VR tennis startup sets sights on Tampa
As an incoming ball travels over the net on a clay court, the opposing tennis player must prepare to return the serve, delivering a powerful swing while facing changing environmental conditions – all of which are factors virtual reality training company Sense Area measures.
Sense Arena, a startup from Prague in the Czech Republic known for its ice hockey and tennis VR training platform, can simulate different scenarios on grass, clay or hardcourts, tracking a player’s grip and speed of the ball.
Sense Arena established its original U.S. headquarters in Boston a few years ago and is in the process of opening a new HQ in Tampa to advance its tennis training capabilities.
“We knew we wanted Florida, and Tampa’s logistics make it easy to fly in and out of Europe. Also, the city is booming with co-working spaces and talent,” Sense Arena CEO and founder Bob Tetiva said, also mentioning that Tampa is home to the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).
When Sense Arena founded its Boston HQ, it was solely operating as a hockey training platform, targeting a core consumer base in the Northeast. The startup is working with five NHL (National Hockey League) teams, 11 Division I hockey programs and global youth organizations.
After perfecting the hockey programming in 2018 and testing the platform for other sports, the company discovered tennis – another popular sport in the Czech Republic and the U.S. – would be the best next sport to integrate into the platform.
Tetiva’s team is targeting a March opening for the tennis division at the incubator and co-working Embarc Collective hub in Tampa.
Last year, Sense Arena secured a $3 million round of funding, allowing them to develop the tennis division this past fall.
The tennis division is backed by international tennis hall of famer Martina Navratilova and used by dozens of professional players, including Jennifer Brady and Jack Sock.
Tetiva said the company has been on a six-year journey experimenting on multiple hardware platforms. In 2019, the company was utilizing the HTC Vive headset, a virtual reality brand of HTC Corporation; however, with the rise of the Covid pandemic, companies such as Facebook were releasing competing VR tech with flexible pricing.
Sense Arena’s VR technology currently operates via the Meta Quest 2, a headset developed by Facebook (now known as Meta Platforms).
Today, Sense Arena has over 50 employees.
In ramping up the tennis division, Sense Arena hired Vice President of Tennis Yannick Yoshizawa, who served as tour supervisor for the WTA.
Through Yoshizawa’s relationships, Sense Arena secured its first NCAA tennis partnership with the University of South Florida Division 1 men’s and women’s teams.
Yoshizawa previously played on the college tennis team from 2012 through 2018.
“The coaches are now looking for something else [to enhance training]. This tech piqued their interest, and it was very easy to introduce,” Yoshizawa said.
The talks with USF started in 2022 before inking a one-year agreement effective this year.
“We couldn’t be more excited to start our partnership with Sense Arena, and I can really see this being a fantastic way for our players to work on visualization,” USF Women’s Tennis Head Coach Cristina Moros said in a statement. “It’s the perfect tool to use on recovery days when we want to exercise the mind and train our brains, really focusing on the mental aspects of tennis.”
Sense Arena’s tennis product is currently focused on the returning player’s aspect versus the server, but the product may eventually evolve to allow players to serve the ball to the opponent.
Sense Arena has thousands of tennis users and is seeing 20 to 50 new licenses purchased per day, serving business-to-business customers such as universities and clubs.
Yoshizawa and Tetiva explained the product will not sell on retail shelves – it’s available online through Sense Arena’s e-shop, where users can download the software. The physical racket and tech are shipped from three different distribution sites.