I get a suit? When can I compete?' They're absolutely gagging to get it on, and that's understandable because they've never really been able to do that before."
One key thing Pysden wants to stress is that while UWM aims to be a highly entertaining and engaging broadcast sport, nobody in the team wants to see it descend into farce. "We really wanna honor the traditional forms, the histories, the cultures where these arts have evolved from. There's a lot of respect in how we do that – we don't want to trivialize these arts. There's been a lot of feedback on Facebook saying 'put two celebrities in the armor and let them smash each other…' Ugh. We developed this technology for weapons based experts. This technology is bleeding edge, it's very expensive and we've developed it with the purpose of showcasing these arts and bringing them to a wider audience, and obviously to find out truly who is the best weapons martial artist in the world."
The next step: looking beyond the first UWM season
With its blend of high-tech armor and old-school, to-the-virtual-death weapons fighting, UWM should make a fine spectator sport in and of itself. But Pysden and the team are already looking forward, envisioning what the next evolution of the sport might bring.
For starters, a better way to use the massive stream of information coming from the suits: "We're already working on a second screen experience. With the number of sensors on these suits, it's just way too much information for anyone to take in through a traditional TV format. It'd be fun to give people the opportunity to interact with that data through a second screen, whether it's a tablet or a PC or a phone."
And then there's the idea of motion tracking the fighters to be able to present instant replays using character models without armor on. "Mo-Cap has actually evolved to the point where I can take a standard video image of you and produce a 3D image of you in real time, and make that look like anything I want. I can have you in flowing Samurai robes, or Jedi robes, and it'll follow you and your weapons' movements. We see that as an evolution of what we can do with the entertainment side of things. In the short term, we've actually been told by people at large sports broadcasting companies that we don't need that. They just wanna see it as a sport."
It certainly seems like it'll make good watching – there's very few opportunities in modern life to watch one guy wrap a long, wooden staff around another guy's head using every ounce of his strength and technique. And while the guy wearing the suit seems unfazed by the impact, it still makes you wince to watch it happen. Despite its bloodless nature, this will still be a brutal sport to watch.
The first few bits of video UWM has released feel a lot like watching medieval combat – the suits are clearly very heavy and at least a little bit restrictive to the fighters. But once the armor improves and the first generation of UWM fighters gets used to training and fighting in it, they can start going at each other with the intent to do some real damage. It should make for some truly compelling viewing.
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