Sunday, July 22, 2012

launch monitors and simulators

Per my layman's spreadsheet calculations, my handicap is 32.6.  I have quite a few things to work on with my golf game, but I think the biggest one is improving long game accuracy.  I think my distance is reasonable... it's mainly the side-to-side (hook-to-slice) spray that chews up strokes (especially when it's into the trees, lateral water, etc).  One of the things I really want to get a handle on is shot dispersion per club... ie the bell-curve-like distribution for each club in terms of distance AND spray.  This information would no doubt help confirm club selection and target line for a given shot during an actual game.  With a rich set of distribution statistics, I'd have a better idea of my chances of hitting a specific target (like, oh I don't know, the green) with a given club, and how hard I should swing that club.  These stats would also provide a performance baseline to compare to later on, allowing me to actually see measurable change in accuracy over the long term (hopefully for the better!).

Anyway, so I can take this baseline dispersion measurement by going to the driving range and whacking 100 balls per club (not in one session... talk about rubber arms) and get a "rough idea" of both distance and side-to-side spray, but "rough idea" just ain't my style.  I need something ideally electronic and easily log-able (something transferable into a spreadsheet) and accurate in terms of measurement, though to-the-inch accuracy isn't super crucial to me, as we can always increase sample size to eliminate the noise you get with inaccurate measurements.  So I started looking up golf simulators.

Now, before I get knee-deep into the golf simulation discussion, I hope it goes without saying that, after a few hours of googling, I'm certainly no expert in this.  I may have some terminology wrong, might not have seen all of the various simulators out there, etc.  But I would think a recap of this sort would still provide some benefit.  Anyway, continuing...

In a general sense, I think of a golf simulator as being a "launch monitor" hooked up to a golf video game... where the "launch monitor" portion consists of all the hardware and software involved in determining club and/or ball movement characteristics shortly before/after time of impact.... and the "video game" is the environment into which the "virtual" ball is launched (terrain, wind, water, hole location... basically the course map).  In other words, with each stroke in the simulator, the launch monitor ultimately provides ball data (speed, direction, back spin, side spin, etc) to the video game, and the video game can then present the human player with the visual arc of the ball flying through the air, bouncing/rolling on the green, and so forth.

Some points about launch measurement technology:  A number of launch monitors/simulators sense only a portion of the club/ball parameters and make best guesses (via physics equations, etc) as to the remainder.  It really depends on the type and arrangement of sensing hardware involved.  I would tend to think that the more characteristics that are directly sensed vs. estimated, the more accurate the results.  From what I've seen, most launch sensor technology boils down to 3 groups:  infrared, high-speed camera, and Doppler radar.  The club-mounted Insight iTrainer is one exception that comes to mind, using (I think) accelerometers and gyroscopes to track club movement, essentially estimating (vs. directly sensing) most of the actual launch parameters.

Some companies sell launch monitors as stand-alone products (eg Trackman, Flight Scope, Zelocity), where the club/ball data is output to, for example, a laptop or smartphone.  However, the majority of the companies I saw sell full-up golf simulators, where the launch sensing stuff is only a portion of the full package, and you often get to choose from dozens of virtual courses to play, have the ability to control weather, play other people, etc.  Some companies (eg GSA) offer simulator sub-components for people who might not want to fork over a large chunk of their life savings for the complete package.  Speaking of which...

A lot of these products cost a lot of money.  Many cost multiple tens of thousands of dollars.  The intent and likely result is that most of the customers are probably commercial businesses (golf bars, pro shop fitters, etc) or wealthier individuals who want a top-of-the-line experience.  However, there are also some products that you can get for under $1000.

Anyway, here's a quick list of companies:

Full-up simulators:

Full Swing Golf
GolfTek (not sure if Greens On Screens owns GolfTek or is merely a reseller)
GSA (sells whole packages or piece-meal components)
High Definition Golf
Holiday Golf
ProTee United
Sports Coach Systems
Visual Sports

Launch monitors:

Electric Spin (Golf Launchpad features a tethered ball, interesting)
Ernest Sports
Flight Scope
Foresight Sports
Sports Sensors

For my specific needs, I'd be more inclined to go with a stand-alone launch monitor, and a lower-end one at that.  Currently thinking along the lines of the Insight iTrainerMini.  It doesn't directly measure any golfer-relevant statistic, but it estimates many of the ones a golfer would care about, most importantly (at least for me) the shot dispersion components of distance and spray.  And I can take it to the range or on the course.  At $200 it might be a risk worth taking.  Something like the Trackman III would obviously do a fantastic job, but at $15k or more, that's way out of my price range given my current commitment level with golf.  Maybe one day...

For folks who want to be able to play an actual round of golf anytime, but can't afford to spend $10k, $20k, or more, a product like the OptiShot might be the way to go.  It measures club and ball data via infrared sensors buried in the swing pad (where you tee the ball), and at $400, doesn't seem like a bad choice.  Only downside is you can't take it outside.... well... I suppose you could, but don't expect to play long in the rain!  The Par2Pro site has some good comparisons of the more "affordable" golf simulators like OptiShot.

Speaking of Par2Pro, as I was looking around, I ran across a few pages/sites which had some great information or were otherwise interesting.  Here's a last link dump of those:

GolfLink article
great GSA physics discussion
Hacker's Paradise review of Optishot
iGolf: general discussion on simulators
Livestrong article
Ottawa Golf forum
Wikipedia: "indoor golf"

In a nutshell, there are a lot of options out there and lots to research if this is something you'd be interested in.  Personally, if it costs substantially more than an annual membership at a local club, I'd be having second thoughts... but for the more hard-core golfers out there who are looking to shave only a stroke or two (vs. 30+ in my case), paying for that extra level of accuracy/detail could certainly be worth it.


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