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Tech Know - Golf Gadgets and Gizmos
May 2011

Radar, lasers, GPS, radio frequency ID, infra-red sensors, 3D cameras and iPhone ‘apps’ are just some of the concepts covered in our special round-up of the very latest golfing gadgets and gizmos out there for all types of golfers. Dominic Pedler is your geeky guide, starting with a golf ball finder that really works...

Prazza Ball Finder - it works, at a price!

Not counting fore-caddies, which date back hundreds of years, man’s eternal quest to keep tabs on his golf ball goes back at least to the late- 1970s when New Scientist reported on Japanese attempts to install a micro transmitter ‘homing’ device inside the pesky sphere.

While those early prototypes suffered from having little room left for the innards necessary to make the thing actually fly, variations on the theme have preoccupied the R&D men ever since, with the RadarGolf transmitter and the camera-based Scout just two of the more recent offerings.

But the Prazza Golf Ball Finder takes things a stage further with a hand-held device that detects a signal from a micro-chip inside a specially made golf ball and guides you to it – or at least the immediate vicinity – fairly well within a range of about 100 yards. The visual display on the unit features an arrow to point you in the right direction and a graphic of a ball that gets larger as you get closer, along with a choice of bleeps or vibrations that steadily increase in frequency.

Developed by scientists in the Netherlands, the Prazza improves dramatically on the RadarGolf system in terms of both technology and range, by having a chip that operates though ‘active’ rather than ‘passive’ Radio-Frequency Identification. You simply calibrate the ball to the handset at the start of the round and it remains in continuous contact for 30 minutes after your last strike. For an instant demo, just checkout the YouTube clip of master coach and Sky Sports analyst Simon Holmes (just one of the big names impressed by the device) finding his ball in the trees at Mill Ride.

I’ve tried it, too, and the thing does actually work, helping me to find my ball in some seemingly hopeless situations as well as being regularly in use on one test day when the horizontal winter sunshine made for challenging visibility. But potential purchase

Readers should note that the device rarely guides you ‘as the crow flies’ as you might expect: you need to walk slowly, react patiently to the sometimes trigger-happy arrow and be prepared to retrace your steps. Even when the unit is registering ‘full ball’, you may still not immediately see your ball lurking in long grass or under leaves, but at least you will have dramatically reduced your area of search to perhaps a few square feet.

Prazza is a certainly an intriguing breakthrough given industry estimates of some 500 million lost balls a year, worldwide, though it also represents something of a Pandora’s Box and raises as many questions as it answers.

For a start, the £299.95 kit comes far too frugally with just two balls, with replacements currently costing a mighty £39.95 for a sleeve of three. For while you’re not supposed to lose any balls, you surely will – whether in a lake (beneath the 8 inches of water in which the system still works), deep into a sea of gorse, or (as I did, mortifyingly) over a barbed wire perimeter fence. You know it’s in there but just how determined are you to raze the area to retrieve it in front of your smirking fourball?

Yes, the Prazza has fantastic potential to speed up play, but only providing the special ball prices plummet sufficiently to dispel that find-it-at-all-costs mentality. In the meantime, the concept is probably not so much about saving money over the long term but the simple pleasure of finding your ball far more often than you would normally.

Meanwhile, beyond the fact that it’s not approved for competition, there’s the issue of ball quality. It certainly performed well enough in our admittedly rather impromptu wintery tests, with no obvious distance deficiency, but it is rather firm in feel and construction – presumably given the understandable need for durability. It’s not a Pro V1 or a Srixon Z-Star, and for many golfers the feel and performance of their favourite brand is a bond they don’t break lightly; though ‘non-affiliated’ two-piece players are presumably Prazza’s more obvious target market.

Looking ahead, you can’t swim against the tide of technology and, if prices come down, the Prazza (or its successors) should shake off the inevitable early stigma and could even be packaged one day with GPS to lead you to your ball ‘Sat-Nav style’, complete with descending yardage numbers as you approach.

Finally, in the spirit of New Scientist, it’s not too futuristic to suggest that the same micro-chip technology could be developed to create some kind of ‘SmartBall’, yielding accurate data on a golfer’s launch conditions, distance and dispersion as he plays a course, as well as his shot-making and scoring profile.

Of course, that would probably require the golf ball giants to rework their business plan based on us all losing balls and to license the technology to create a premium trackable ball. Now, that really would be irresistible.

Distance Measuring Devices

Moving on, Laser or GPS? Well, Bushnell have just delivered the killer blow in The Great Distance Measuring Device Debate by offering a single unit that combines both technological principles.

