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Divesoft Is At It Again with New Tools for Tekkies

Czech Republic-based Divesoft upended the helium analysis market with their patented accoustic-based helium/oxygen analyzer, which they launched in 2013. What are they up to now?

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by Michael Menduno

Divesoft was born when Czech Information Technology (IT) entrepreneurs Ales Prochaska and Lucie Šmejkalová, who ran a successful online banking software business for 20 years, decided to forgo the corporate life and apply their considerable expertise to their shared passion for diving. Beginning with an innovative helium-oxygen analyzer, the “He/O2 analyzer,” which uses a patented (2012) acoustic helium sensor that Prochaska created and built for himself and his friends, the pair of brainiacs went on to create the Liberty Rebreather, which is arguably one of the most fault-tolerant systems on the market, along with their line of Freedom dive computers. 

After launching the company in the spring of 2013, Prochaska, Šmejkalová, and their team exhibited at the Diving Equipment & Marketing Association (DEMA) in 2014. I was there and remember the crowd of tech divers huddled around their booth, peppering the Divesoft staff with questions about the unique fault-tolerant equipment on display. I was one of them. 

Divesoft’s first helium-oxygen analyzer, the “He/O2 analyzer”.

Since that time, Divesoft has grown to become a serious contender in the global rebreather market, offering both back mount and sidemount versions of the Liberty. The company has attracted numerous high-profile users like Canadian filmmaker and educator Jill Heinerth; Polish deep cave diving record setter Krzysztof Starnawski, award-winning U.S. cinematographer Becky Kagan Schott, Italian explorer Edoardo Pavia, UK’s man in the Yucatan Steve Bogaerts, and many more. This summer, the innovative equipment makers introduced their “Analyser Solo,” a new lightweight, easy-to-use helium-oxygen analyzer. We caught up with Prochaska over the summer. Here is what the banking-software-guru-turned-tech-diving-inventor had to say. 

InDepth: You describe your He/O2 analyzer as the “foundation stone” for the company. What motivated you to create this analyzer? Of all the diving equipment you could create, why a He/O2 sensor?

Ales Prochaska: When I started diving helium blends, there wasn’t an easy-to-use analyzer that could show me the complete blend composition in a single step. So, I created the analyzer mainly for my own use. When I commissioned the electronics board, I had ten of them made, in case any fellow divers were also in need of an analyzer. Turns out they were, and the whole stock of analyzers sold within two days.

I understand you use a standard electrochemical oxygen sensor in the analyzer. How did you come up with the idea for an acoustic helium sensor versus a chemical sensor? It seems like a brilliant solution and, in retrospect, an obvious approach in some ways. Divers are, of course, very aware of helium’s acoustical properties from listening to our Donald Duck voices!

I researched all the physical properties of helium I could think of. There were many pages to go through. I studied them and tried to imagine a sensor based on each. And the acoustic principle won, being easy to implement and very accurate. 

How does it work?

The helium content is determined based on measuring the speed of sound in the analyzed mix. The speed of sound depends on the content of helium and oxygen, and the temperature of the mix. The dependence of the speed of sound on pressure is small and can be disregarded under normal atmospheric pressure.

Did your educational background help you create the analyzer?

Yes, in the case of the analyzer, I found my previous studies in engineering, electrical engineering, and software engineering to be very useful. Skills from all three fields were needed to design and manufacture the analyzer.

What was your and Lucie’s diving background? Are you both tech divers?

From my first diving course, I realized that technical diving was the direction I wanted to follow and explore intensively. Lucie, on the other hand, is not as attracted to technical diving or caves. She prefers a dive in the warm tropical seas among the coral fish!

How long did it take you to build that first analyzer? 

The first analyzer was sold in 2004, but the development began a little earlier.

And you have the patent. Brilliant! What benefits does the acoustic sensor bestow on users compared to other chemical-based He analyzers?

Yes, the sensor is patented. The acoustic principle used allows fast and efficient measurements, even on flowing gas. It’s also as easy to use as a conventional nitrox analyzer, and I think that was the biggest benefit of our analyzer.

Divesoft’s new analyzer SOLO.

Divesoft just introduced the “Analyzer Solo.” How does it differ from its original He/O2 Analyzer?

The Solo Analyzer is a lighter and more simplified version of the He/O2 Analyzer. However, the original is still produced because it allows the attachment of additional equipment such as a pressure sensor and others alike. The Solo has no plug-in connector.

What came next; the Liberty rebreather or the Freedom dive computers or both? 

