Is tennis ball in, or out? Palo Alto inventor has solution


STANFORD — When tennis fans approached his In/Out booth at the Bank of the West Classic, one thought crossed their mind.

“Sometimes people are asking me that they want a burger, obviously,” Grégoire Gentil joked.

A self-professed inventor and innovator at heart, his latest brainchild does not come with a side of fries.

Instead, In/Out is a portable line-call device that aims to put an end to the most basic argument in tennis.

Was the ball in, or out?

“We manage to find the line on the court,” Gentil said. “And when the ball is bouncing, if the ball is in, you have a beep and a green light. If the ball is out, you have a red light and multiple beeps. So you know in real-time if the ball is in, or out.”

At the U.S. Open or Wimbledon — even the Bank of the West Classic — fans clap after close calls are challenged using the Hawk-Eye system. But that method is cost-prohibitive, except for the pros.

A cheaper option, PlaySight, costs roughly $10,000 for each court, plus a monthly fee. Again, not really economical.

“So people who are a Sunday player like me — I play just every weekend — I want to have a similar system, but something that I could afford,” Gentil said.

That’s why two years ago, the 44-year-old Palo Alto resident put his mind to work.

“I am an inventor, so I like to innovate and see what could be the next product for consumers,” he said.

“I was born in France, I was born on the red clay,” added Gentil, whose booth at the Bank of the West was a miniature model of the courts at Roland Garros for the French Open. “On clay you have the marks, so it’s very good for this kind of problem. But definitely on the hard court, you want to have this kind of device.”

Gentil came to Silicon Valley in 1997, when he enrolled at Stanford to earn a master of science in engineering management.

“I came here and I never left, basically,” he said. “And I managed to make a little bit of money by selling my previous startup to Cisco, so I’m self-funding this just by myself.”

It’s been a methodical task, with daily trips to Taube Family Tennis Stadium on the Stanford campus in order to fix any glitches, such as line recognition during sunset.

“To make it work in any environment, in any situation, this is probably the biggest challenge,” Gentil said. “It’s more a software challenge, but it’s definitely a challenge.”

And while it’s not perfect — there is a margin of error in terms of millimeters — Gentil came up with a slogan: “99% accurate, 100% trustworthy.”

“Even if accuracy is only 99 percent, because at $199 we cannot have the same accuracy as a very expensive system, you are sure that this is trustworthy,” Gentil said. “Meaning that you can really trust the system, because it is not going to take advantage like your opponent could take advantage of you.”

The device costs $199.

It’s attached to a net post, with separate cameras aimed at opposite sides of the court.

“The technology is very similar to the Tesla car,” Gentil said. “So when the Tesla is finding the middle line on the road, this is exactly like to find the line on the tennis court. When I want to find the players that are moving on the court, it’s like recognizing a pedestrian that is crossing in front of the Tesla car.

“It’s the same type of algorithm that applies for tennis.”

Using a GoPro camera as an example, the In/Out device is capable of video recording, while also tabulating statistics that can be downloaded from an SD card onto a tablet.

The removable battery lasts up to two hours, with a USB port that can be used to extend battery life.

Gentil is currently organizing production in China, with plans to ship the first units in September. The device comes in a hard shell shaped like an oversized tennis ball, while the cameras look like eyes, with a smiley face on the exterior to add some personality.

“I get orders from all over the world,” Gentil said. “Spain, France, USA, obviously — all around the world. People are very, very, very enthusiastic and impatient to get this device, because this is really the first one that you have something so inexpensive going to the market.”

He’s been approached by a few retailers for distribution, but so far the In/Out device is only available for purchase on his website.

“It’s a problem with a startup, when do you think that you’re ready to ship?” Gentil said. “And the problem is that if you wait too long, you can wait forever and it never goes to the market. Or if you go too fast, it could be a problem because your product is not mature enough. And, so, it’s a very difficult situation. And my experience helped me to decide when it was a good time.

“I wanted to do this last year, but it was too early. I think now the product is mature enough. The hardware is definitely final, so I’m more confident this year.”

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