Until now the company has been synonymous with top-of-the-range laser-based units that better players have tended to favour for their ability to home-in directly on the flag or other hazard, landmark or lay-up spot that takes their fancy at the time. The Tour V2 (incidentally, now available in three limited edition colour schemes) being a great example.

But the company acknowledges that there are situations when even the laser purist can benefit from ‘front middle and back’ data – for example in all types of blind approaches, as well as for speed and convenience. Hence the Bushnell Hybrid, that combines the Tour V2 technology (complete with Pinseeker technology that helps you lock onto the flag, with +/- 1 yard accuracy and five times magnification), with an on-board GPS element covering a planned (no subscription) 1,000 European courses. You can also map out your own golf course, with the special editing feature allowing you to add in distances manually to your own critical points, such as hazards, corners of dog-legs, etc.

Admittedly, the screen lacks the fancy colours and graphics of some of the some top-end GPS rivals but, as a practical device offering the best of both worlds, the Hybrid is unique.

Meanwhile, new generations of (pure) GPS systems continue to astound. Among them a super sleek version of the Golf-Buddy World Platinum, called simply GolfBuddy World. Containing essentially the same features and 32,000 pre-programmed course library, the new model is primarily conceived for the Japanese market where only the very slimmest, sexiest designs will do.

“The World model has a different shape, texture and feel – but also an improved operating system with a choice of touch screen or push button operation and enhanced screen contrast for clearer viewing, especially in sunlight,” explains Jon Ennis, GolfBuddy’s European chief, who estimates a UK price-tag of £249.

Also breaking new ground is the Garmin Approach S1 that, incredibly, squeezes GPS technology into a wristwatch format. Very James Bond ‘Q-Branch’ in concept, the £179 device is preloaded with the same 5,000 European courses as the company’s hand-held units.

“It frees up your hands while you’re playing and automatically updates the distances according to your body position and angle relative to the green,” explains Jake Jacobsen, Garmin’s Senior Media Specialist.

Look out for full details on all these and more in our special forthcoming feature.

The latest in launch monitors

While TrackMan have been regularly improving their pioneering launch monitor technology over the years, the system makes a quantum leap in 2011 with new software that, for the first time, combines the company’s trademark radar-tracking technology with real-time video footage of a player’s swing in a way that accurately ‘syncs’ the two concepts.

The resulting Performance Studio software completes TrackMan’s transition to a serious swing analysis system far beyond just raw impact and ball flight data. You still get all the usual ballspeed, spin rate and launch angle statistics but now in the context of an accurate 3-D depiction of a player’s physical swing, his true ball position and the intended target line.

“The key here is the way the radar technology and the footage of the player are calibrated to give you an accurate representation of target line and ball flight,” says Emanuel Frauenlob, TrackMan’s marketing man for Central Europe, explaining how the video element is actually ‘slaved’ to the radar technology (rather than just depicted alongside). “This is unlike many of those TV cameras at tournaments that, if positioned even a few degrees off line, give a highly misleading view of player’s ball position, his stance and the ball flight itself.”

The new software offers target line graphics and ‘face on’ stance overlay lines to correct for these visual discrepancies, with any genuine fade or draw being illustrated by coloured lines based on the genuine radar tracking of impact and ball flight.

Face angle, attack angle, club alignment and club path are just some of the parameters that can be layered accurately onto the video – yet independently of the camera's position – transforming the analytical experience both for golf instruction and TV coverage.

Look out, too, for Foresight Sports whose GC2 ball analysis system has already been adopted by top coaches and companies including Titleist, Ping, Cobra, Cleveland and Srixon. The GC2 weighs just 1.7kg, fits in your golf bag, has an 8-hour battery life and is good to go after just a 40- second boot up.

The machine works using a high-speed, dual camera which directly measures ball flight and spin at impact and launch, recording precise ball speed rather than relying on any backward extrapolation to generate all the data.

PGA master professional and Golf International teaching panelist, Luther Blacklock, head pro at Woburn, is an enthusiastic advocate having purchased one within minutes of a demo. “It’s already paid for itself in terms of benefits to my pupils,” says Blacklock of the £4,995 unit. “It’s more accurate than other products on the market and I was hugely impressed by the real-time nature of the shot, and the ‘vapour trail’ left on the screen as you practice, which is even more beneficial than a video of the last swing.”

These days, the term swing analyser now covers a vast a range of concepts, technologies and price points ranging from these flashy high-end gizmos, right down to home TV-based systems for the average consumer. David Leadbetter’s My Personal Golf Trainer is now available in an upgraded second edition incorporating some 24 improvements. As well as now being lefty-friendly, the prototype we saw in Orlando is notable for the improved swing and balance detection in the software and, in the hardware, a more intuitive ‘no grip’ swing option in response to customer requests.

