GAME GOLF: A wearable performance tracking system from JAMBOX designer Yves Béhar and pro golfers Graeme McDowell and Lee Westwood

By Michael Carney , written on March 5, 2013

From The News Desk

There are more than 25 million golfers of all ages in the US, all looking for an edge in what is one of the most challenging yet obsessively played sports. Ask anyone who loves the game and they’ll tell you that they would sell their first born to shave a few strokes off of their score or to cross a coveted milestone such as breaking 100, 90, 80, or Bobby Jones willing, 70.

Like so many other sports, golf has become increasingly obsessed with performance tracking and statistical analysis over the last decade. Clues of this trend can be seen in the explosion in use of GPS range finders and video and laser fitting systems, as well as the presence of former NASA physicist Dave Pelz among the game’s most highly regarded instructors.

The natural evolution for this performance obsessed sport is wearable computing and quantified self software.

Today, the world will get its first look at GAME GOLF, a wearable golf performance monitoring system designed by the chief creative officer behind the JAMBOX speaker, fuseproject CEO Yves Béhar, and backed by US Open champion Graeme McDowell and current No. 9 in the World Golf Rankings Lee Westwood (neither of which are paid endorsers). The company, which was co-founded by former Nortel software engineer and elite sports performance consultant John McGuire, launched a $125,000 IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign to bring the Made in America product to market by Summer 2013.

GAME GOLF allows players, regardless of skill level, to quickly and easily track and analyze every shot they hit within a round of golf, including its location, the club used, and the distance it traveled. At the end of a round, the user is given a rich set of performance statistics such as score, total puts, fairways hit, greens in regulation, and scrambling – the same statistics that pros and ambitious amateurs alike regularly track using pen and paper. For those who watch the PGA Tour on TV, you might describe the output as “Shotlink for consumers.”

I’ve played golf my entire life at the some of the highest levels possible, and I was literally blown away when I first saw a video demonstration of what this company has created.

The system works through a combination of a small “Game Your Game” (GYG) device that a player wears on his belt during a round of golf, and lightweight, individually labeled “tags,” or disks mounted into the butt end of each club’s grip. The player simply touches the club tag to the GYG unit prior to each shot and the device uses a combination of GPS sensors, motion sensors, and NFC to record the pertinent data one each shot. Data can be synced to the cloud in real-time through a bluetooth connected smartphone, or following the round via a USB connection to a computer.

“The design of the GAME GOLF app and product has been closely integrated: a beautiful and dynamic presentation of play data, easy and fun ways to share, and non-disruptive hardware and experience,” says Béhar.

GAME GOLF is more than just a performance measurement system. The platform also enables social sharing and competition that is sorely missing around the game of golf. We have all seen Tweets and Facebook posts from our friends to the effect of, “I just ran 1.5 miles with Nike+ at a 9 minute mile pace.” GAME GOLF brings a similar but far richer level of sharing and gamification to the sport of golf.

Imagine tweets that read, “I just shot 74 at Pebble Beach, check out my entire round,” with a link to an interactive course map and illustration of each shot. Similarly, players can tweet things like, “I just hit a 285 yard drive on the 18th hole. Beat that!” GAME GOLF users can use setup competitions among their friends, with strangers, or with tour professionals who have played the same course or even on different courses across the world.

There are a few predictable challenges for devices like this which the GYG has addressed better than most before it. The first challenge is measurement accuracy. “Golf is a game of inches,” as the cliche goes, and even its more common units of yards (or meters) are more precise than the typical GPS device. GAME GOLF’s answer to this issue is to licence existing golf course geofencing data and then implement its own geospatial technology and on-course behavioral algorithms to determine precisely where on the course a player is, and then measure their shots accordingly.

McGuire claims that the technology is more accurate than stand alone GPS units because it incorporates additional motion sensors as well as the company’s proprietary algorithms to refine positioning. It’s the kind of claim that’s easy to make and hard to back up. While I haven’t used the device personally – yet, I can’t wait – the fact that it’s earned the endorsement of McDowell and Westwood is a strong indicator that it’s more than just vaporware.

GAME GOLF promises to have every golf course in the US mapped prior to its launch later this summer, putting it on par with the current market leaders. The GYG unit also claims to offer more than two rounds worth of battery life. On a user interface and user experience design level, the company could not have chosen a better partner than fuseproject’s Béhar, who in addition to his work with Jawbone has worked with Herman Miller, PUMA, MINI, General Electric, Swarovski, Samsung, and Prada, among others..

But the biggest differentiator of all is GYG’s backend player performance dashboard and accompanying social platform. I cannot overemphasize how desperately something like this is needed in the game of golf, and how well I expect it to be received.

It’s not all optimism, however. Golf is an industry of endless gadgets, fickle consumers, and deep pocketed incumbents, where the best product often does not win. GAME GOLF faces a significant uphill battle to get its product in front of the masses and to earn their trust. Consumers will be asked to pay $249 for a package of one GYG unit and 18 club tags – which includes 4 more than the standard 14 clubs in a set. With their purchase, users will get one year of free usage of GYG’s online platform, which will cost $50 per year thereafter. This makes is more than an impulse purchase for most, and demands that the company deliver ongoing value in order to justify subscription renewals.

Golf is familiar with the hardware plus subscription model, which has been utilized by leading GPS rangefinder SkyCaddy for nearly a decade. The company has grown significantly and seen minimal subscription attrition according to industry sources. Cycling heavyweight Strava also utilizes a similar model.

GAME GOLF plans to lean heavily on its PGA Tour backers for promotion, marketing, and early credibility, as it plans to sell initially direct to consumer through its website. Combined, the two tour players have nearly 950,000 Twitter followers and are extremely active and engaging on the 140 character network. The startup hopes to add several more PGA Tour pros and industry icons to this roster before launch, increasing this total to more than 3 million if all goes according to plan.

This should be enough to get the ball rolling and to get real world feedback from consumers. But, if GAME GOLF is to stay ahead of the likes of Nike, Garmen, SkyCaddy, Adidas, and even possibly FitBit and Jawbone, a significant marketing budget will eventually be needed. Following a period of initial direct sales, the company hopes to end up on the shelves of electronics and golf specialty retailers by 2014 if all goes according to plan, and is already in discussions with the Apple Store, Best Buy, Golf Mart, Golf Galaxy, Roger Dunn, and Dicks, among others.

The longer term plan is to eventually extend the technology developed for golf into the boardsports (surfing, snowboarding, and skateboarding) and soccer verticals, growing GAME YOUR GAME into a comprehensive sports performance hardware and software company that its founders hope “changes the way people enjoy sports."

The company raised an undisclosed, but supposedly multi-million seed round from Seagate Technology, ACT Ventures, Enterprise Equity, Cross-link Partners, Moroda Ventures, PayPal president David Marcus, Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, early Facebook exec Chamath Paliphaitya, Ed Colligan, Hosain Rahman, Yves Béhar, Graeme McDowell, world champion surfer Kelly Slater, and others. With product development now completed, McGuire his team have has now turned to the consumer crowdfunding market for production financing and early market feedback.

Another highly unusual attribute of the GYG device is that it will be manufactured in America. GAME GOLF has teamed up with Santa Clara-based E Systems who met and in some cases beat the terms and conditions offered by the company’s international manufacturing alternatives in an effort to bring the high end electronics market back to America.

“A new era of quantification and gamification is rapidly and radically changing the way we live, work and play.” says McGuire. Golf has needed this thrust into the digital era as bad as any sport. GAME GOLF looks to have delivered a capable of helping players both improve their play and enjoy the game in new and more interactive ways.