Two MEMS sensor lines aim to please on greens and in streams

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June 30, 2004 — Paul Kolen and Noel Perkins are independent innovators 2,000 miles apart. But the professors share a passion for microsensors, and moving them out of their labs.

If all goes well, both could see their sensors in fields and streams within a year.

Kolen, an electrical and computer engineering professor at San Diego State University, licensed technology to Sonartec Inc., a Carlsbad, Calif.-based golf club maker. He developed the Inertial Magnetic Motion Capture (IMMCAP) system, and is working with Sonartec to create a small unit that can be attached to clubs to measure and analyze a golfer’s swing.

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Meanwhile, University of Michigan (U-M) Professor Perkins, who developed his own motion sensor-based device, has contracts with undisclosed manufacturers of golf clubs and fly-fishing rods to commercialize similar systems that provide data on a swing or an angler’s casting technique.

Both devices take advantage of microscale accelerometers and gyros: They can be integrated with software and unobtrusively affixed to clubs, rods and even possibly baseball bats, tennis rackets or cello bows. The miniature systems measure angular motion, acceleration and direction.

In Sonartec’s solution, feedback to the golfer is transmitted wirelessly to a headset. That data also can be uploaded to a computer or sent via the Internet. Perkins’ devices will send information by wire or wirelessly to a personal computer or mobile electronics device.

Kolen, a Michigan native and U-M graduate, was unaware of Perkins’ project but not surprised to hear that someone else was working on similar technology with an eye on the same applications: “There’s only a certain number of ways you can do this. … There’s not an infinite number of variations on the theme.”

Likewise, Perkins isn’t shocked to learn that Kolen has his eye on the same markets. The miniaturization has opened up previously unattainable or even unknown applications. Golf alone is a $25 billion industry, driven by the big dollars its devotees spend on the care and feeding of their hobby. “There’s an opportunity here to create high-volume, inexpensive units that are within the price points (of) … an avid golfer.”

Although motion capture machinery isn’t new to golf, those seeking such feedback typically must visit a dim studio with light sensors strapped on their wrists, elbows, and shoulders with wires fed into a computer. Then, they swing amid bright strobing lights and high-speed cameras. IMMCAP could give golfers the freedom to analyze their game on their own turf.

“The value is, in a natural situation, their golf game might be totally different than in a studio … under a totally controlled situation,” said Jim Uno, Sonartec’s vice president. “A person takes a swing, but does it show how they perform in the rough, or in a bunker?”

Uno said Sonartec’s first application for IMMCAP will be a putter-training aid. The company plans to have prototypes in the hands of professional golfers and hopes to have on them the market by year’s end. One of the first samplers will be Nick Price, a pro golfer as well as a Sonartec investor and adviser.

Kolen said retail delivery by the holiday season is probably premature, though it’s a safe bet that the putter will be ready for professional evaluation by fall. The hardware development is completed, he said, but merging it with software — integrating data and placing it in a user-friendly format — is still being worked out.

For his part, Perkins said he expects the golf manufacturer he’s working with to be ready for commercial launch within a year. The fly-fishing rod maker would like to unveil a sensor-enabled product by September, preferably at an industry show.

Both have designs on systems for other sports and even other industries. Perkins is looking for partners in baseball, rowing and hockey equipment. He’s also reviewing a business plan from a team of investors, technical experts and trainers who want to form a company to produce sensor-based devices for various activities.

Kolen received a multiyear grant from the National Science Foundation to develop motion-capture systems for not only sports training, but also for aiding the disabled. Additionally, he’s working on IMMCAP to improve special effects for the movie industry.

Eric Gulliksen, an analyst with Natick, Mass.-based Venture Development Corp., now focuses on embedded hardware but has followed development of MEMS. He called sensor-enabled sports systems a “dandy idea,” and one that could help MEMS break out of the background.

“Given the history, it’s about time they found something besides air bags that have some commercial appeal,” he said. “This does.”

Kolen said the automotive market has paved the way for his work.

“We’re piggybacking on the automotive industry, which is driving the MEMS sensors,” he said. “They don’t give a damn about the size, they just want the cost per unit down. … But that’s the key thing for these types of applications I’m working on — certain applications require it to be small.”

So, the automotive market may not need small, but mass-producing ever-smaller sensors helps brings down its costs. And that benefits Kolen, Perkins and others who are swinging for the industry’s fences.

“The applications might spur the MEMS industry to build an entirely different class of sensors,” Perkins said. “That could lead to making consumer products that can help you learn your sport or skill better.”

Added Kolen: “The best way I can describe it is it’s a solution looking for a problem to solve. It just has so many different applications for it.”


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