Anyone who watches PGA Tour golf on TV enough has seen a launch monitor in action, often describing the launch statistics of a player on a long par five or a tricky par three. Almost anyone who has been fitted with a driver or a new set of irons in the past few years has used a launch monitor to check their statistics before plunking down several hundred dollars.
The biggest name in the launch monitor market these days is TrackMan, with others like Flightscope and Zelocity coming in further back. A relative newcomer to the market is aboutGolf, long known for their simulators, who have developed a camera-based launch monitor they've dubbed the 3Trak, ideal for use indoors or out.
We visited aboutGolf's headquarters in Maumee, OH and spoke with Chuck Winger, Vice President of Performance Products, about the 3Trak and aboutGolf's simulator products. Chuck has actively participated in everything from mountaineering to salt water fly fishing and sail boarding to, most recently, golf. He's worked for North Face and Columbia Sportswear. Chuck was serving as an independent agent for aboutGolf since January 2006, specializing in the company's line of launch monitor and game improvement products. He accepted his current position within the company as VP of Performance Products in November 2009.
The Sand Trap: What is aboutGolf?
Chuck: A technology development company comprised of three distinct aspects: aboutGolf Simulators, aboutGolf Performance Products, and aboutGolf Labs. Simulator sales generate the vast majority of the company's volume. Three years ago the Performance Products division was formed largely to distribute a line of launch monitors supplied by a third-party manufacturer. It added aGBalance as its first stand-alone internally manufactured product. Today it consists of our own launch monitor line, still has aGBalance, has added aGFlix - a video analysis system - and has future products in line to add.
The unique part of our company is aboutGolf Labs. It serves both the Simulator and Performance Products divisions by designing our technologies' hardware and software. The Labs division moved last May to its new headquarters twenty minutes north of Maumee into Michigan. There, it provides offices to the software developers who design and engineer the operating software for the simulators and launch monitors and other performance products. The facility has two simulators, an indoor/outdoor hitting bay, outdoor synthetic tees and an outdoor tee area. We're all looking forward to a foresting operation which will leave us with a 340-yard long range.
TST: How'd the company get its start?
Chuck: The story is typical of most successful companies. Two brothers working out of their basements, one with a 3D computer golf game conceptualized during spare time in college, the other a sales and marketing entrepreneur, join forces to eventually produce and sell a record number of PC golf games. In 2001, after the dot com company which was quickly developing, burst with that bubble, they sought a market for the main product, the golf game, which after being marketed as Greg Norman Golf and Microsoft Golf, they discovered the world of golf simulators. It was quickly assumed not only would the golf game be perfect to play in a simulator, it was arguably better suited than any of the simulator software packages against which they would be competing. The company, Friendly Software, officially became aboutGolf LLC, the simulator company, and hasn't looked back since.
TST: Have people seen aboutGolf's products somewhere?
Chuck: Many have seen our simulators in use by the golf retail chains such as PGA Tour Super Stores and Edwin Watts. Any of your readers who watched Hank Haney try to teach Charles Barkley a golf swing saw Hank pointing out to Charles the swing data in an aboutGolf Simulator. We're still trying to find out how that happened. It was a total surprise to us. Recently we installed a custom PGA Tour Simulators on Golf Channel's set.
TST: Who buys a sim? We understand they start at about $40k. Businesses mostly? Folks looking to run indoor and/or winter golf leagues? Private individuals who've done well for themselves?
Chuck: The key markets for simulators include Golf Retail, Indoor Golf Centers, Golf Clubs, Academy, and Residential. The retailer generally is interested in a simulator with range-only function. Some just want a place for a customer to try out the latest driver. Others use the simulator to fit clubs. The cost for this type of simulator is actually under $40k.
Indoor Golf Centers' main interest is in course play functionality. Indoor Golf Center buyers ask a lot of questions about the graphics, playability, and the number of courses. Most are quite discerning about the ability to create accurate shots, the short game, and putting. All of these centers run golf leagues, normally during the winter months. These are run just like leagues are during the summer. The big difference is that the players get to play a different course every week. Control Centers, which can operate multiple simulators from a single location, are becoming a common demand.
