Newsbit

Getting Golfers in the Swing Invention gives duffers an instant critique to help them improve their game.

by Dan Fost, Chronicle Staff Writer

Dave Burns is not a computer geek and he's not a professional athlete. He's just a frustrated golfer who dabbled in technology and came up with a gadget that could be the salvation of hackers everywhere.

Burns' device is called SwingLab, and after two years of testing at the Lake Merced Country Club, it's now available for public use at the Mission Bay Golf Center, a driving range in San Francisco's sunny South of Market neighborhood. A national rollout is slated for next year.

SwingLab is a kiosk akin to an automated teller machine or self-serve gas pump. The golfer swipes his credit card and gets computerized instruction for 95 cents a minute.

The system uses a pair of video cameras, a monitor and some computer graphics to show a golfer exactly what's wrong with his or her swing -- during the swing.

Because it takes place in real time, the company says SwingLab is more effective than a video that a golfer watches later. And because golfers can actually see what they're doing, it's also better than having a personal instructor giving verbal instructions.

It's remarkably simple: A television monitor sits at the golfer's feet. Cameras mounted at shoulder level capture the golfer's swing from the front and side view, and put it on the screen.

Outlines displayed on the screen show how the golfer should be aligned and where the club should be.

The most intriguing feature, though, is SwingLab's use of animation technology to convert videotape of pros' swings into a graphic silhouette on the monitor.

The customer chooses a pro -- one that matches his or her body size. Then, the customer's image is superimposed on the pro's, and the two go through the swing together. ``It's a real-time feedback loop,'' Burns said.

SwingLab says this puts golfers ``inside the swing'' of top professionals like Paul Stankowski, Scott McCarron or Laura Davies.

SwingLab has a dozen pro golfers in the system now and expects to have 50 by the end of the year.

Nancy McDaniel, the coach of the University of California at Berkeley women's golf team, said the superimposed video is an effective teaching tool.

``You're basically stepping into someone's body, and if it feels right, you can make the adjustments very naturally right on the spot,'' she said. ``Instead of a teacher putting their hands on your hip, you feel that swing, and it feels really good.''

She said SwingLab also makes innovative use of music, combining the video with a pulsing beat that helps players set a tempo.

Andrew Stewart, 33, a San Francisco architect who tried it out last week, said SwingLab ``made a big difference right away. There were things I was doing wrong that I wasn't even aware of.''

The Berkeley company has high expectations. It would like to put a SwingLab kiosk at golf courses and driving ranges around the country and is also working to install units in golf-crazy Japan.

Under SwingLab's business plan, it will split the revenue with the host. The company expects to be operating 300 machines by the end of next year.

A key selling point, said SwingLab chief executive Gary Wayne, is how easy the kiosk is to operate. A local golf pro can help someone with the system for a $10 introductory charge, or anyone can try it themselves for 95 cents a minute.

The SwingLab model could be easily translated to other activities -- throwing a football or baseball, rehabilitation exercise or skiing, for example. Some baseball teams have already expressed interest.

But for now, it's golf, that most maddening of sports.

``I don't know anything people work harder at and get less results from than golf,'' said Wayne, who speaks from personal experience.

That certainly applied to Burns, the inventor. A rangy, sandy-hair San Anselmo resident, Burns, 44, had left Stanford a few credits shy of earning his film degree. He found work in Hollywood as a grip, moving cameras, lights and rigging around on the sets of such movies as ``Titanic,'' ``Barb Wire'' and ``Spawn.''

``For a while, it's as fun as it sounds, but then you get tired of standing in the same sneakers for 16 hours in a day,'' he said.

In 1993, when his daughter was born, he shifted gears. He shopped around a screenplay and worked on his golf game, but didn't get far with either endeavor.

He took a lot of golf lessons, until one day, his instructor got so fed up with his regression to his old swing that ``he forbade me from practicing not in his presence,'' Burns recalled.

``I was really mad,'' Burns said. ``I thought, `God, if I could only see what I'm doing.' ''

He built a box with a TV in it and hooked it up to a video camera. ``I could immediately see not only what I was doing wrong, but where it was coming from,'' he said.

Around the same time, he was fiddling with his cheap old Amiga computer, and discovered the art of animation. He took a videotape of PGA golfer Steve Elkington and made an animated outline.

``Three days later, I was standing inside Steve Elkington's golf swing, in my back yard,'' he said. ``It was amazing. You're learning what it feels like -- the actual feel.''

For the next two years, he worked on the arduous process of getting a patent. Then he looked for a businessman to run his company.

He met Wayne, 43, who had moved to California after he and his partners sold their company, Ithaca Software, to Autodesk for $15 million in the early 1990s.

``I was thrilled by it,'' Wayne said. ``I had seen many polished business plans without good ideas. This was amateurish, but it contained a great idea.''

Wayne approached venture capitalists, but they wanted to see more research before they invested in the company. SwingLab's financing has come mostly from private investors, including Wayne's original partners from Ithaca Software and Rich Hanson, a former StairMaster executive.

``I immediately recognized it as the best teaching device I had ever seen,'' said Hanson, an exercise physiologist in Thousand Oaks.



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