The following article appeared in the Stowe Reporter in September 2003.

Man vs machine battle comes to tennis
By Pete Hartt

It's not exactly the tennis version of Gary Kasparov vs Deep Blue, but Dave Jordan is trying to take just such a man-against-machine battle to the courts.

Former French Open winner (Doubles 1993) and TV commentator Luke Jensen will be the first to tackle Jordan's tennis machine "Boomer" in a match situation Sept. 26 when he takes the court against the machine. That battle, regardless of the winner, will signal the start of Jordan's business venture and the end of a five-year effort to build a better tennis practice machine.

A single camera mounted high on the Topnotch Tennis Center wall is the critical component. It feeds information into the computer which calls the shots in or out, decides what shots win points, keeps score, directs the opponent what to do next, and determines how to place Boomer's own shots. Innovative software inside the computer allows for ball tracking.

Waiting for a foe, Boomer sits at the baseline, directly in the center of the court. During development the machine has a computer on a card table behind it. Once final adjustments are completed the unit will be self contained except for the wall-mounted video camera, and a speaker at the opposite end of the court.

Jordan's machine very nearly recreates the experience of a complete tennis game: Boomer serves, returns shots, moves the opposing player around the court, and even does a modest amount of trash talking. Creator Jordan's voice does Boomer's talking, offering both direction, "Serve to the deuce court," and a little atmosphere, "I can't believe you beat me!"

"It began mostly with a love of tennis," Jordan said. "I started playing seriously at the age of 16, and played all the time."

When Jordan first moved to the area (he lives in Jeffersonville) from Connecticut, where he owned his own business called Robot Optimizers, he was a fixture at area tennis courts. Most often he would play other similarly skilled players, but many times he was alone, serving and retrieving buckets of balls.

It was the time spent alone on the court that prompted Jordan's five-year quest.

" Ball machines only move left and right," Jordan said. "They've improved, but they are still limited. When you reach a higher level of play, you have to work on your footwork. I also wanted feedback. The most difficult issue was judging the other players shots, whether they would be winners, and how Boomer would react."

The machine, which is built around a tennis ball machine called the Sports Tutor Shotmaker, can toss shots back at foes at a variety of angles, a variety of speeds and with various spins. Jordan, a 5.0 rated player, has set the machine up to play at various levels, from 3.0 to professional (where Mr. Jensen will do battle).

Boomers game is realistic except for one significant special rule. All the machine's serves and shots are considered "good" and need to be played, even when they land outside the lines. That forces the human player to keep hitting until he or she hits a "winner." And the higher the level you set the machine, the better the shot that must be hit to score.

"I picked what I thought was my level to set the speed of shots," Jordan said. "It doesn't really matter what level they are playing at, everybody's reaction is the same, they all want to beat the machine."

Jordan's Robot Optimizers company grew out of his work for the first robotics manufacturer in the United States. His after-market add-on control enhanced the operation of manufacturing robots. A major sale to General Motors helped finance the beginnings of Boomer, but Jordan is counting on sales of his new and improved training partner taking off despite a cost expected to be around $14,000.

"I think initially I'm hoping to lease machines to tennis clubs," said Jordan, who was educated as an electrical engineer. "The price tag may be a little steep for a person to buy one for himself. "

A friend from his Connecticut days wrote most of the software for the machine, and Jordan has been tinkering ever since, working on an unused court at the Topnotch Indoor Tennis Center. The voice that Boomer uses to talk to its foes is Jordan's, and there are always little niggling bugs to be worked out.

The camera is not sensitive enough to adjust to varying light levels, which is delaying the development of an outdoor version since outdoor light levels change constantly. More recently, acquiring the proper lens for a new camera has been difficult. Little problems like that, and determining exactly how he wants the machine to play, and then making it play that way, have kept Jordan busy and will make him even busier as he tries to make it perfect in time for Jensen.

"That's the big kick off," Jordan said. "I'm trying to make it perfect by then."

Losing to Boomer
By Pete Hartt

Yes, it's been two months since I last picked up a tennis racket. And no, I wasn't really all that good to begin with, but I'm ready to take on... that!

Boomer sits squatly on the baseline of Court One at the Topnotch Tennis Center as its creator Dave Jordan stands in the service alley wagging his arms, apparently to control the tennis playing machine he built, or at least to get its camera-to-computer attention.

Clad in my not-quite regulation shorts and shirt, with racket in hand, I await my cue to stride out and show Jordan the folly of his efforts. It's a machine for goodness sakes, and it can't move as well as I can (only because it doesn't move at all). Most important, it's never seen a tennis game like my tennis game.

I get the okay to proceed and stride out to the service line. The machine is set at the lowest level of play, and Jordan's voice (also the voice of Boomer) speaks from a speaker behind me.

"First serve, to the deuce court."

The ball comes whipping over the net, low and to my forehand. I step forward and hammer a return. It floats gently across the net and lands toward the left alley near the service line. Back Boomer's return comes, to my backhand, for a winner.

"15-love, serve to the add court," Boomer's voice intones.

I prepare for the next serve, and Boomer applies it to my backhand again, apparently thinking he has found a winning strategy. It has.

Back in the deuce court, trailing 30-love I set up to receive serve again. It comes to my backhand again and I manage a firm return, which Boomer again returns to my backhand.

I charge across the baseline and loft a high shot that sails over Boomer's head (well, he doesn't really have a head per say, but it sails over where his head would be if he had one), and hits the computer monitor sitting four feet off the court.

The point is over and Boomer announces that I have hit a winner. Dave Jordan pipes up from the sideline that the camera gets confused when you hit Boomer and judges the point incorrectly.

But hey, there's no arguing with a machine, I'll take the point. I tuck the priceless piece of information away for future reference.

Three points later I've mastered just enough of the 3.0 level to beat Boomer.

"I can't believe you beat me," Boomer says. It's head would be hanging, if it had one.

Now I'm ready to move the level up. "Regional?" "Satellite?" "Professional?"

Right to the top baby, give me the Andy Roddick.

Four points and a quart of sweat later Boomer's nonexistent head is again held high and Dave Jordan turns the machine down to regional.

Boomer never forgets to attack my back hand, punishes me for every weak return, and runs me around the court until I am moving at exactly the same speed it is. As the severe emotional beating goes on, the shots from the human end of the court actually start to improve. But, while the machine doesn't get any better, it's still much better than I am.

After a few brief lopsided victories, Jordan takes pity and lowers the level to regional. The beating continues, but at a pace where I can both see the ball, and see a light at the end of the tunnel.

After dropping three more games, I get the serve, and get lucky. After two aces and one shot on the baseline, I stand ready to use the knowledge gleaned early in the afternoon. I crank up my serve and aim at Boomer. Success! My shot hits the back of the monitor, confuses the camera, and I walk smugly off the court with a single-game, regional-level win.

It would be nice if Boomer could actually break down and cry at his defeat (as I was tempted to do at mine), but instead he doesn't even offer an "I can't believe you beat me." (That, apparently, is a random feature.)

Oh well, Dave Jordan never said it was perfect, just better.



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