They were supposed to launch simultaneously because the computer and its software were developed at the same time as the Liberty control unit (with which it has a common base), but we managed to release the dive computer a little earlier.

Liberty Rebreather by DiveSoft. Photo courtesy of Divesoft.

What year was that?

We launched the company in 2013!

How did you go from a He/O2 analyzer to a rebreather, the flagship of your company? What was your motivation to build a rebreather, or was that always the goal?

The motivation to develop Liberty was similar to that of the analyzer. We wanted to dive with a rebreather, but none of the devices on the market at that time had all of the features we found important. We had a clear idea of the qualities a rebreather should have and knew we could design it. This was in and of itself a great motivation to try. 

Necessity is the mother of invention! What made you think you could build a rebreather in terms of expertise and experience? How did your earlier work in IT inform your design ideas and implementation?

At first glance it doesn’t appear as such, but the fault-tolerant rebreather is an extensive software masterpiece above all. We had a lot of experience with fault-tolerant systems through our IT and even our underwater backgrounds. At one point, we had developed a software that was supposed to be perfectly resistant to failure. When Prague was hit by the huge flood in 2002, it destroyed the main data center. The system we designed, however, transferred the activity to a backup center and continued working as if nothing had ever happened. Since then, we knew that we wanted to pursue a system that could be sunk underwater deliberately, not just during a flood. 

Wow. Very cool. Clearly “fault-tolerance” is part of the DNA of your rebreather. Was that your starting point, then, for your design? 

Yes, that was a clear goal from the beginning. We knew that other rebreathers were not completely fault-tolerant. Their standard solution was to go into restricted safe mode or report an error and wait for the user to deal with it. Our intention was to develop a rebreather that, in the case of a control electronics failure, anything from discharging the battery to interrupting the solenoid coil, would continue to operate without any restriction. In technical diving, there may be situations where several problems gradually accumulate and prohibit divers from emerging in less than a few hours. In those cases, a rebreather that remains working despite having a defect may be necessary. 

Were dive computers just a logical add-on?

Yes, once we had mastered the rebreather control software, including the decompression model and the waterproof rebreather handset, it would have been a shame not to use it to design an independent diving computer. All we needed was to cut the rebreather cable, refill the battery and the computer was (almost) finished. (Ales smiles.)  

Talk to me a little about having four O2 sensors in the unit? How does that work?

The number of sensors is closely related to the fault-tolerant properties. The standard number of sensors is three, sometimes the ‘3 + 1’ or ‘3 + 2’ arrangement is used, where the added sensors serve as an additional check on the functioning of the three main sensors. But Liberty has two complete, full-featured control units, each with its own sensors. That’s why we used four sensors, because this number is easily divided by two [Ales smiles]. Of course, this does not mean that each control unit works with only two sensors. The units keep communications with one another, and both are aware of the measurements of all four sensors. 

Photo courtesy of Divesoft.

I remember from Rebreather Forum 3.0, Nigel Jones, who worked with Poseidon, said that three sensors in a “voting logic” algorithm do NOT offer true redundancy, and in some cases offers much less redundancy than divers imagine. Does your algorithm offer something stronger? Please explain.

The degree of redundancy depends on the evaluation algorithm i.e. “voting logic.” If properly designed, more sensors will always be more secure. At Liberty, we monitor not only the instantaneous values of the sensors (plus the elimination of the obviously defective, for example, flooded sensors), but also their course over time. We know when the system adds oxygen and how much and the depth and volume of the breathing circuit; from that we can calculate how much the sensor should measure. From the reaction of the other sensors, we can also manually add oxygen or diluent. We also know how and how fast the sensors should respond to depth changes. From all of this, we can identify the faulty sensor and exclude it from the measurements. And, of course, the system always informs the diver of such an event, as they have the final say in how to proceed. 

Fascinating! It sounds like the Liberty uses some of the same principles that Bill Stone used in designing his “Active Validation” approach in Poseidon rebreather, that is comparing instantaneous sensor values with what you expect them to be.

But what Nigel Jones said, of course, still applies. The diver should never assume the control unit will solve everything. The control unit solves only what it is programmed for, so, for example, the quality of the sensors and their replacement must be supervised by the divers themselves. There was a case where a diver had two faulty sensors and one good sensor in a rebreather, and the control unit ignored the values of the correct sensor. The unit decided based on two faulty sensors, which ‘outvoted’ the right sensor.

Why two helium sensors? The FHe is not going to change during the dive, is it?

