BETHEL, Maine — Les Otten wants to build a worldwide, virtual golfing community.
The Bethel entrepreneur and former gubernatorial candidate has launched a new online network meant to link each of the 11,000 golf simulators he has sold through his company, P3.
“We took something that had an original application, which was basically to help you develop a golf swing, and we turned it into something completely different,” Otten said Thursday. “The difference is that we created a worldwide venue to play golf in real time against an opponent you can find online.”
The 62-year-old businessman demonstrated the project in a corner of his Bethel warehouse. He swung a real golf club and struck a real golf ball off a real tee. The ball struck a white screen, upon which a digital ball appeared on a computer-generated fairway. All of it has been part of the system, originally called “P3ProSwing,” since it began about 11 years ago.
Beneath the tee, a $599 bundle of 65 optical sensors analyzed the head of the golf club as it swept past. The piece of technology, roughly the size and shape of a college textbook and connected to a PC, is the heart of Otten’s system. Then, Otten’s opponent took a turn. In the corner of the screen, live streaming video of another golfer appeared. Otten watched as the man swung his club and the ball appeared on the same screen. The feed came from another room of the warehouse but could have originated 3,000 miles away.
“Before three months ago, this was very agnostic,” said Barclay Layman, a computer application developer from Auburn. “You were playing by yourself. You didn’t have the feel of a match.”
The new online creation, titled “World Dunes,” changed all of that, said Layman, Otten’s opponent.
Layman took another shot, and the ball drove straight and far. Layman cheered playfully.
“Now, you can trash talk,” he joked, “just like in real golf.”
Layman, Otten and the P3 staff spent about 18 months developing the software to create the golf link. Slowly, they’ve been spreading the word about the link. About 100 people have signed on to the system, which requires an $8-per-month membership, Otten said. Already, tournaments are being held every weekend.
But more and more people are opting for one-on-one games. Tim Remington, a marketing and sales worker for P3, said his first online game was several weeks ago with a player in Germany.
“We actually got kind of close,” Remington said. “I know his wife, now. It’s amazing.”
About 10,000 of the systems were sold to individuals who installed them in their basements or TV rooms. In most cases, they have the basic component connected to a PC and video monitor. About 1,000 more were sold to golf clubs, where some of the more elaborate set-ups costing as much as $11,000 have been installed. Otten hopes the social piece will grow, potentially launching P3 into more sales. The company could surge production to handle 10,000 new systems this year if the orders come, he said.
One stumbling block could be competition from gamers. Some, such as the Wii, offer golf games. But they don’t approximate a real game.
“We’re introducing a product to the market that the market is not familiar with,” Otten said. “They know that they can play golf with a mouse or a stick with an Xbox or whatever. But that’s not real golf.
“Many people also know that high-tech simulators exist to examine a golf swing. But if you ask 1,000 golfers if there was a way to combine them, they’d probably say, ‘No way,’” Otten said. “Literally, the only way we’re learning that people actually enjoy this is with this community that we’re starting to build.”