One of the fun parts of being a lawyer is watching law, cutting-edge technology and capital markets intersect in ways that produce big changes in how we live, work and play. The most fascinating such intersection I’ve seen in my career is happening here in San Diego.
Lamont O’Shaughnessy is a 54-year-old mechanical engineer and golf nut from Needle. His notable features are piercing blue eyes, curly, chestnut-brown hair that spills out from a Nike golf cap, and a deep tan.
The abstract of one of his recently filed applications for design patents describes his invention this way: “a regulation golf ball with inboard auditory chip and microgyrostabilizer. The ball will be useful for enabling course correction of the ball in flight during live play via audible oral command issued by a human golfer.”
I read the words for the first time last week. I did a double take and read them again. Then I thought of myself standing in the tee box on 16 at Torrey Pines North, watching my errant drive hook left, out of bounds, toward the ocean — before arcing back at my command, landing on the grass and rolling to a stop 270 yards away, in the middle of the fairway.
O’Shaughnessy, founder and CEO of Rad Products, Inc., operates his startup golf ball manufacturing company from a modest, 2,800-square-foot Quonset hut in Carlsbad. O’Shaughnessy took his engineering degree from St. Tibulus College in Alturas before doing a stint making golf clubs for Karsten Manufacturing in Phoenix during the late ‘80s.
There he met the late Karsten Solheim, the famed designer of Ping brand golf clubs. The idea of “revolutionizing the game of golf” began percolating for O’Shaughnessy at that moment. Years passed before O’Shaughnessy read an article about crowdfunding and realized it might hold the key to his longtime dream: inventing a golf ball that would listen.
Crowdfunding isn’t a weird Internet fad anymore. Instead, according to Liz Logan of Smithsonian magazine, crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter have become a “critical resource for innovation.”
Locally, there seems no better example than Rad Products, whose investors include “average consumers, not just technophiles and designers,” O’Shaughnessy said. Crowdfunding audience has supported movies that premiered at Sundance, artistic works, and high-tech hardware. But a golf ball that listens?
O’Shaughnessy’s invention, the GyroBall, is still just a prototype. But here are the phrases already recognized by its auditory microchip while in flight: “Sit down!” “Get up!” “Come back!” “Stop!” “Roll!” “Break!” “No, the other way!”
The chip, O’Shaughnessy said, is also programmed to filter out the golfer’s warning, “Fore,” as well as shouted profanities sometimes used on golf courses. O’Shaughnessy is quick to add that the GyroBall, once used on courses the world over, will make the warning “Fore” obsolete.
As with any prototype, there are still problems to be solved. O’Shaughnessy listed a few. The chip sometimes is unable to distinguish between the commands of its owner and the shouts of other golfers on an adjacent fairway, sometimes resulting in unwanted course corrections during flight. Also, there is no answer yet for the problem of two (or more) golfers in competition yelling contradictory commands at the same GyroBall.
I asked O’Shaughnessy about the ball’s ability to process shouted commands uniformly as distance increased. Wouldn’t the damping of the sound level interfere with the GyroBall’s ability to course-correct the farther it flies from the player?
O’Shaughnessy reeled off some statistics about decibels and the Doppler effect. At 200 yards, assuming a breeze of less than 10 knots, his prototype still requires the player to generate 120 decibels of sound for the GyroBall to register the shouted command.
I asked O’Shaughnessy what 120 decibels sounds like. Politely, he warned me. Then he bellowed (to an imaginary shot): “Sit down!” In the small cubicle, it was like the sudden blast of a foghorn from 4 feet away. I lost my hearing for a moment. “Our design team is still working on it,” he said.
A golfer, but also a lawyer, I felt my mind drift to some legal questions. What about a malicious golfer who purposely directs a ball to strike a competitor, resulting in injury or emotional distress? Unfair competition lawsuits from golf ball manufacturers whose market share falls off a cliff after the GyroBall debuts?
“Our legal team has been working on those issues for the last few months,” O’Shaughnessy replied. He added that Rad had struck an innovative retainer agreement with the law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge of San Diego. It promises the firm’s golf-playing attorneys two dozen GyroBalls each at the time of roll-out, in exchange for deeply discounted hourly rates.
I walked out into the cool June evening through the gravel parking lot. Lamont O’Shaughnessy, would-be golf revolutionary, bade me goodbye. Before we parted, he spoke wistfully of his role model, the late Karsten Solheim.
“In the end, I just want the same thing that Karsten wanted,” O’Shaughnessy said. “Hit it straighter, farther and less often.” As O’Shaughnessy and his design team continue to push the envelope, hackers and lawyers (this one included) will be watching.
Lawton is the principal of Lawton Law Firm in San Diego.