App for smartwatches helps users become better basketball players

When Marissa Wu was younger, she wasn’t into sports. Sometimes, she would even pretend to forget her gym clothes at home so she didn’t have to participate in class. Now, she’s spearheading an app for Apple and Android watches that can improve basketball skills for beginners.

“I thought there had to be a better way, and I know from my friends who are sporty that sometimes having the right information at the right time is important,” Wu said. “They say if you’re an athlete that a coach can change your life, so I decided to build that for myself and hopefully for other people.”

The app – Swish – takes advantage of motion sensors to provide accurate tips and feedback to improve play. Using it is simple — you turn it on, press calibrate and lift your arms and hands as you would to shoot a basket. The objective is to bring the circle hovering inside the target on the watch’s screen to go green. When it does, the user is in the right starting position and has the ability to achieve consistency shot after shot.

Swish officially launches in November and is the main project of Onyx Motion, a DMZ-based startup company founded by Wu and several friends. In a year or two, Wu hopes to expand Swish into other sports, especially golf and tennis.

Until the launch, the company is constantly fine-tuning the app, planning to add features for dribbling tips and full coaching routines. Swish also plans to expand its Motion Marketplace — an interactive centre where you can purchase professional players’ data and coaching tips.

“Imagine dribbling on the court, and Kobe Bryant’s voice comes and says, ‘Hey, you’re doing a great job,’” Wu said. “You’ll immediately think, ‘Holy, Kobe Bryant just complimented me,’ and we really want to implement that.”

Its breakthrough came through a collaboration with National Basketball Association player Ben Gordon, whom Wu met on a business trip in Orlando, Fla., to learn from professional basketball coaches. Gordon eventually flew to Toronto on his own dime to film a campaign with Onyx Motion and later sponsored the company’s recent crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, which managed to surpass its goal of $10,000.

“It’s the product that gets people interested,” said Abdullah Snobar, executive director of the DMZ, Ryerson University’s tech startup incubator. “Most of the companies we have in the DMZ are companies that solve real-world problems, and Onyx Motion has created quite a niche for itself because of the product’s accessibility with the user.”

Wu, a biomedical engineering graduate of University of Toronto, formerly completed an apprenticeship at the Next 36, a program that provides Canada’s highest potential young entrepreneurs with mentorship, capital and development opportunities.

“I think a lot of people say, ‘I’m going to work at Google first, and after a couple of years I’ll set myself up in the right environment,’ and my advice is that you don’t really need that,” Wu said.

“You know a lot more than you think you do, and a lot of this stuff has to be learnt on the fly anyways, so if you’re willing to reach out to people, you will get it.”

In the 2015 edition of the Startup Genome Project from Compass, Toronto is ranked the 17th leading startup city in the world, right behind Sydney and Bangalore. What Onyx Motion looks forward to, like many similar startups, is the future of smart watches and the apps that can turn the devices from merely cool objects into necessities.

“You have to be able to look at your company and say, ‘This isn’t going anywhere and none of the stats point to anything good, but I’m still going to do it,’ and that takes a lot of courage,” said Wu. “It really helps if you know what your other options are but still be passionate about your company to not want to do them.”