Dry Eyes

Competitive swimming meets ‘Blade Runner.’

As a swimmer, Erika Pliner knew she could perform better if she received feedback from her coach mid-crawl, and not just after the fact. She was frustrated, but as a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee engineering student, she knew that there must be a solution. The training aid she constructed, known simply as “Tech Goggles,” is a prototype allowing instant communication between a coach and her swimmer. “The goggle attachment consists of a color-changing LED controlled by the mobile app,” she says. Colors correspond to a predetermined meaning and are selected by a smartphone-bearing swim coach. Red, for instance, might indicate that an athlete is crossing her arms while swimming. The LED beacon can also be programmed to signal whether the swimmer is ahead of pace or behind.

So far, Pliner has built a couple of different prototypes, and as the goggles’ only test subject, she’s continually thinking of ways to improve them. “I’m working with an electrical engineer, Lu Han, on enabling more channels to communicate with multiple swimmers at a time,” she says. Han, a graduate of Iowa State, discovered Pliner after seeing a TED Talk that mentioned the UWM Student Startup Challenge. Pliner was one of 10 students to win the competition, which meant $10,000 in prize money and access to a bevy of resources: mentorship, training and assistance from a prototype development team that could help bring the Tech Goggles to life.

Pliner and Han, who are also investing their own money in the venture, hope to add more features to the mobile app and further improve the goggle-attachment’s design. By summer’s end, Pliner expects to complete a master’s degree in industrial engineering and begin a doctoral program for bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh. And she has other plans for this fall. “The goal is to pitch the idea,” she says, to a company specializing in swimwear and technology before October.

‘Dry Eyes’ appears in the August 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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