A Surfer’s Dream
A pair of board-sport enthusiasts, design a two-piece cooperative object tracking system that allows the user to track and film a moving subject from up to 2,000 feet away.
Chris Boyle was on a surfing trip in the British Virgin Islands when he awoke to a beautiful horizon that looked out into Tortola’s Apple Bay. Boyle was alone at the time, but wanted to shoot footage of himself out on the break, so he set up his camera on the balcony, pointed it out at the waves in the distance, hit record, and went for a surf. When he came back to check out the footage, he noticed two things: the shot could’ve been tighter (more focused on him), however it was a stable and steady recording of his entire surf.
With a background in engineering, Boyle is no slouch when it comes to product development. He has been issued 21 patents in various fields (with 50 more still pending). When he recognizes an opportunity he seizes it with little trepidation, and as such, SOLOSHOT was born by a surfer’s dream.
Instead of keeping the idea to himself, SOLOSHOT’s founder and current CEO sought a team of specialists to help bring his new idea to fruition.
"I’m a big believer in teams," says Boyle. "Put people from a lot of different backgrounds together and you’ll end up with solutions that are different, and probably better than if you try and do something on your own." That’s how he met co-founder Scott Taylor, a fellow entrepreneur with degrees in naval architecture, marine engineering, and chemical engineering. Taylor also happened to have a passion for board sports, which helped.
"Nothing is on a straight path. This project included a lot of meandering down many different paths, crossing and traveling around the world. That’s how I met Scott. It’s as much a story about developing the technology as it is about developing the team." The team eventually grew to 23 strong, including engineers, scientists, artists, and designers.
The team's collaboration yielded SOLOSHOT, a two-piece cooperative object tracking system that allows the user to attach virtually any camera to its base and film a moving subject from up to 2,000 feet away. The camera is mounted to a motorized base that communicates with a remote armband which is worn by the subject. The base remains in constant radio communication with the armband to make sure that the base automatically rotates to track the subject.
The base is covered in a rugged, engineering grade ABS polymer enclosure and it can freely spin 360° continuously (it doesn’t tilt on its own, yet). It includes an internal rechargeable battery with a five-hour battery life and has a standard ¼" mount screw that works with most cameras. It also includes a bright LED that can be seen from a distance to allow the subject to know it is still operational.
SOLOSHOT was conceived as a product that could be used by a lone surfer looking to relive the ride, but when the user is abandoning a high-quality piece of hardware on the beach, security is sure to be called into question. The team is still figuring that one out, but for the time being, they have designed a feature that allows the user to lock the camera to the base as well as a feature that allows the user to lock the tripod to a nearby fixed object, like a lifeguard stand.
"[Theft] is something that we’ve had to deal with, but I wanted it to truly be a system that you could set up and use without having to rely on another person, including someone to watch it," Boyle says. "We try to tell people to have an idea of their surroundings. If you’re afraid to lock up your bike in the area, don’t leave your SOLOSHOT there."
The remote is not just durable, but waterproof in both saltwater and freshwater as well. It too has an internal rechargeable battery that lasts more than five hours.
According to Boyle, the team had a bit of fun with the destructive/durability testing. They headed to a nearby park and started out by heaving the device out into the grass. Test 1: Pass. Next, they fired it out into the parking lot. Test 2: Pass. Taylor then grabbed a baseball bat and had a quick pickup game with the remote substituting for the old leather and red string. Test 3: Pass — for a while anyways, until Taylor really connected with one.
Boyle and Taylor ran into a common problem among the design engineering community, scope creep. Boyle wanted SOLOSHOT to be something that he could be proud of as a surfer, so he wanted the armband to be waterproof and shockproof, unlike many of the current products on the market that have over promised and under delivered.
As each new feature was incorporated into the prototype, he wanted to make sure that he wasn’t taking on too much. "I was trying to avoid biting off more than I could chew in the beginning," Boyle says. "I didn’t want to get overwhelmed with feature creep." It was difficult for Boyle, because he was creating a new product with which he hoped to benefit a community that he was a part of. "As a surfer, I’ve bought so many different products that are supposed to be waterproof, and they just stop working after the first or second session — including a set of walkie talkies that we bought for some of the early stages of product development."
One crucial detail for the base functionality is panning. A lot of work went into SOLOSHOT to make sure that the base smoothly panned the camera, regardless of speed. If the subject is at the far end of the 2,000-foot range, the camera will still slowly pan with the subject, ensuring superior video quality. If the subject is closer or moving faster, the base can pan at about 40° per second. Picture quality that smooth would be quite difficult for an amateur with a handycam.
Since it hit the market, SOLOSHOT has moved beyond the surf and has been used in everything from land sports (skateboarding, BMX, soccer, baseball, etc.) to motocross and even horse racing. Before the camera solution caught on, Boyle and Taylor were in a unique position with brutally honest compatriots.
"You’re putting yourself out there when you’re putting your product out there," says Boyle. "We’ve literally drawn blood for this [product], and a number of people drew blood in the laboratory."
SOLOSHOT has had some help when it comes to funding. Starting with crowdsourcing website Kickstarter.com, the team secured 272 backers who pledged $73,374 in funding (blowing away the $50,000 goal). The assistance, and luck, didn’t stop there.
After reaching the funding goal, CTO Alex Sammons, began searching for a manufacturer that could quickly provide reasonably priced parts. "When you’re in the lab and excited about your progress, you don’t want to wait months for an injection molded part to show up," says Sammons. SOLOSHOT’s guru of cutting edge processes and sourcing had worked with Proto Labs in the past and swore by the company's capabilities. The company had also recently launched the Cool Idea! Award: a program that gives product designers the opportunity to bring innovative products to life.
As luck would have it, Proto Labs founder and CTO, Larry Lukis, selected SOLOSHOT as a winner, and awarded Boyle and Taylor with up to $250,000 of prototyping and short-run production services. "SOLOSHOT is a product with a ton of potential," Lukis says. "You can see its appeal to individual athletes, but I can imagine coaches using it as a training tool, parents putting it to work at their child’s soccer games, and even documentary filmmakers getting creative with the technology."
The additional support and funding has helped Boyle and Taylor as they look to turn SOLOSHOT into a commercial success. It serves as a reminder that no matter where you are or what you’re doing, always keep your eyes open, for new product success could be riding in on the next wave.