Golf Clubs and Academies often purchase our balance plate and video analysis systems to integrate with our range or course software packages. Their interest is to bring the teaching tee indoors. The most interesting thing about these facilities is once they begin teaching and fitting indoors, they and their customers prefer to stay in the simulator even when the weather outside is nice. This is especially true at the Clubs, where most have outdoor ranges. We have had clubs approach us to purchase multiple simulators to create an indoor range. This allows them to sell the property for development. Normally the payoff is huge. The Academies normally are interested in range simulators, but the clubs want the whole package to offer their members the added amenity of course play.
Our fastest growing market segment is the residential market. Many of the installations are customized so the simulator's appearance matches the interior of the house, basement, or garage. Just about every residential customer is interested in game improvement.
TST: If someone is considering buying a sim, where can they go to try one out? What options are available to such a person?
Chuck: The first piece of advice I have is don't listen to our competitors' suggestions about where to visit. Please!
There is little doubt the best place to visit is our show room. In fact if you are going to visit a simulator made by one of our competitors, please visit their show room. As important as trying the simulator, the company one buys from is even more important. By visiting the company headquarters, the buyer can meet the customer service rep, the installation manager, sales managers and get a feel for the company, and its future.
We do have select retail, indoor golf center, and residential locations where we can set up demonstrations for potential buyers. This is the second best way to proceed.
Here's an example of what a visit to the wrong simulator can result in. Three years ago I flew to Las Vegas to meet three potential buyers. They were in town for the Vegas PGA Show. They were all going to purchase a simulator soon, and wanted to know if one of ours was set up somewhere close, and if they could visit it, to compare it with the one that would be at the show.
I called a retailer who had an aboutGolf simulator. The manager told me it was great, in great shape and worked great. He invited me in to use it to demonstrate. The moment I arrived at the store, I knew I would lose at least two of the sales. The screen had a hole in it. Balls could fly through it and hit the back wall. The image was washed out due to the projector bulb going bad. The store had flood lights pointed at clothing, which flooded into the simulator further diminishing the image. You could hardly see the ball. The simulator was only a year old and was in disrepair. It was dirty. The radar unit was out of calibration.
One customer was a top-50 rated instructor. The other was an indoor golf center buyer, new to the business, looking to purchase three units. Both were accounts of other AGL agents. The third account who had flown the week before to an indoor golf center where he saw recently installed simulators, told the other two, what they were seeing wasn't right. It didn't matter. As I predicted two of the sales were lost to the competitor at the show.
BTW, we have shown the last two years at that show.
TST: Why would someone buy a system from aboutGolf over any other system?
Chuck: The best answer I have heard to answer this question came not long ago from a developer in New York City. His interest was to install a simulator in the game room of one of his company's high-rise residential buildings. There was to be a bowling alley, work out area, pool table, and a host of other amenities including a simulator. Like many buyers he insisted on visiting one our simulators by himself. I arranged the visit for him. After his visit the email he sent me said… "Chuck: I visited the simulator this morning and was very impressed. I compared it to the other company I told you about, and a radar system. I must tell you the other company's graphics were spectacular but the shot making or NOT MAKING was not impressive. As I explained to you I am a 20 plus handicap and I know when I hit a bad shot and the other systems did not really tell the bad shot story. Your system does. The owner was very accommodating, would not take money for his or the simulator's time (I am going to arrange an evening there and buy some simulator time). Can I get a written quote with terms for the following?"
The reason I like to share this response is generally I suggest if the buyer isn't a talented golfer, he/she might want to take a pro along to evaluate the shot rendering abilities of the system, the short game and especially the putting. The most often heard comments I hear made about simulators from customers, pros, teachers, college coaches and club fitters is 1) simulators are inaccurate and 2) the putting sucks. I vehemently disagree with either of those statements and so did this developer.
The straighter answer includes the 3D graphics engine aboutGolf developed years ago has undergone improvements which have kept it ahead of our competitors who have been busy developing their 3D systems. The 3D design of the air space permits accurate ball flight to be rendered. Collisions with trees, houses, rail road ties, and mounds are scary real looking. We call this the "game" and once combined with our new ball and club tracking abilities the experience indoors is really something. But enough about us, go try our simulator and the others. You'll see…
TST: Prior to mid-2008 you used a FlightScope launch monitor. Since then you have used your own photo-based launch monitor system called 3Trak. What is 3Trak and what does it do for your sims?