Helium concentration changes during the dive because the oxygen concentration changes. The more oxygen, the less diluent and thus less helium. This logic could also be reversed and the oxygen concentration could be calculated by measuring the helium concentration (with a known diluent composition). Thus, the helium sensor not only serves for the correct calculation of decompression based on the actual He content, but could be used in emergencies to measure the oxygen concentration under certain conditions. There are two He sensors, with each control unit having its own.

Ah of course. In the loop! Clever! Dual computers as well, right?

Of course, a duplicate computer is necessary for fault-tolerant devices. Each computer has its own battery and is connected to the other only by a data bus. The data bus is, of course, waterproof and short-circuit-proof, so no conceivable failure of one computer could affect the other. 

I believe your back mount CCR came first, yes? What motivated you to create a sidemount unit as well?

Back mount CCR came first because it was and still is the main type of rebreather arrangement. Sidemount was the logical successor of the back mount. It uses the same body and a variety of other parts as the back mount but is horizontally mounted on a special rack. The need for sidemount originally came from cave divers, so we wanted to provide them with the opportunity to use Liberty in this arrangement as well. 

Becky Schott wearing the sidemount Liberty rebreather. Photo by David Schott.

Is a sidemount CCR a specialized niche product, or do you think it will replace or at least equally compete with back mount CCR?

Liberty sidemount is a complete rebreather, including bottles with diluent and oxygen. It can be used not only for cavers, but also as a backup rebreather, handed to another diver without having to switch hoses from off-board gases.

The number of divers who use sidemount as the main unit during diving is increasing. The sidemount’s arrangement has some advantages over the back mount and there are now known and proven procedures as well as technical equipment for diving with sidemount. Its growth is inevitable. While I do not expect the back mount to be replaced altogether, it seems the usage of sidemounts is increasing and many divers will choose it as their main unit.

What would you say are the critical issues right now in CCR diving?

The biggest problem is divers pursuing rebreather diving without adequate training. They see the usage of rebreathers increasing and think that diving with a rebreather is a common thing. But the fact is that diving with a rebreather is still more demanding in terms of skill and self-discipline than an open circuit, and divers who dive with a rebreather without undergoing any type of training are putting themselves at risk.

Would you say CCR diving is getting safer?

It is a little safer, especially since divers, instructors, and rebreather manufacturers are taking lessons from past accidents to try and avoid them. (Similar to the efforts of those in the auto and aviation industries.). 

I see you have just added Synchrony Bank financing option for purchases of Divesoft gear. How did that come about? Has financing been a problem for dive consumers?

Synchrony Bank has been funding our products since the beginning of August solely for the US market where rentals are popular and widespread. We wanted to accommodate customers purchasing our goods by credit card.

Where is Divesoft headed? Do you have a collective vision for the future? What’s on the horizon?

We want to be innovators in the field of equipment for technical divers with a significant overlap in the field of recreational diving, of course. In addition to analyzers, our main domains are still rebreathers and diving computers. In these areas, we are already in development and planning stages for major improvements and innovations. We are currently preparing several innovations to be launched in November 2019 at DEMA, followed by BOOT 2020 in Dusseldorf. Stay tuned for those. [Ales smiles]

Divesoft has been sponsoring the exploration of Hranice Abyss. Are there other projects that Divesoft is sponsoring as well?

We sponsor the Greek Seahorse Rescue Station Hippocampus Marine Institute, as well as Czech police divers during mine clearance operations in the waters of the Sava, Una, and Drina rivers in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Last but not least, the Hranice Abyss.

Thank you so much. You have taken a unique approach, and it’s evident that it is really paying off for you. Congratulations!

My pleasure. 

Read about their team’s exploration of the Hranice Abyss


Czech Republic-based Divesoft upended the helium analysis market with their patented sonic-based helium/oxygen analyzer, which they launched in 2013.

Michael Menduno is InDepth’s executive editor and, an award-winning reporter and technologist who has written about diving and diving technology for 30 years. He coined the term “technical diving.” His magazine “aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving”(1990-1996), helped usher tech diving into mainstream sports diving. He also produced the first Tek, EUROTek, and ASIATek conferences, and organized Rebreather Forums 1.0 and 2.0. Michael received the OZTEKMedia Excellence Award in 2011, the EUROTek Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012, and the TEKDive USA Media Award in 2018.

