Recreational Sports sees more use of GPS

by Beth Healy, NY Times

GPS is invading recreational sports. Under clear skies, those signals beaming to earth from satellites can find you on a hilly running trail, in a kayak on the ocean, or on a green fairway where you’re trying to fade a 230-yard drive into the wind. In the four years since the Defense Department loosened its grip on the Global Positioning System, the technology has migrated from military missiles and luxury cars to the wristbands and back pockets of people who normally revel in getting away from it all. For many athletes and outdoor adventurers, those space signals are taking the place of the speedometer, the compass, the map, and all manner of guesswork.

Last year, 5 million recreational GPS devices were shipped by manufacturers to retail stores, up from 3.2 million in 2002, said Alan A. Varghese, senior director of semiconductor research at ABI Research in Oyster Bay, N.Y. Shipments are pegged to grow at about 31 percent a year until 2009, he said.

“Always knowing where you are is a fundamentally exciting idea,” said D. Noah Eckhouse, an entrepreneur who has been working with GPS since 1992, when he was in an MIT research lab and helping sailor Bill Koch outfit his team’s boat with satellite technology that helped them win the America’s Cup.

Back then, Eckhouse recalls, GPS hand-held devices were rare and cumbersome gadgets, bigger than bricks, that cost about $2,000. A government military report on the technology in the 1980s predicted worldwide demand for no more than 25,000 GPS units.

“They really never thought of where it could go,” Eckhouse said. “But it was pretty clear to us that it was going to go into a lot of things.”

He and three partners were among the first to see the profit potential in a tracking system that has since made its way into popular culture, such as the best-selling book “The Da Vinci Code,” and into cellphones so parents can mind their kids. They founded Player Systems Corp. in 1994, a maker of GPS devices for golf carts. They directed their early efforts at resorts, where golfers routinely pay hefty fees for a round and thus could easily soak up the cost of the new equipment in the cart.

That was back when GPS signals were scrambled by the military, to keep enemies from tapping into the system, limiting the technology’s precision to about 300 feet from any given spot. In those early days, Player Systems used complex calculations to get closer to the mark. John Deere bought the company in 1998. On May 1, 2000, six years ahead of schedule, the Clinton administration decided to stop blocking the signals, under pressure from the high-tech world to unleash the peacetime potential of GPS.

Today, golf courses around the country are adopting GPS devices in golf carts, and some systems can detect location within centimeters. At Wachusett Country Club in West Boylston, 45 minutes west of Boston, the family that owns the club first looked at satellite systems in 2001, but shied away from options that would have cost as much as $500,000, said Nick Marrone, director of golf and an owner of the club.

In November, Wachusett installed Goodwin Golf units in all 73 of its carts, with colour screens mounted in the front (where a rearview mirror would be in a car) that show the distance from the ball to the hole as the players move along the course. The system costs $3,000 a month, and the course doesn’t have to pay for it during the winter months. Marrone said the club raised its cart fees $2 a person, to $17, to cover the cost.

The devices appeal most to the gadget freaks, he said, “the guy who likes the gimmicks of golf. The guy who wants the new driver that just came out.” There are also dozens of hand-held devices for hiking, camping, running, cycling, and boating. Costs range from $130 to $1,300. At the low end you get a basic navigating tool. Go upscale and units track your travel route. Sophistiated ones can store loads of maps, points of interest, and even talk to you.

Jamie Auciello, a manager at the Marathon Sports store in Cambridge, recently started using a Timex GPS for his morning run. He straps a cellphone-size device around his arm, which transmits data, including maps, to the sports watch on his wrist. It came in handy when he found a five-mile route in the Needham area that he liked, but couldn’t quite figure out how to close the loop most efficiently to get home.

“The streets in my area are maze-like,” Auciello said. Using his Timex, he pinpointed his starting place and let the GPS draw a map of his path. It clocked his distance, time, and speed. When the run was nearly done, the device pointed him home, giving him the quickest option among the maze of streets.

The GPS can be used to gather data that enable athletes to track their performance and improvement. That requires spending time at the computer after each workout, downloading the map, speed, and distance information after an outing. While these high-tech gizmos are infiltrating the competitive sports world as another way to knock seconds off racers’ times, amateurs view them with varying degrees of fascination and cynicism.