Chuck: In the simulator business we use a term launch engine. The launch engine's first job is to track the ball. In some simulators the launch engine might also track the club head. (In other simulators there might be a separate club head tracking system.) The data the launch engine collects from the ball is used to calculate the ball's speed, launch angle, horizontal launch angle, and spin. If it can (or if there is a second system), data from the club head is used to calculate data categories like the club head's speed, vertical and horizontal attack, face angle, even loft.
You are correct stating aboutGolf's simulators were powered with a radar device from EDH of South Africa. It is called the FlightScope Sim. It allowed the aboutGolf simulator to gain the reputation of being the most accurate simulator available. One of the incredible feats it allowed was great putting. Most simulators at the time required the player to accept a six-foot gimmie putt. aboutGolf's simulator allowed you to putt out with putts as short as a foot or less.
During the fall of 2006 we discovered we could integrate the FlightScope Kudu with the Sim to double power the simulator. The result was, for the first time in simulator history, a player could push a shot off the tee and have it draw or hook across the center line. I remember the afternoon this system was first operational. I entered our CEO's office and announced, "I just played in the best simulator in the world. Too bad you can't purchase it." We ended up installing a lot of these. They became extremely popular for teaching and club fitting.
I also recall the first afternoon I witnessed 3Trak in operation. The developer, after announcing he was ready, placed a ball on the tee, took a whack at it (I think it was the first time he had swung a club) and ran back to his computer. Looking at the monitor he looked up at me and stated, "You told me there were two dimensions to spin." I replied with "There's back spin. And there's side spin. But I also told you I wanted to report Total RPM." The launch monitors of the day which claimed to measure spin reported both back spin and side spin, but not total RPM. He then said, "The RPM are easy. They're over here." He was pointing at a column of data.
He then pointed at a different column and said, "I'm really sure that is back spin." And pointing to the next column stated, "I'm pretty sure that is side spin." Then he added, "But there is a third dimension to spin. There has to be." He was pointing at a third column. "I don't know what it is, but it's there."
3Trak's foundation is a 20+year old technology called 3D Machine Vision. Basically it uses high speed cameras capable of operating at a rate of 2300 frames per second. The system needs to have at least two cameras. Images from each camera are collected. They are the raw data. During development the air space the cameras are focused upon are plotted to micrometer accuracy in 3D. I like to refer to this as the "image cube." The frame rate used by the cameras, set to insure enough images are captured to process ball speeds as high as 100 meters/second (roughly 240 MPH) is precise to the micro-second. Each image is time stamped to the microsecond. By measuring the location change in the image cube where each image was captured, and then knowing the precise amount of time between each image, the formula for speed calculation, distance/time is supplied with its data to report ball speed.
Vertical and Horizontal launch angle data is processed from each camera, then compared. The comparison process is called Stereo-Scopic comparison. This allows the plotting of the ball's position in 3D and accurately enough to claim we are within a 0.1 degree tolerance. The system focuses on the ball's center for the reported plot location for each image.
To measure spin a proprietary marking system was developed and printed on the 3Trak ball. Many players look it over quite intently, attempting to figure it out. Even the untrained 3D eye will discover some logic to the pattern. Each mark has an individual meaning to the 3Trak processing software. By plotting the movement of the mark's locations within the image cube, the speed a mark is moving can be calculated. Knowing the diameter of the ball allows for accurate calculation of the ball's RPM. The direction of the ball's spin is also plotted providing, for the first time, the direct and accurate knowledge of the true Axis of Spin.
Here's an exercise your readers can do to better understand what this Axis of Spin is about. It requires the use of the index finger. Sorry to inform many it will bring back uncomfortable memories of being 14 years old. That's about the time Physics was first presented in Science class, the day many shut down their learning desires.
To further explain the three spin dimensions, or three spin vectors. Once again point the finger at the left wall. Imagine again the ball spinning with the top back at you. As stated prior, that is all Back Spin. Imagine the ball spinning where the top is moving away from you. That is Top Spin. It does happen and 3Trak will report it when it happens. In Physics class your finger would be described as pointing along the Y Axis.
Point the finger straight up at the ceiling. Spinning either right or left, the ball would be experiencing all Side Spin. In Physics class this is the Z Axis.