Additional Resources:

Forbes Magazine article (In Czech):

I bez moře. Manželé, kteří v Roudnici vyrábějí potápěčskou techniku

In English:

“Even without the sea. Spouses who produce diving equipment in Roudnice

Equipment

Heads Up Swimmers and Divers Who Swim

Wouldn’t it be great to have your essential swim metrics right in front of your face, so you wouldn’t have to slow down to steal a glance at the clock, or flick a wrist and read your swim watch? Now you can! (Never mind that agencies only require you to paddle 300-400m at a jellyfish pace—you do keep up your swimming don’t you??) Here InD exec editor Michael Menduno, a passionate swimmer, reviews the latest in performance swimming technology. Can diving be far behind?

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By Michael Menduno

I am a water person. I swim four to five days a week. I am a diver. I’m also a technologist and gearhead. So, when I saw the FORM ‘smart’ (augmented reality) swim goggles, I knew I had to try a pair.

FORM goggles offer the swimmer key user selectable metrics such as time elapsed; distance swam, split times, interval times, pace per 50/100 yards or meters, stroke rate/SWOLF, or even calories burned in a concise, bright-yellow heads up display that appears to float in your field of vision. Note that the metrics are based on the trailing length; they’re not instantaneous.  The heads up display also cleverly sequences metrics as the swim progresses. For example, it shows the new split time after the swimmer performs their turn. Also, the eyepieces are symmetric so that display can be positioned in either your right or left eye. 

As a result, you don’t have to stop swimming to look at your swim watch or deck clock for timing, and it counts your laps in case your early morning swim brain loses track. According to the company, the goggles free up your mental bandwidth so you can focus on your form, hence the name. Did I mention they currently have no competition?

FORM goggles can be readily set for lap swimming, intervals or drills (ah those kick sets!) with the two tiny toggle buttons on the side of the goggles; they don’t have GPS and so don’t work for open water swims. At the end of your workout, you save the swim using the menu buttons, and it’s uploaded to the companion app on your smartphone via Bluetooth, where it is stored and can be shared. Your swim data can also be uploaded to Strava or Training Peaks, though currently FORM is not integrated with Swim.com, which partners with the U.S. Masters Swimming (USMS) log. That’s where I upload my Apple watch swim data. 

Oh, and the goggles also talk to the Polar OH1 optical heart rate sensor, which can be fitted to the google straps, allowing the device to display your heart rate in real time. They can also upload heart data from a Garmin watch. All in all, FORM can only be described as a remarkable piece of engineering. 

Interestingly, when I first called the Vancouver B.C. Canada-based company to inquire about their goggles, one of my first questions was, “Are you also planning to offer an augmented reality diving mask?” NOT! 

FORM’s marketing director explained to me that there are an estimated 30 million swimmers in the U.S. and 240 million globally making it the largest sport in the world—roughly one to two orders of magnitude larger than diving, including both free and compressed gas divers—and that’s who they plan to focus on. That of course would include triathletes and Iron-people who swim too.

I also realize now that FORM’s secret sauce is a lot more than simply displaying computer data on an in-mask optics display. Though the diminutive optics screen, which is about the size of a 64GB SanDisk card, and the small thumb drive-sized computer positioned at the temples, could easily be incorporated in a diving mask. Shearwater and Thalatoo take note.

The Ghost In The Machine

FORM is the brainchild of 44-year old competitor swimmer cum mechanical engineer, Dan Eisenhardt. He first conceived of the idea for smart swim goggles for his MBA project in 2006, but the available technology, particularly the state of machine learning (ML), at that time made it infeasible. Instead, he and his colleagues created a heads-up display ski mask and went on to form a venture-funded start-up called Recon Instruments, which Eisenhardt incorporated in 2008. He eventually sold the company to Intel in 2015, after creating five generations of smart glass products. He left Intel in late 2016 to return to his original vision, creating a smart swim goggle.   

Compared to a swim watch, which is attached to a single ‘stroking’ appendage; detecting starts and stops and strokes—not the Irvine kind (inside joke)—from a device positioned on your head is arguably a harder problem. But FORM appears to handle it with aplomb. Eisenhardt told me that they want to be accurate to within 99% of the metrics and it’s rare to see a mistake. Interestingly the goggles were able to correctly detect my stroke (fly), when my Apple watch didn’t. More on that later.

At the heart of the goggles, is a three-axis accelerometer and a three-axis gyro that interprets what’s going on in the rest of the body i.e. doing freestyle, doing fly, cranking out 80 or 115 strokes a minute, burning calories, based on that sensor input. That’s where machine learning comes in. FORM trained its algorithms using machine learning, with actual data feeds from many different types of swimmers, including the award-winning University of British Columbia’s Thunderbirds swim team, who were all recorded with video cameras. The various types of movements were labeled and then fed back into the algorithms, which were then tweaked and tested again, etc. Rinse and repeat!

