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Angular Velocity has an eagle eye on sports

Bowling has not been the same after the launch of Specto, a tracking technology developed by Helsinki-based Angular Velocity. Skitterphoto

Finland’s Angular Velocity has completely transformed various aspects of bowling, ranging from practice to ball development, codification and broadcasting. Next it intends to do the same in other sports.

Kristian Törnqvist has set his sights high for the 100 metres, discus throw, shot put and many other athletics events at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, France.

He is not an up-and-coming decathlete but one of the chief developers of a device that could transfigure how athletes and coaches prepare for and how television viewers around the world experience the highly anticipated event.

The device is called Specto. Not much larger than a regular-size coffee server, it is equipped with an eye-friendly laser that rotates on a 360-degree axis at a speed of 3 000 revolutions per minute, sending short pulses and measuring their reflections to determine the location of objects – static or dynamic – in its vicinity.

Its applications in athletics and sports in general are manifold and, to some extent, still unknown, tells Törnqvist.

Angular Velocity quickly realised that the technology has applications also in other sports, particularly because of the pace at which it is capable of producing data. Image: Angular Velocity

The data produced by the device, he explains, can be used by coaches to reinforce their instructions to athletes, amateur athletes to improve their technique and sports networks to provide viewers with intriguing details such as the release angle and speed of a javelin thrower, or the acceleration, deceleration and maximum speed of a 100-metre sprinter. All in real time.

“I guess you could say we’ve set our long-term course for the Paris Olympics in 2024. That’s when we should be able to cover all athletics events and offer a fully-fledged viewer app,” says Törnqvist.

Bowling over Kegel

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Törnqvist reminds that, like for athletes, the road to the games will be long and hard for Angular Velocity, the Helsinki-based developer of Specto. The story of the company began in a bowling alley several years ago, as he and his co-founders found themselves wanting a more sophisticated system for tracking bowling balls.

“All of the four founders are either bowlers or bowling coaches. Two of us, in fact, are former world champions,” he tells. “There was one tracking system on the market that was capable of tracking balls, but it was really complicated to use and didn’t really meet the needs of the sport.”

The quartet eventually conducted the first tests in the second half of 2015 and, encouraged by the results, founded Angular Velocity in 2016.

The world of bowling has not been the same since. Image: Angular Velocity

“In May, we flew to Florida to meet Kegel, the third-largest player in the world of bowling and the developer of the existing tracking system. We presented our system to them and they pounced on it immediately. They had been thinking how to replace their outdated system for a long time,” recounts Törnqvist.

“We unveiled it with Kegel at the International Bowl Expo in Las Vegas in June 2016. It was voted as the best new product there,” he adds.

The world of bowling has not been the same since. Specto Bowling has become a true standard in the sport, having been used in the product development of all new balls since May 2017 and in research by the United States Bowling Congress (USBC). Its adoption has even led to a 30 per cent uptick in the viewership of bowling broadcasts on Fox Sports.

Changing lanes

Angular Velocity quickly realised that the technology has applications also in other sports, particularly because of the pace at which it is capable of producing data.

“We were originally developing it for bowling, as it was something we all knew. Other sports came as a positive surprise in the development stages and really started to gain momentum around 2017,” says Törnqvist.

The first, somewhat reckless venture outside the comfort zone was curling.

“The Olympic Committee asked us to put together something for the Winter Olympics. ‘Sure,’ we decided, figuring curling wouldn’t be too different from bowling. In hindsight I’d say to myself: ‘think a little – curling has nothing to do with bowling’,” he reminisces, with a chuckle. “We basically had to revamp everything. But we did learn a lot about how to calibrate the sensor so that it’s horizontally straight and recognises the borders of the playing area much faster than before.”

Törnqvist says Angular Velocity is currently co-operating with a number of sports associations partly to ensure it has access to the sport-specific knowledge necessary to reconfigure the software for new use cases.

“Every sport is completely different, with its unique characteristics. We initially thought all throwing sports would be 90 per cent the same, but it has become clear that we were way off.”

Data as a service

Angular Velocity’s first venture outside the comfort zone of bowling was curling – at the request of the Olympic Committee. Image: Angular Velocity

Angular Velocity is set to trial its technology at domestic athletics events during the course of the summer with YLE, the public broadcasting company of Finland. The main goal for the year, meanwhile, has been set for the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, in September.

“We’ll do four to five sports there, depending on how much we manage to get ready. We’re working on javelin throw right now. It’s one of the most difficult ones, and whether we’ll have it ready is still a bit iffy,” Törnqvist says.

“The World Athletics Championships draw roughly a billion viewers worldwide. It’s a market with massive potential,” he adds.

A market of such promise is bound to have also caught the attention of other technology firms. Specto, however, has a leg up on the competition due to its ability to filter out unnecessary elements from the profusion of data generated by the sensor in the blink of an eye, according to Törnqvist.

“The light detection and ranging (LIDAR) tool is measuring the environment constantly, in its entirety. But if we only want data on the ball, for example, we have to filter out the walls of the bowling alley and so on,” he explains. “The algorithms we have under the hood are capable of processing the data very fast: our latency is roughly 20 milliseconds – that’s from the data input to it being ready.”

“After the data has been refined, it’s sent to the cloud and thereon to the laptop, tablet or smartphone of the end user.”

This wealth of data is precisely why at least some of the technology’s future applications remain unknown. Törnqvist says he and his colleagues are constantly discovering new ways to utilise the data and using that knowledge to develop the functionalities and interface of the software.

In Doha, he tells, viewers should have access to a small part of the measurement data through television and find additional details of the performance of athletes through the viewer app. A larger trove of data will be presented to researchers at IAAF.

“What’s good is that we’re not producing data only for TV, but data that can be used over and over again. We’re turning data into a service,” he says.

Angular Velocity is set to ramp up its presence in Helsinki, raising its headcount by 15 by mid-2020 and another 15 by 2021, says Kristian Törnqvist (left), the CEO of Angular Velocity. Image: Angular Velocity
By: Aleksi Teivainen