Tracing the Future

New motion-tracking device mines the deepest, darkest secrets of your surfing data

Warning: Comparing your surf stats to Jordy Smith's is not recommended.
Warning: Comparing your surf stats to Jordy Smith’s is not recommended.

Big data is all around us. It's lurking over your shoulder even now (don't look). Everything we've ever pointed our cursors at while perusing the Internet is recorded in a quietly humming database somewhere in Silicon Valley. Our phones drop little digital breadcrumbs everywhere we go, leaving a trackable and monetizable GPS trail. And now, for better or worse, depending on your personal threshold of technophilia, every detail about our surfing performance can be recorded, analyzed, archived, and—the holy grail of the Information Age—shared.

TRACE, about the size and shape of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, is crammed full of inertial sensors, GPS antennae, gyroscopes, and accelerometers, among other pieces of whiz-bang digital gadgetry. When mounted on a surfboard (though smaller models that can be sunk into a surfboard's deck are soon to be released), TRACE records a surfer's wave count, their down-the-line speed, and the distance covered riding and paddling. While other products on surf-shop shelves can record similar things, TRACE goes a few important steps further: It also counts the number of turns completed, calculates the angle of direction change of each turn, and measures any airs that the light of foot among us can pull off. But TRACE can't be fooled. Tossing your board into the sky immediately after your ride in an attempt to recreate some kind of Noa Deane–esque punt to the heavens will not budge that humiliating "0" in the aerial tally.

Trust me, I tried.

This data, once synced with the TRACE app on a smartphone, appears in an ordered table along with squiggly little lines representing each ride superimposed over a Google Earth image of the lineup. These lines are color-coded to display speed bursts and location of maneuvers. All this info gets updated into the user's "profile," which can be shared and compared with other TRACE users, including pros. Want to surf Lowers, then see how your stats stack up against Conner Coffin? Go foolishly ahead.

Lucky for me, there are few TRACE users yet in Northern California, so my stats from recent surfs were gloriously free of any envy-inducing comparisons. After a quick lunchtime session in very middling springtime conditions near San Francisco, the TRACE app told me that I'd caught nine waves, done six turns, ridden for 500 yards, paddled for a mile and a half, and burned 350 calories. Forget about the turns—350 calories! That's, what, two beers? Damn. I could have easily paddled around for an hour more and earned another pint or two.

The applications for pro surfing seem pretty obvious. Spend a few days surfing the same break and TRACE can create a heat map that shows where the fastest parts of rides have taken place. Knowing where to sit in tricky lineups like Margaret River would be a game changer for the singlet set. Judges could use the data to more objectively figure out who's burying the most rail, launching the highest airs, and wrapping the sharpest turns. In fact, the Huntington Beach High School surf team just held a contest judged solely with TRACE data. Jordy Smith was so impressed with everything TRACE can do, he's not only a dedicated user, but he recently bought a stake in the company.

Possibly the coolest thing TRACE can do for us regular schlubs is turn big chunks of raw GoPro footage into perfectly edited video-game snippets. Dump all your clips from a TRACE session into the app and it'll isolate the ridden waves, cutting out the time spent paddling or sitting between sets. Then it lays data graphics over the top of a perfectly color-corrected video. All it's missing are the video-game sound effects.

So this is my unsolicited advice to TRACE: Make your product sound like a Super Mario Bros. game. Have the little Reese's Cup play those charming digital chirps so that every time you hit the lip—BLEEP!—or land a floater—BLOOP!—you get an audible zing as a reward. If we're going to bring our surfing into the Digital Age, we may as well go all the way.