Point the finger at the wall away from you. In golf this is the Target Axis. In Physics class, it is the X Axis. Not to be confused with the X Factor. (Where did that go anyway? Sorry to digress.)
The ball spinning around the finger pointed at the X Axis, we call Rifle spin. The afternoon the third dimension of spin was revealed to us, some of us seemed to remember reference to the term Rifle spin. We discussed how a bullet exiting the barrel of a rifle, always has counter clockwise spin, Rifle Spin. When one of us questioned why nobody's referred to Rifle Spin before, 3Trak's inventor looked up grinning, "Probably cause they couldn't measure it."
By the way, this is as good a time as any to address the golf industry's use of the words measure and calculate. First off, every data category reported by every simulator launch engine or launch monitor launch engine technology, all of them, shows up on the screen or computer monitor after it has been CALCULATED. Next, it is impossible to measure Speed. Speed is a calculation where by Distance is divided by Time. It is most often displayed in Meters/Second and Miles/Hour MPH. Trajectory Angles, Spin, and Face Angles are not measured. They are calculated after the launch engine technology gathers raw data. The raw data can be the Doppler affect from radar, wave interference of laser and infrared light, or images like 3Trak uses.
Players, instructors, club fitters and retailers who evaluate launch engine technologies really must begin to compare the method employed by each product to determine what the product either does or doesn't do, or can or can't do to arrive at a conclusion about the particular product's accuracy.
A couple of data categories to ponder about how they are "measured/calculated" by the different launch engines include Side Spin and Face Angle.
Is the Side Spin calculation derived from the shape of the shot, or is it the result of data directly obtained from the movement of a precise location on the ball, during a finite amount of time?
Is the Face Angle calculation derived from the Horizontal Launch Angle of the Ball, or, is it directly the result of positional data of the face?
For both of these cases there is an enormous difference in the method used to arrive or derive the way to the calculation's answer. There are other methods to examine to better understand the differences in the accuracy and the foundation of the various data categories presented by all launch engines.
TST: We understand the 3Trak is also newly available as a stand-alone launch monitor. What advantages does 3Trak offer that radar-based systems like Flightscope and Trackman might not have? Any disadvantages?
Chuck: Two models were introduced last June as beta or pre-release models. Cube is the Indoor model. Mobile is the Indoor/Outdoor model. Both have dedicated LED lighting systems. The LED in Mobile is four times stronger and was designed to compete with the brightness of the sun. Set up is easy and takes just a few minutes. Each weighs about 20 pounds and is 44 inches long. They travel in golf-club-sized protective containers.
I like to begin answering your comparison question, and I get asked this a lot, by stating, radar is cool. I used to sell FlightScope Kudus. I was frequently asked to perform side-by-side tests. I know the guys at EDH and ISG might not approve of this practice, but I can verify that I have seen these devices work really well in more than one side-by-side test. I have also seen tests where one or the other did not work. I will not speak of the details of when these tests did not work for both products for there are several issues why such a test would not work. Suffice to say I have seen both devices work flawlessly, both in side-by-side comparisons where the data was so identical you should be shot to state the differences.
The ball data 3Trak reports is more accurate than all other launch monitors, including radar. This includes Speed, Trajectory Angle, and Spin Data. 3Trak relies on Data from the ball to calculate the Spin Vectors or the Axis of Spin. The images are collected beginning with the still location of the ball. Club head data, 3Trak's most recent product is consistent and reliable. It has a distinct advantage in its early stage of development because it so accurately defines where, horizontally, the face strikes the ball. For players working on swings and club fitters attempting to fit so the player can hit to center, this is a monumental piece of data to know.
The software reports the data in a blink of an eye.
Indoors there is no competing launch engine to 3Trak. Indoors you can trick any of them one way or another to report an incorrect shot shape. We invite players to throw all their trick shots at 3Trak.
Users of 3Trak report it is more reliable and the data is more consistent or repeatable. This last term, repeatability, is key to why 3Trak's 3D Machine vision is such a superb technology for golf. We will soon have our robot operational. Theoretically a robot can repeat the same shot. We predict, based upon our experience so far, that 3Trak's data will repeat with the robot's shots. The beauty about having a repeatable product is you can rely on it for dynamic testing. Testing with golfers rather than robots is a far more desirable method to test clubs and balls to aboutGolf.
