Slovenia probably isn’t the first country you’d expect new baseball technology to come from. But they do have a baseball league and a national team (trounced by such powerhouses at Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Slovakia at this summer’s European championship qualifiers). And it’s this Balkan country that’s produced the Scoutee, a handheld radar that its creators hope will help those just learning the game measure themselves.
According to Scoutee, the first prototype of the device was created last summer. Design was completed over the past year, and the device is now available for pre-order through a Kickstarter campaign. Of the four co-founders, only chief executive officer Miha Uhan came into the project with experience playing baseball. I asked if his fellow Scoutee developers even knew about baseball when they started the project.
“They sort of knew,” he said. “The hardest thing for our team was actually the technical point, not the baseball point.”
Naturally, the product is small, weighing around half a pound. The Scoutee can attach to a tripod or be clipped to a fence, but also ships with a magnetic sticker so users can attach the device directly to their smartphone. Inside is a Doppler radar transceiver, hardware to perform amplification and other signal processing, and a low-energy Bluetooth transmitter to send the readings to the user’s phone or tablet. Scoutee also claims a battery life of up to six hours, and a range of up to 130 feet. For most amateur games (which seems to be Scoutee’s target demographic), that should be just enough for someone positioned just behind the backstop, which is supposed to be 60 feet from home plate (or about 120 feet from the pitching rubber).
The most common question Scoutee fields is related to the device’s accuracy. Scoutee claims to be accurate to within one mile per hour, based on side-by-side tests with traditional radar guns. Tests have been performed with both human pitchers and (because the pitchers available during testing never broke 90 mph), with a high-velocity pitching machine to test the device’s accuracy at speeds over 100 mph. Additional ballistic tests are planned by Scoutee’s technical team to establish the device’s accuracy for objects moving at a known speed.
Though designed with baseball applications in mind, the Scoutee is at heart a radar gun, and thus has a number of other potential applications. Scoutee’s Kickstarter comments page is filled with suggestions for other uses, all of which Uhan claims are possible with the existing hardware but may require additional algorithm and app development.
“We got requests from national ski associations, they want to measure how fast their skiiers go,” Uhan said. “We even got requests or emails from people who want to measure the speed of cars in their neighborhood.”
Uhan, along with Scoutee’s chief marketing officer Majda Dodevska, have been touring the United States since early September to spread the word about the product. Scoutee has made appearances at TechCrunch Disrupt’s Hardware Alley, and will be present at this week’s Hashtag Sports Fest. Scoutee is also making contacts with companies interesting in importing Scoutee measurements into their existing apps (though Dodevska wouldn’t mention any specific organizations at this time).
“We’re definitely open to any type of cooperation,” Dodevska said. “If anyone wants to talk to us about anything, we’re here.”
Any down time the team has is spent meeting with coaches, scouts, players, and parents, demonstrating their product and collecting feedback. Uhan said prospective users are always surprised when first introduced to the technology.
“It seemed really strange that if it is technically possible then nobody has done it before, and that’s what we heard over the last 12 months,” Uhan said. “Everybody we talked to and we showed our prototype was like, ‘Okay, you must be kidding me right? This thing exists already,’ and we’re like, ‘No! No!'”
Uhan’s moment of inspiration was a long time coming. His first introduction to baseball came on a 1997 trip to the United States, when he went with his family to a game at Jacobs Field. That was the Indians team that lost in Game 7 to the Florida Marlins, facing a Mariners team that included Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, and Ken Griffey, Jr. Uhan pestered his American relatives with questions, and brought a love of the game back home with him.
“It was so, so nice to be there in the stadium and to watch the game and to experience that all,” he said.
Once back in Slovenia, Uhan began playing with a local team. Soon after, he was invited to join the national team (“You get noticed because there is not a lot of competition,” Uhan admitted) and became a pitcher. Within a year — and before he even understood all the rules of baseball — Uhan was traveling with the junior national team to a tournament in Switzerland.
By the time he was in high school, Uhan was sitting mid-80s, playing for the senior-level national team, and traveling with his coach to the MLB elite camps. One of his teammates played for a bit in the Mexican League, but Uhan wanted to play college ball in the U.S. He borrowed a directory of colleges from the American embassy and emailed every athletic department in the book. Of the thousands of emails he sent, only a handful got back to him. But the responses discouraged him further.
“Everybody said, ‘Yeah, sure, just send us some stats, send us some videos,'” Uhan said.
With no statistics available from his national team days, and no video or scouting reports available to him, Uhan couldn’t make an impression on his would-be college coaches. He ended up attending the University of Ljubjana in the Slovenian capital, and his baseball career ended. As a lecturer in the school’s faculty of economics, Uhan was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and found inspiration in his former passion. He soon after partnered with fellow faculty members who specialized in electrical engineering (especially radar systems), and they began developing what would become Scoutee.
“Because we don’t have a technical background, we contacted some people who we knew in Slovenia that had the hardware knowledge,” Uhan said. “It was a challenge, but if it wasn’t a challenge then probably somebody would have done it before.”
Uhan recalled that, in his playing days, the radar gun was a rare sight. The only one available to the national team was old and on its last legs, so Uhan and his fellow pitchers didn’t have many opportunities to measure their progress. Scoutee’s goal is to make these sorts of metrics accessible to anyone with a smartphone, with the hope of growing baseball in fledgling markets like Slovenia.
“We’re actually crowdsourcing the scouting process, that’s the idea,” Uhan said.