In 2016, Robyn Moore was diagnosed with a severe case of post traumatic stress disorder. The 43-year-old went to a dark place, taking time off work to tackle her mental health.
Along with therapy she decided to take up a sport. She hadn't picked up a tennis racket since she was a kid, but doing so now, says Moore, helped save her life.
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Moore decided that she wanted to create a tennis-related challenge to give back to people who were also suffering with mental ill-health. That came in the form of Breakpoint 2019, a challenge to hit a ball 30 consecutive days across 46 venues – 8-10 hours a day – which totalled 200,000 tennis shots being hit over a distance of 5 million metres.
That number wasn't arbitrary. Moore wanted the distance covered to represent every adult in the UK that is suffering with mental health issues. But she needed something to track that relentless ball hitting, and after extensively researching tennis trackers, she decided to use the Apple Watch app Swing.
The tennis app is able to analyse your tennis swing and, more importantly for Moore, accurately keep score. Moore contacted Swing's co-founder and CEO Swupnil Sahai to tell him about her challenge. Sahai, who still personally replies to all of the feedback and questions sent to the team, was struck by the unique use of the app. Throughout those long days on the court they've kept in daily contact to ensure shot counts tallied correctly with the app.
Her challenge also prompted Sahai and his small team to add new features like the ability to overlay real-time shot counts on video feeds that Moore could share to show her progress. It's been a close relationship that has played a part in helping Moore raise over £30,000 for charity.
With Wimbledon kicking off and Apple's WWDC conference still in recent memory, it's a good time to talk to Sahai. It was WWDC 2019 where Apple unveiled the next big iteration of its watchOS smartwatch platform. Highlights of watchOS 6 include the introduction of an on-device app store and more features that will help Apple's smartwatch become less dependent on the iPhone.
While we've been sceptical of the importance of an Apple App Store that lives on the wrist, Sahai feels it will be a big deal for some developers and Watch owners. "If you don’t want to download this gigantic app, you can now just have this kind of lite version," he said. "A lot of people using our app and others don’t necessarily want all of this detailed information, they just want to track a workout and that's it. It’s definitely going to change things on the app front."
But that's not the only new feature the Swing app developer is looking forward to "One thing we are excited about is the general machine learning capabilities that will be introduced and improved on", he said.
Gestures on the whole are going to be a big part of the Apple Watches future
"Vision-based body tracking technology, for instance, that is something we can use instead of developing our own solution in-house. We might be doing some kind of gesture recognition where you raise your hand to signal for the point in a game," he said. "The other thing is ARKit – we definitely want to incorporate augmented reality at some point. So users would be able to see shots overlaid on the court or see how far you’ve run on the court, letting you see a path on the ground. AR is very interesting, it’s really going to augment coaching."
Apple's AR ambitions have been highly documented over the last few years, having so far been pushed through its phone and tablet hardware. But it's still believed that Apple AR smartglasses are in the pipeline. Sahai though thinks that the Apple Watch shouldn't be discounted as playing a vital role in Apple's augmented reality future.
"I think the closest analogy is VR headsets," said Sahai. "If you look at those devices, you also have a controller in your hand. Having something on your wrist controlling the movement, that paired with AR makes for an interesting concept. You could have some great control uses there. AR is an interesting thing that Apple is working on."
While Sahai and his team have spent a lot of time with Apple's smartwatch, there are features they are still excited to get acquainted with. "I think the biggest thing we haven’t used yet is this ability to record data at 800 samples a second", he said. "Our current app runs at 100 samples a second because that’s all you need for basic detection. But with 800 samples a second you could do things like gesture recognition instead of swiping to change the score. You could use a gesture like waving your hand to do that. Gestures on the whole are going to be a big part of the Apple Watch's future."
Swing's own future lies with the racket, and it hopes to expand to sports like table tennis and any other racket sports where it can be of value. There is talk of using the software it's created to offer tracking beyond sports, such as being used on an assembly line to keep an eye on workers and ensure they're not getting injured. It's not restricting itself to sports, but with the small team it's trying to make sure it can make its tennis app the best it can be, with big features planned for later in 2019.
Being part of experiences like Robyn Moore's challenge has changed the approach Sahai and his team take to building apps. "Off the back of it, we are having people reach out to us, like people from the wheelchair tennis community for example. We want to make tennis coaching accessible, this is why we are doing it. This has inspired us to do that."