Eisenhardt compared machine learning to opening up a Pandora’s box. “We had no idea back then how hard it would be,” he said. “We would change something over here and it would get better, but then something over there would break. It was always a moving target so we had to find an optimum point based on our goals and objectives. That was a big one!”

Other challenges? “It ends up being a combination of things, a kind of an engineering matrix,” Eisenhardt explained. “Low-power optics, machine learning, and bulk; those were three massive constraints, above and beyond price. Because price, is actually the most important. You have to constantly have that price rationale in the background.” 

FORM goggles retail for US$199. By comparison, ordinary swim goggles sell for US$15-30 up to US$59 for my MAGIC5 custom-fit goggles. Of course, like many of my swimmates, I have accumulated quite a collection of goggles over time.

My Experience

I found downloading and setting up the FORM app and goggles was easy. The goggles are high quality with a soft sleeve and come with a selection of different sized nose bridges for an optimal fit. I found them very comfortable and watertight, and they didn’t fog. Though they weigh about twice that of an ordinary pair of swim goggles: 2.3 ounces/65 grams compared to about 1.3-1.5 oz/37-43 g, I didn’t notice any difference once they were on my face.

My first experience using the goggles in an outside pool was disappointing. While the heads up display and metrics, which I had positioned in my right eye, were brilliant, I had a hard time seeing out of my left eye. FORM’s lenses are barrel-shaped with a flat forward surface. For me, it looks like a sunglass lens in the middle of my field of view. What’s more is that I kept seeing what looked like cavitation bubbles along the flat surface. As a result, I felt like I couldn’t see the pool well. My view also looked a bit wonky when I approached the wall to turn. FORM says the goggles take a little getting used to. Yup! I tested them in two different outdoor pools with the same result.

I asked Eisenhardt about seeing cavitation bubbles. He said that only two other people out of hundreds or more reported this problem, both of them in outside pools; something about the light perhaps.  So I tested them again in an indoor pool. This was my fourth workout session with the goggles. The sunglass effect was definitely diminished, and though I still saw some cavitation bubbles against the glass, my visibility had improved, though not as good as my MAGIC5, which of course, does not include a heads up display. This made me think that with time my vision and or brain would adjust.

I mentioned discovering that the FORM goggles correctly identified my butterfly while my Apple Watch 4 did not. This is often a problem with the watch. It also has trouble identifying breaststroke. Even more interesting, when I compared my split times from my watch on swim.com to those of FORM (I was wearing devices during my trials), the times showed significant differences sometimes amounting to a few seconds. A little unnerving! How fast do I really swim?

This, of course, raises the question, “How accurate is the [name of device]?” The answer of course is, “Compared to what?” It would be useful to compare both to an electronic pad used in swimming comps.

I was already aware of timing problems with the watch. For example, ending a lap by touching with my [left] watch hand yields a different time than touching with my right. Eisenhardt said that FORM’s accuracy is based on matching swim data to video recordings to within a certain tolerance, which is how they derive their 99% accuracy figure. “It’s very rare that you would touch the wall and get a time where you’re like, oh, that doesn’t seem like the right time. It’s just a very rare event. It’s hard to say exactly how accurate we are, but we are definitely accurate enough for you to never have to second-guess a metric.”

So there you have it. I LOVE the FORM display and the data; however, I am not yet happy with the visibility. I wish it integrated with the Swim.com cloud and consequently my official USMS log. ;-( I am also now intrigued with interval and split times, and plan to do more investigation with both devices. Are the FORM goggles worth $199? Never mind how much I’ve already invested in swim goggles, does the money really matter for a sport one feels passionate about? I am going to keep swimming with FORM, and keep my watch on, for now.

Heads up people. Watch this space.

Additional Resources (from FORM)

https://www.formswim.com

https://www.youtube.com/c/formswim


Michael Menduno is InDepth’s executive editor and, an award-winning reporter and technologist who has written about diving and diving technology for 30 years. He coined the term “technical diving.” His magazine “aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving”(1990-1996), helped usher tech diving into mainstream sports diving. He also produced the first Tek, EUROTek, and ASIATek conferences, and organized Rebreather Forums 1.0 and 2.0. Michael received the OZTEKMedia Excellence Award in 2011, the EUROTek Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012, and the TEKDive USA Media Award in 2018.

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