When the sun comes up Thursday on Green Lake – Seattle’s most popular park – it will launch the hopes of a Tacoma businessman and his new high-tech product.
Beginning Thursday, runners and walkers and inline skaters and cyclists can track their laps, times and mileage around the 2.8-mile lake loop trail using Greg Stewart’s Orbiter.
The Orbiter uses radio frequency identification technology similar to the toll payment technology on the new Tacoma Narrows bridge, which reads RFID tags mounted on car windshields.
At Green Lake, users who buy a $65 annual membership from the concession stand get an RFID tag they can clip to their clothes. As they pass three scanners mounted around the lake, their movements get recorded. Users can walk up to a video monitor, which reads their tag and displays their lap and distance information. They also can log on to seattleorbiter.com to review their accounts.
An early adopter of the Orbiter, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, expects the system “to enhance my current exercise plan.”
Who knew he had an exercise plan beyond running for office?
To promote fitness, the City of Seattle and Stewart’s company, Allaura, will reward users with admission tickets to the Seattle Aquarium or merchandise and lattes from the Green Lake concessionaire.
“I’m pumped,” said Stewart, who has spent more than two years working on research and development from his two-man office at Tacoma’s William M. Factory Small Business Incubator. The nonprofit incubator helps fledgling entrepreneurs with low-cost office space, shared administrative support and meeting space and business coaching services.
The idea for the Orbiter evolved after Stewart’s friend, David Ludwig, a Merrill Lynch vice president, came up with an idea for a skiing-related fundraiser for the American Cancer Society in 2003. Ludwig called it The Vertical Challenge, which would track skiers’ total elevation gains over a season on the slopes.
Could Stewart come up with an electronic device to keep track? Early versions of what would become the Orbiter have helped the Cancer Society’s fundraiser, now called Hope on the Slopes, become a blockbuster success.
Last year, Stewart said, his team of contract programmers in Los Alamos, N.M., and Edinburgh, Scotland, went through eight software revisions and his hardware manufacturer in Toronto went through seven revisions to get the Orbiter ready for Seattle.
The Seattle-Orbiter marriage was a match made in Stewart’s mind.
“He found me,” said Charles Ng, who heads up the partnership and marketed branch of the Seattle parks department.
“We have a core mission to figure out how we can enrich the lives of our citizens and get them engaged in healthy lifestyles,” Ng said. “When Greg explained the concept to me, I was smitten from the beginning.”
Green Lake – which gets roughly 1 million visitors a year – seemed like the no-brainer location to install Orbiter.
“I tested it myself too,” Ng said. “It’s a marriage made in heaven that way. It’s something we really believe in. I feel we’ve got a partner who’s got a great reputation and backing to launch this and get the word out.”
And Stewart says once Orbiter earns the raves he expects on Green Lake, a world of active parks around the world opens up to his ultra-small company.
Meanwhile, his company also has developed a less expensive streamlined Orbiter model he has marketed to physical education teachers in middle and high schools for $2,950. With that portable short-range version, teachers can wheel the weather-protected base unit to the track, assign students an RFID tag for the semester and challenge them to improve their lap counts over time. Students could earn rewards for milestones.
“I’m at takeoff right now,” Steward said. “We’re feeling real good. The other thing that I’m personally pumped up about Orbiter is I’ve tried to make it a microinvestment. We have 13 investors … I think we’ll be able to give a good rate of return … if we mind our Ps and Qs, we’ll be fine.”
Dan Voelpel: 253-597-8785