Insight Sports, a Hong Kong-based technology company, is leading the way in the golf training aid sector with its state-of-the-art iTrainer swing analysers, writes Charlie Schroeder.
Hong Kong heritage: The locally created iTrainer Mini and related tablet App (above); the iTrainer Pro (opposite), the culmination of five different versions 58
HK GOLFER・AUG 2013
ack in 2005, Steve Sparrow had just finished designing the broker systems for the Shanghai Stock Exchange when he found himself with a year off. With newfound time on his hands, the solutions architect decided to do something most of us can only dream of: devote a year to working on his golf game. Although he’d been playing for a decade, he felt his game had plateaued, so, like thousands before him, Sparrow, British-born and Australia raised, sought help in the form of training aids.
“I bought all the gadgets you could find,” the affable 18-handicapper told me. But none could help him knock strokes off his index. With his background in computer science and electronic engineering (he originally moved to Hong Kong from Australia in 1994 to design the systems on our stock exchange’s trading floor), it was only fitting that he looked to technology to help his game. And the more Sparrow, 55, thought about how to improve his golf via technology, the more he thought about creating a training aid that could help other players as well. HKGOLFER.COM
He took a “simple prototype” of his invention, a small device fitted with lasers that could “track the swing and provide feedback to the golfer,” to the Hong Kong Government and their Small Entrepreneur Research Assistance Programme. Suitably impressed they awarded him money and he started to develop it. The year was 2006 and an original Hong Kong golf product had been born. Sparrow formed a company, Insight Sports, and called his prototype the iTrainer. In May, I visited Sparrow and his business partners, Mike Belbin, 67, and Darren McEntee, 39, at Insight Sports’ new Kennedy Town offices. Perched on a high floor in an industrial building overlooking Victoria Harbour, their headquarters are sparsely decorated with just enough space for a couple offices, a long, high table and an indoor practice net where they can hit balls and test their two iTrainer swing analysers, the Pro (HK$3,095) and Mini (HK$2,320). “This is the culmination of about five different versions,” Sparrow said, picking the Pro model off the table. The black, rectangular unit has a small screen and is about twice as thick and half the size of an iPhone. To use it all you have to do is clamp it just under your grip, ensure it’s aligned with your club face and hit a ball. The recorded data (clubhead speed, tempo and shot distance among many others) then shows up on the small screen. It even gives audible feedback if your club veers off plane. As Sparrow put it, “It’s good for people who aren’t [technologically] savvy.” Next they produced the Mini, which is as discreet as a clip-on microphone and geared for people with the latest gadgetry. It’s screenless, lighter and smaller than the iTrainerPro and was originally designed to help golfers improve their putting. Like the Pro, the bluetooth-enabled Mini provides swing data but instead of displaying it on a screen, it sends it to smartphones and tablets. “We hope to appeal to two different kinds of consumers,” Belbin said. Of course, admiring the iTrainers wasn’t enough to truly understand how they work, so we adjourned to the indoor net to test them out. I attached the Mini to a 6-iron and promptly blocked a shot into the right corner of the net. Afterwards Sparrow approached me, iPad in hand. There, in full-colour (on a very userfriendly interface), the iTrainer app had received all the data from my rusty, mid-morning swing. My swing speed was glacial, my clubface open and my shot distance, well, that’s none of your business. Still, as Sparrow swiped through the different screens, he did highlight some positives. My tempo was close to the desired ratio of 3 (backswing) to 1 (downswing) and my swing path somehow wasn’t over the top, which the iTrainer displayed via a nifty 3D simulation viewable from all angles. HKGOLFER.COM
My swing speed was glacial, my clubface open and my shot distance, well, that’s none of your business. Still, as Sparrow swiped through the different screens, he did highlight some positives. HK GOLFER・AUG 2013
I knew what almost all the data meant, but I wondered how the average weekend warrior would benefit from so much information. Would knowing how many revolutions per minute your ball spun be confusing? Too Much Information? Fortunately Belbin had a good answer. The first time he tried it, he told me he focused on just one area. “I realised my tempo was really off and as soon as I adjusted my swing I was so much better. Even if it [the iTrainer] is just for that I could use it.” In other words, there’s a lot of data to choose from, but that’s okay. Golfers can pick and choose what’s best for their game. Not to mention that despite hitting a golf ball a mere 10 feet into a net, I knew precisely how far, and in what direction, it flew. It was obvious that the device’s target market might just be people who don’t have year-round access to a driving range or who live in cold climates or space-challenged environments, like Hong Kong. “People have no idea how far they’re hitting the ball when they hit into nets,” Belbin said. “Or whether it went left or right. But if somebody is hitting into a net, they’re going to get data using an iTrainer.” After the practice session we adjourned to a local Italian restaurant. Over coffee, the men told me about their future plans for the iTrainer: an interactive academy built with input from local pro, Vaughan Mason, who owns The Golf School of Hong Kong in Ma On Shan. “The next release will be fully interactive so a pro can get players into the right positions throughout the swing,” Sparrow told me. Preliminary plans also include a subscription programme whereby users can send their swing data to coaches for analysis. They’ve also added static tips based on one’s swing flaws and have shot a number of videos which they plan to incorporate into the app. From there, users can choose one of three tips based on the flaws in their swing. “We want to go from information to instruction to improvement,” says Belbin. “It’s bridging that gap where we feel we can help the golfer.” And that’s something we can all benefit from. insight-sports.com
THE OPPOSITION Rival Swing Analysers on the Market Hong Kong-based 3 Bays GSA Pro (HK$1,550) markets itself as the “world’s lightest golf swing analyser” and, as it tips the scales at a mere nine grams, it’s hard to argue with their claim. The one-by-one inch sensor is small enough to fit into the butt end of your club’s grip and uses a 3-axis accelerometer and gyroscope sensors to transmit (via Bluetooth) swing data to a mobile phone app. Once there, users see an animated version of their swing and can access key data points like clubhead speed, ball speed, tempo, swing path, carry distance and clubface angle. For golfers who like to track their consistency, the device makes it easy to store swing history. Another nifty feature is that you can share your swing info on Facebook. (Like!) Designed for both iOS and Android phones. Look for a separate putting model too. 3bayslife.org What looks like a travel size computer mouse is really the lightweight golf swing analyser GolfSense (HK$1,000). The small sensor, which weighs 17 grams and clips onto your golf glove, boasts a gyroscope, compass and two accelerometers that capture your swing data. After sent via Bluetooth to a mobile device, users can see their swing in animated 3-D. Other data includes tempo, clubhead speed, shot distance and hip rotation. Extra features include the ability to track swing history and add notes. Into social networking? Compare and share your swings on Twitter, Facebook and email. golfsense.me
HK GOLFER・AUG 2013