We use a marked ball to measure spin. Some view this as a disadvantage. We are also marking the club. This is less of a disadvantage especially considering how fantastic the data is.
Outdoors, where using the marked ball is less desirable, you can use any ball to get same accuracy reports for speed and vertical/horizontal launch angles. Spin is what I call "derived" for both irons and drivers. It is quite accurate to marked ball spin for iron shots. Driver shots vary so much the derived spin is less accurate and is probably better used for less skilled golfers with slower swing speeds.
Mobile and Cube require set up left- or right-handed. The set-up time takes a minute.
TST: What's unique about the 3Trak?
Chuck: Direct data Axis of Spin. In ceiling mounted systems like in the simulator the club data includes Off Center Strike Location.
TST: The stand-alone 3Trak is a relatively new product, is it not?
Chuck: I assume you are referring to the launch monitors. They are new as of June 2009.
3Trak was first installed in simulators in late June of 2008. By mid-August we had multiple systems installed as "stand alone" systems, or outside of the simulator environment in retail and OEM lab environments.
TST: Tell us about some of the challenges you've had to overcome. Is there anything that's still not working as well as you'd like?
Chuck: It took over a year and a half just to develop the method to calculate spin using the marked ball. For each shot, 3Trak's Ball Data software processes 1500 calculations, which most people find amazing especially considering the speed, and trajectory calculations are processed as well, and in under 18 milliseconds. Of course the more amazing part is those 1500 calculations are processed for each square millimeter on the ball.
Today, you might get in between the conversation two 3Trak developers might begin. The challenge is to attempt to determine what the hell they are discussing. The last one I witnessed involved saving 18 microseconds of processing time and then fighting over who would get it to use in the next stage of development or improvement. Each day presents challenges, for the guys are constantly inventing new ways to process better, build cameras better. The thing that gets me about all this is the data is already so definitive, your eye will never be able to detect the difference and if sound is ever involved you'll never hear the difference.
The challenge for the launch monitor was it required a completely new camera configuration. That took six months to get to prototype and six more to the pre-release stage. The day it was released, the head of development told me he thought the configuration would work great in the simulator. He also stated the club data from the launch monitor at ground level would be awesome.
Most of the comments I can share about things not working might be better provided to the question about what hasn't been invented yet. Having said this, I am eager for the next version of the Perform software to arrive. Our current version is pretty basic, but does work to the level it was designed to.
One thing we're working on currently is Spin Data using a regular ball. It will have to include Axis of Spin, so you can imagine the challenge with it. We call it "logo spin" because it will use the logo of the ball instead of our markings.
TST: What improvements are coming down the pipe? When do you expect to ship them?
Chuck: New 3Trak simulator camera configurations are in the works. They will be available at the PGA Show and will actually install at some locations prior to that. The huge improvement is that in the past when you putted, your shadow would show on the screen. The new configuration eliminates the shadow. The shadow currently part of our simulator is arguably the only real complaint I hear from customers. But better as far as I am concerned is the putting itself. The new configuration uses the 3D Stereoscopic comparison on the putting. Now, you hit a four-foot putt, you get a four-foot putt. It's incredible.
Our new 3Trak launch monitor designs will be available in April. We are planning to show the Indoor model at the show. I'm hoping to have final enclosure details by that time for the new Outdoor/Indoor model. Hope to have naming figured out by those dates as well.
Logo spin will be introduced in beta form soon. I don't want to predict when it will be released. Has something to do with not understanding how to multiply 1500 times the number of square millimeters on the ball.
The launch monitor club data will follow closely on the heels of the logo spin introduction. Most of the work has been done. We're just waiting for a small window in developer time to finish.
TST: Where do you like to demonstrate the 3Trak?
Chuck: Outdoors with a regular ball with irons is my favorite. It is amazing. Next is in the simulator. The ball flight and shot shape in the simulator are similar to what you're used to seeing outside. I also have the other Performance Products there, to help me understand what a player's swing might be doing to cause a shot which caused data he might be questioning. The simulator experience seems to be a better indoor environment for most to understand the data 3Trak provides.
TST: What goes through your mind when you're demonstrating the 3Trak and a potential buyer questions the data?