“The feedback over the accuracy and detail of the first edition was very positive, but many users reported that the Wii controller feels too ‘fat’ compared to a real golf grip,” explains Stewart Green, Managing Director of Data Design Interactive who developed the concept. “So we have designed a device and a method of enabling our swing trainer to be attached to your own driver. For those not having enough space to swing in front of the TV, we can supply a 20-inch shaft with grip.”

Being broadly similar in feel and weight to a real club, the experience is now more intuitive, while a newly designed balance board arrangement extends the width of the original WiiFit model by 5 inches allowing balance and weight shift to be recorded with a more comfortable, wider stance. Clearly the MPGT is in it for the long haul for the title of leading home-based golf analysis system (there’s also an 18-hole golf game element and a driving range feature) with whatever technological refinements are necessary. For example, plans are afoot to extend the technology with perhaps a special Smart-Vest that measures the movement of your body giving a more comprehensive guide to your entire swing.

This brings us to the more specialist market in biomechanical swing analysers, with Guru Training Systems being an interesting new player. Their take is to use highly specialised cameras that automatically compute the position and movement of the golfer’s limbs within a three-dimensional space to create a life-like ‘avatar’ that can then be compared against an ideal, or to itself to plot changes over time.

“Our system eliminates the need for awkward controllers and uncomfortable sensors that the golfer is usually required to wear while swinging the golf club,” explained Pierre Mareschal, Guru’s CTO, while demonstrating the device to us at Orlando.

Back at the consumer end, we also had some fun with Optishot, an infra-red golf simulator targeted to all ages and abilities at a very affordable price point.

The Optishot plugs directly into your home computer and allows the player to use their own golf clubs in their home. “It’s a user-friendly virtual golf simulator experience that’s accessible to the average everyday consumer. You can improve your game, play rounds of golf and just have fun with your friends,” says Steve Konold, Vice President of Sales for Dancin’ Dogg Golf.

As regards the technology, Konold explains: “It is very sensitive, using infra-red sensors [10,000 pulses a second] that measure all the positional parameters of the clubhead at impact with the ball measurement being a direct response to that.” Because the emphasis is only on the club you can choose to use either real balls, foam balls or no ball at all – a flexibility that will be appreciated by many home users.

The package already comes complete with various pre-programmed courses such as Bethpage Black and Barsebäck in Sweden – though, for copyright reasons, these are not exact digital facsimilies but deliberately tweaked replications.

The price of $399 (available through amazon.co.uk) is low for any kind of golf simulator though, if money is no object, then you’ll surely aspire to the latest simulator from aboutGolf, the company behind the stunning indoor experience at Urban Golf in London.

In the very latest model, the ultra-realistic course visuals are projected onto three walls of the booth giving an almost surround- style cinematic experience just short of truly virtual golf that is surely just a few years away.

Having started out using radar-based ball tracking at the business end, aboutGolf now use the more accurate 3Track, three dimensional high-speed photography which directly measures spin and spin axis to deliver a far more accurate flight; while bounce, roll and any collisions with on course objects are now far more life-like. Finally, golf techies who can’t afford the $80,000 for golf’s ultimate executive toy, can console themselves with a couple of slick new ‘apps’ for their Smart Phone. The SwingAnalyser from Everyday Golf Coach allows users to upload videos of their own swing and compare them to the swing of European Tour player, David Griffiths. Alternatively they can upload videos of the very top pros such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.

The centerpiece consists of 32 easy-tofollow technique videos and the Analysis Suite, where you can check your own progress at four different speeds, frame-byframe. The ‘app’ covers all aspects of the game in seven sections covering core fundamentals, the swing, balance and timing, ball flight, putting, chipping and on-course challenges. There are also special features on playing from sloping lies, shots from the rough and an array of short-game skills.

The first version, available through Everyday Golf Coach HD, has already proved a hit on iTunes but the launch of iPad2, with its special built-in camera, will make it much easier for players to record their swings. The app can be downloaded to Smart Phones for £3.49, or £3.99 for the iPad version.

Finally, no techie round up today would be complete without a mention of the very latest digital media systems, in particular the iPhone app from sports marketing specialists, Athlete Factor.

Using their Callisto platform, this innovative new concept allows celebrities to communicate directly with their fans through instant voice and video messages delivering exclusive insight and reaction in a personalised ‘behind the scenes’ context.

Top golfers such as Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy are already among the tour stars to adopt the tool that also brings together all the existing social media content, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, under one roof.

“My aim is to give you all the latest insight into my life – both on and off tour – hot off the press. You’ll also get some banter from me and the guys on tour. These are instantly sent direct to the app, so look out!” says Lee Westwood.

And, in welcome contrast to all our other golfing gadgets this issue, this one’s free.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine






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