Are you not entertained? High-tech gladiators get ready for action

The team behind Unified Weapons Master have kicked off an IndieGoGo campaign to help fund the next stage of development for their high-tech gladiatorial fighting sport.

Nic Healey Senior Editor / Australia
Nic Healey is a Senior Editor with CNET, based in the Australia office. His passions include bourbon, video games and boring strangers with photos of his cat.
Nic Healey
5 min read

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Masanori Udagawa

David Pysden, CEO of Unified Weapons Master, has a very clear goal for the sport: "When it comes to weapons fighters, we want find the best of the best from all around the world."

Just over a year ago, the Sydney, Australia-based Unified Weapons Master burst onto the scene with some videos of two combatants clad in carbon-fibre armour battling with a variety of weaponry. The concept is simple: With the combatants protected by the suit, known as the Lorica, weapons strikes can be made with full force and skill. Meanwhile, a suite of sensors in the Lorica records the power and placement of the blows to determine just how much damage it would have done to an unarmoured person.

Thirteen months later, after testing, refining and innovating its combat technology, UWM has started an IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign with the goal to have some key "underground" fighting events in early 2016.

There have been some key challenges along the way, but Pysden feels like the UWM team is well on the way to creating a 21st Century sport from a variety of ancient arts.

The Lorica

First up, the suit itself needed refining. "We knew from the beginning that we needed to reduce the weight and improve articulation," says Pysden. "The profile was a bit chunky."

The trick is in creating the right ratio of protection to mobility. UWM want to ensure that fighters have the best possible armour coverage when it comes to strikes while still having the freedom of movement to actually wield their chosen weapons.

David Pysden, CEO of Ultimate Weapons Master.

Masanori Udagawa

On this front, the team caught a lucky break while testing some of the new impact sensors on the suit.

"We'd been testing the new chest and back plate design by hitting it while it was on a static bench and getting force readings from that," says Pysden. "When we trialled it while being worn we got very interesting results."

What the UWM team saw was that the impact force was about half what they were seeing from the bench testing.

"Now that has implications not only for the sensor selection but also we can save weight and thickness in terms of materials design."

Those sensors, by the way, are being made to a bespoke design thanks to the ingenuity of a US-based engineer that Pysden refers to as "Merlin".

"He's a wizard at every core aspect of this technology," he laughs. "We had so many people telling us that what we wanted was impossible, then this one lone voice pipes up with 'actually I think that can be done'. This would be an impossible dream without him."

Merlin, it turns out, actually has a history of weapons-based martial arts, which contributed to his understanding of what UWM wants to achieve.

All this armour diminishes the risk of injury, but it doesn't eliminate it, of course. As Pysden says: "This isn't tiddlywinks -- it's weapons martial arts!"

The spectacle

With the protection and the damage sensors well on the way, the UWM team began looking at some other, less obvious elements of the Lorica.

Remember that Unified Weapons Master is being designed as a sport -- a sport that Pysden wants to be spectator-friendly. Pysden wants people to be able to support and follow the careers of individual fighters competing in UWM and that, in a roundabout way, contributed to a redesign of the Lorica's helmet.

"We looked at Formula One and especially what they've done with pre- and post-race interviews of drivers for TV and thought, we want to do that."

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Masanori Udagawa

This meant a headpiece that could easily come off, without sacrificing the very important skull protection. The new helmet design has been broken into three parts that provide neck and head support, but the top and face can be lifted off between rounds.

"Not only can the heat escape and the fighter cool down, but the audience can see their face and connect with the individual that's behind the helmet."

The new helmet design will also feature a head-mounted camera that will be gimballed, allowing it to change the field of view depending on the fighter's stance.

"That first person perspective of weapons combat is something that people have never been able to see before," Pysden says. "That's a really exciting element from an entertainment point of view in watching this as a sport."

The Lorica will of course have microphones, not only inside the helmet ("in case they, you know, get kicked in the guts") but also all over the suit to better capture to striking sound of the weapons hitting the carbon fibre armour.

'Warriors come out to play': Unified Weapons Master prepares for combat (pictures)

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The rules

The other essential part of any sport is, of course, the rules. In the real world, weapons combat is fast-paced and deadly, possibly coming down to just one or two strikes depending on the skill of the fighter. That's not going to make for a compelling spectator sport, whether people are watching live or on TV.

"We're really looking to experiment with the rules, format and scoring system to try to work out what's the most entertaining for people."

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Masanori Udagawa

In many ways, UWM bouts are as much of a balancing act as creating the armour. Pysden's goal is to find a format that allows experts to show off their full suite of skills while ensuring that there's enough of a spectacle for a paying audience.

"I think what we want really is a kind of prolonged entertainment experience. If it was just a sudden death, while that may be good from a purist point of view, it's not great for an audience."

At the moment, the UWM team are looking to video games for some inspiration. Multiple wounding blows would wear down a combatant's "health bar" while solid a "killing blow" would still end the round quickly. But multiple rounds, what Pysden jokingly calls "extra lives," mean fighters can get back out there even after "death."

The next steps

At the time of writing, the Unified Weapons Master IndieGoGo campaign was on 42 percent of it's $100,000 goal with 31 days to go.

While the money will help, Pysden also hopes the campaign will bring UWM to a wider audience. If you look at the backer rewards for the campaign, you'll see that tickets are already being offered for matches in 2016. The UWM team are hoping to host these events after a round of beta testing.

"In early January we want to have some very small test bouts, pretty much with no audience, almost as a beta test," he says. " After that, in the first part of 2016, the plan is to have some very small scale underground events with very limited audience and those are the tickets we're offering through the IndieGoGo campaign."

After that, the concept is to build up the events slowly, moving into small stadiums or arenas as the format is continually refined. By 2017, Pysden wants to take UWM to the US for some serious rounds.

Pysden believes that there are a lot of weapons masters in the world for whom UWM will be perfect.

"This is the first time they'll be able to compete full-contact, with very few rules, and find out just how good they are. For the first time we'll be able to find out which forms and fighters actually comes out on top. And it will be entertaining as well. There will be heroes that come out of this. Competitors that people love to love or maybe even love to hate."

"It's always good to have a villain," he laughs.