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This startup is betting you’ll want to let an AI teach you how to golf

  • Justin Caffier

Sportsbox AI promises to use machine learning to improve your swing — but that, it promises, is just the beginning.

It wasn’t just the steroids, unsportsmanlike conduct and being Russian at the height of the Red Scare that sold Ivan Drago’s villainy to Rocky IV audiences. He also had a lab full of computers and analysts recording, evaluating and refining his technique to the point of machine-like precision and power. The Soviet’s strange quant-based approach to training wasn’t just there to juxtapose the protagonist’s humble analog fight prep. It also played to 1985 moviegoers’ subconscious understanding that when cold, lifeless data is given authority to mold an athlete, it comes at the cost of the soul being stripped from both human and sport alike.

Today, films about data nerds upsetting the coaching strategy for an entire sport earn multiple Oscar noms and smartphone ubiquity long ago normalized asking computers to optimize every aspect of our lives, athletic or otherwise. Perhaps we’ve outgrown the earlier melodrama. Or maybe we now care less about preserving humanity when striving for optimum efficiency. What’s unambiguously clear is that we’ve never had fewer qualms about ceding to the wisdom and tutelage of our digital helpers. Though AI might not yet be ready to replace the fleet of trainers needed for variable-laden activities like boxing, Sportsbox AI has at least harnessed its power to tighten up your golf swing.

A spinout of the Bellevue, WA.-based incubator, AI Thinktank, Sportsbox was co-founded by former Voicebox Senior VP of Engineering, Samuel Menaker, and former LPGA-pro, Jeehae Lee, who now serves as the company CEO. The company seems an obvious choice for showcasing the ground floor applications of AI-assisted coaching: as one of the few sports where players strike a stationary object from a relatively universal stance, the golf swing is a manageable burden for the “patent-pending 3D Motion Analysis and Kinematic AI technology” utilized by the fledgling company.

In practice, golfers record or upload clips of their swing from iOS or Android smartphones — a curious lack of tablet support, given the sport’s core player demographics — to Sportsbox’s app. It then converts the 2D sample to a scrubbable 3D model replay. Once transmogrified into a CG figure akin to an artist’s drawing mannequin, users can scrutinize every millisecond of their backswing from six different angles and with side-by-side video comparisons.

These digital recreations come replete with accurately-scaled biomechanical measurements of joint angles, rotation degrees, limb velocities and so on, giving the user plenty of potential problem areas to micro-adjust. While the glut of raw data provided ostensibly reveals stroke-shaving insights, the AI on offer seems to only extend to the 3D modeling features. Carbon-based intelligence is still required for analysis and corresponding instruction, at least for the time being.

Fortunately, golfers unable to adequately critique their own form aren’t without options. The app conveniently provides a directory of “3DGolf” tele-coaches for hire. Pricing plans range from free to $15.99 a month for students, but it’s in the instructor’s subscription plans that Sportsbox AI’s current business model finally comes into focus. Aspiring Bagger Vances who’d like to fold 3DGolf captures into their lessons can pay anywhere from $54 a month to $3,500 annually for the privilege.

GeekWire reports that the company hopes to eventually expand their reach to the tennis, baseball, yoga and physical therapy markets. And it would be unfair to paint Sportsbox AI as “‘Uber for coaches’ in an AI trench coat” before they’ve even hit the back nine. If the CEO’s insinuations play out, a label so narrow would be an insult to Sportsbox AI’s ambitions: rendering the prohibitively expensive and cumbersome contemporary 3D-capture technologies of all markets obsolete.

“The core of what we want to stand for is 3D everywhere,” Lee told GeekWire. “It’s accessible and not some motion-capture studio that requires eight cameras and $100,000 to set up, but it’s available on your phone.”

Sadly, with Sportbox’s attention focused elsewhere, real-time feedback from a full-fledged AI coach isn’t likely anytime soon.

Ironically enough, Rocky IV inexplicably featured a sentient, coach-adjacent robot named SICO who spoke and reported to characters with a level of artificial intelligence we’re only now beginning to achieve from the likes of Google’s LaMDA. In the comments of a 2020 Instagram post announcing a forthcoming director’s cut of the film, Sylvester Stallone said they’d be axing the notorious bot. Fans presume this erasure stems from hindsight embarrassment over SICO’s atonal comedic relief butler-bartender role to Rocky’s trainer.

It’s possible, however, that Stallone is actually trying to bury a far more shameful gaping plot hole: computer-enhanced sports might lack soul, but squandering the smartest AI on the planet as a bartender when it could’ve been training Rocky to first round TKO Drago is unbelievably brainless.