Chuck: A lot of things can go through my mind. Thankfully I have played a bit around some really great players and thanks to television watch even greater players who have all created hooks, slices, and have hit shots to what they report are impossible distances. When I receive a critique on a shot, I will suggest we hit a few more to get a meaningful batch of shot data to discuss. Most often shots aren't going far enough. Often I can point to the data categories and notice a low launch angle or ball speed to locate the reason. The toughest one to handle is the shot that goes way too far. Generally when this happens I see a lot of hook side spin. It gets real tough when the player states, "I don't hit hooks." What goes through my mind when I hear this is normally about past personal experiences like a few weeks ago, when I was tee'd up with my 8-iron facing a 154-yard carry to a pin. The group watched my ball start right of the green, begin to hook and disappear at least 15 yards past the pin, over the green. "I can't hit an 8 iron 168." But I did.
I didn't used to, but do now, buy into the fact most players, even some of the best players, change their swings indoors. Heck most hit at the range different than when they play. So indoors I just accept the fact I am at a disadvantage with certain situations.
TST: Do you consider 3Trak primarily an indoor device? Is a battery-powered model on the horizon?
Chuck: 3Trak cameras record images and process exactly the same indoors as outdoors. Our launch monitor was designed to monitor launch conditions. Using battery power from a sophisticated system like a golf cart will arguably become a reality.
TST: What question are you asked most often from potential launch monitor customers?
Chuck: How does 3Trak compare with Trackman?
TST: What's the second most frequently asked question?
Chuck: How much does it cost?
TST: A while back you discussed rifle spin, but didn't quantify it at all other than "it exists and we can calculate it." What does rifle spin mean to the golfer, fitter, or instructor?
Chuck: You have probably figured out aboutGolf doesn't like to derive, infer, or guess when it comes to data. Most shots have at least a little rifle spin. We have seen how club fitting techniques have changed rifle spin readings up and down. We've seen how the same techniques can change it from clockwise to counter clockwise. Our theories are too broad at this point to publish. I'll have to keep quiet a bit longer. I will throw a theory and comment out to ponder, however. One of our 3Trak developers suggests it might not affect ball flight that much if at all. He then stated, but that's important…More testing at eleven.
The comment I have about rifle spin is it is important because it is, and, it has always been…
TST: If a golf instructor in the northern states was looking at setting up an indoor facility that he could use 24/7 but didn't want to get into the business of running a full "sim" setup, what advice would you give him?
Chuck: The first piece of advice is to include a 3Trak product. Set it up in a safe netted area. This means there is no way a ball can hit something solid. Plan at least six feet of distance in back of the tee where you will have a safety line of demarcation so observers won't be struck by back swings. There is real benefit to having a centered tee. This will require a minimum width of 14 feet. Provide a minimum of 10 feet of height. Be sure to provide a target. Get a large screen 40" monitor on wheels so it can be moved easily from right- to left-handed play. Players love watching ball flight on large-screen monitors. Integrate a video analysis system. Get a balance plate. Buy plenty of computer to power everything.
TST: You work beside a bunch of sims, some of which have three high-def screens. How difficult is it to ignore the siren call to play golf more than you work?
Chuck: You mean the Sim Surround. It provides a 160 degree view of the golf hole. You stand on the tee, look up and if you're on a hole lined with houses, you will be staring at the houses. Very cool, but as cool as it is and as fun as the other three simulator styles set up in our showroom are, I play almost no golf unless a new software build is released. When releases reach us, we need to play to try to find bugs. Best to find the critters before we send them to our customers. Even then, I am satisfied to watch others play. If I get time to visit the simulator for personal time, I generally stay at the range. I'm more interested in seeing how changing a fit on a club or making a swing change will affect the data.
TST: Where is your favorite place to demonstrate your launch monitor products?
Chuck: At the outdoor range at the PGA Show.
TST: What is unique about 3Trak?
Chuck: It's the only 3D Machine Vision launch engine technology. It sees all the aspects of the Axis of Spin. It is seeing about half of the movements of golf it ultimately will. The 3Trak product line is only 25% developed as of today.
TST: How is aboutGolf different from other launch monitor companies?
Chuck: Our marketing director doesn't release a press release after every sale.
TST: What new developments have you seen at aboutGolf since my visit?