We’ve all seen the speed of a pitch in baseball recorded, either in person or on TV, and most have probably seen the radar gun used to clock the ball’s velocity. That tech is expensive, however, with systems ranging to around $1,200 to measure the speed of smashes, hits and kicks in sports ranging from baseball, to tennis to soccer. Athla, launching today at Disrupt SF, is a startup that uses existing hardware standard on any iPhone to replicate the functions of these expensive radar guns, using only a piece of software called ‘Velocity’, with sport-specific in-app purchases that cost only $6.99 apiece to unlock.
The man behind Athla is Michael Gillam, a medical doctor who has worked in tech for much of his career, following his residency in emergency medicine at Northwestern University. Gillam was Director of Research at the National Institute of Medical Informatics, took on graduate studies at Singularity University, the academic institution co-founded by futurist Ray Kurzweil. After that, he spent time as the Director of Healthcare Innovation at Microsoft’s lab designed for that purpose, and he acted as a judge for Nokia’s Xprise challenge in the category of personal health sensing technology.
Gillam has spent a lot of time and effort on using tech to improve treatment and curative medicine, but he also became interested in how advances in technology could be applied to sport and performance.
“All my work has been in the sort of electronic medical record and illness space,” Gillam explained in an interview. “But there’s about two billion people worldwide who will never see a doctor in the course of their lives, and about a billion of those people already have cell phones, and it’s believed that the next billion will come online in the next three to five years. So I was looking for something to do in the mobile space, I kinda learned mobile programming inside and out, and I was looking for something that was impossible today but that could kind of ride Moore’s law, and that was in the fitness and wellness space.”
Velocity is the project Gillam came up with, which took two years of bootstrapped development to get where it is today. During that time, Gillam saw Moore’s Law in action – the original iPhone 4S camera could only read speeds of up to around 50MPH, while the iPhone 5 can manage up to 120MPH. The next iPhone, Gillam predicts, will probably be able to manage nearly twice that.
Initially, Athla is aiming to sell the app direct to consumers, for sports fans, amateur athletes, freelance instructors and hobbyists to use. After that, there are opportunities to partner both with leagues and sports organizations, and with brands for sponsored experiences. Gillam says brands are looking for ways to connect with fans over a longer period of time, instead of just with fleeting ads, so a branded version of Velocity could make sense especially for those trying to market to a sports audience.
There are plenty of other opportunities for the tech down the road, too – other apps are forthcoming, including ones that let you chart the speeds of passing cars or just about anything in motion. Athla is also considering an SDK, to let other app developers leverage its velocity tracking software abilities.
The app is out now for iPhone, and other sports are coming soon, in addition to the baseball, tennis, cricket and soccer currently offered. It’s yet another example of apps eating the world, this time with mobile software replacing elaborate, expensive, and complicated hardware without any extra work required on the part of device makers, beyond areas they were already innovating to begin with.
Q: How big is this market, how big can it be?
A: It’s an unexplored market, and we haven’t yet put dollars around that, but it’s something we see as commoditizing a huge existing market and capitalizing on the fact that a huge percentage of the world’s population engages in some kind of sport.
Q: If I suck, how does it make me better?
A: It boils down to the technique. Just adding a snap to my wrist added 4 MPH to my serve speed with tennis.
Q: Do you offer those tips?
A: We plan on partnering with people who have training and are experts to offer improvement advice that’s safe.
Q: Who is the primary market? Parents, coaches, kids?
A: Videogamifying of sports is one of our opportunities, and that just pulls kids in. Your score now is actual physical achievement, as opposed to a video score. So at least for now that core market is the kids to give them a sense of self esteem and achievement.