The Wave Pool Race

24 Nov 2011 0 Share

Greg Webber's wavepool concept.

Greg Webber's wavepool concept.

Report by Tim Baker

The race to come up with the world’s first, working, circular wave pool has taken a new twist, with Kelly Slater’s Wave Company well on the way to being granted a US Patent for their contentious design.
Recent media speculation had suggested Slater’s wave pool design copied or infringed on the patent held by Greg Webber. It was widely reported that Slater’s patent application had been rejected three times for being too similar to Webber’s.


Yesterday, the Kelly Slater Wave Company released a statement announcing:
“The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has been examining KSWC’s initial application in a normal process against known prior art to determine proper claim scope and breadth. Rejections are frequently part of the normal patent application process with the USPTO. Even Mr. Webber’s initial application was rejected under similar premises. However, as of November 22, 2011, KSWC has received notice from the USPTO that the overwhelming majority of claims in its patent application have been allowed.”

KSWC vice president Noah Grimmett elaborates: “Out of 21 claims in our application; 18 were allowed, two were objected to on informalities and one claim was rejected.”

While this appears to clear the way for Slater’s technology to go to market, there is a fascinating back story to all this.
What hasn’t been widely reported is that a Florida man, Kevin Roberts, also holds a patent for a circular wave pool and had worked closely with Slater and Quiksilver on the concept back in 2006.

 “Quiksilver and I entered into an option agreement February 8th, 2006. It was a three-year option that was supposed to include a consulting agreement for my services,” says Roberts today. “Quiksilver and Kelly hired a wave scientist from the University of Southern California to perfect my design and I was completely left out from that point on. They let the option agreement expire and at the appropriate time it will be determined if patent infringement is an issue.”

Roberts came to public attention largely through a slightly comical youtube clip in which he demonstrates and spruiks a scale model of his “Surf the Ring” design.

Slater acknowledges the collaboration with Roberts but says he decided to take his project in a different direction. “My excitement for this idea originally came from Kevin Roberts (Surf the Ring) with whom we had a multi-year deal but it became evident very early on in testing (when we stumbled on the Solitary Wave idea) that his technology was not in the direction that we were hoping to go so we parted ways when our licensing agreement ran out,” says Slater.

The idea of a circular wave pool in itself is nothing new.  US inventor Arnold Forsman patented a circular wave pool design as far back as 1975, but when that patent expired the idea entered the public realm. It is the method of wave generation that is critical in the patents of all three recent designs.

Roberts says he came up with his idea in 2001 and, like Webber, was inspired by watching boat wakes breaking along the banks of a river. “I thought how great it would be if we could just scale up the size of the waves,” Roberts says.

But he sees no conflict with the Webber design and accepts they simply came up with their designs independently. “I really don't know but I don't think he got the idea from me. Greg contacted me in August of 2005, which is about four years after I started. I like Greg and wish him well,” said Roberts.

Roberts says he met Florida surfer/shaper Matt Kechelle at the Surf Expo in Orlando Florida, who saw his scale model and put him in touch with Slater.
“Kelly contacted me by email and he was very excited. He had seen my youtube prototype and he wanted to know if it was real,” says Roberts. “He and I emailed back and forth for months before he got Bob McKnight (CEO of Quiksilver) involved.”

According to Roberts, McKnight then organized a meeting of surf industry figures to view the scale model of his invention. He says the meeting took place on March 31, 2006, at Dana Point Oceanographic Institute, where Roberts demonstrated his prototype to an audience of industry heavyweights, including Santiago Aguerre, Dick Baker, Sean Collins, Troy Eckert, Tony Hawk, Marty Hoffman, Thom Lochtenfeld, Rob Machado, Al Merrick, Pat O'Connell, Pat O'Neill, Kelly Slater, Graham Stapleberg, Shaun Tomson, and Bob McKnight.

“All these people signed non-disclosure agreements in order to attend,” says Roberts. “All these leaders in the industry were mesmerized watching the prototype making its little two inch high endless waves. That was the greatest time of my life to see and explain to all these amazing people how we could revolutionize this great sport. Everyone there agreed that it would change the sport and help it grow.”
But ’77 world champ Shaun Tomson was less than impressed by the demonstration: “I reviewed a design at a Quik event at the Ocean Institute at Dana Point many years ago and while I thought the concept of a never ending circular wave was rather elegant and quite brilliant the execution was poor,” says Tomson. “It reminded me of rowers on a trireme (a type of galley ship) trying to maintain a constant wave. There must an easier way to produce a constant swell without all that flapping.”

Slater admits Roberts inspired his interest in wave pools but says there were clear problems with his technology: “Kevin's ideas definitely sparked the idea in my mind to see where this could go,” says Slater. “His original concept was using a multi-paddle wave generating system around the outer walls that were timed to work in unison. The part I really liked was that it was dynamic with an ever-changing wave. Where it fell short was the fact that the waves were basically still in the subcritical realm or windswell-like. His assumptions of the energy needed were off according to our full time scientist, Adam Finchem.”
Roberts knows his now infamous youtube clip has held him up to some ridicule, most notably on Lewis Samuel’s now defunct blog, Postsurf.

Robert’s breathless narration, delivered in hibiscus print Hawaiian shirt in front of a backdrop photo of a palm tree and a tropical beach, included the immortal lines: “The way that you lose this race is by wiping out and the wipe outs will be spectacular … I liken this to a Nascar type environment, a racing environment. It’s so exciting.”
This comment on Postsurf from someone called “Skinny” was typical of the reaction from surfers: “I just watched a ripple go around in a pool of dirty water behind what appears to be a meth house. I want their drugs then I can picture fitting into that tiny ripple and its endless possibilities too.”

Roberts realizes now he may have got his initial pitch to surfers wrong. “First let me say that I'm very sorry that I am the worst spokesperson on the planet and I said more than a few things that shouldn't be said to surfers,” Roberts admits today. “Mistakes are made but it doesn't diminish the potential of the invention.”

Slater has this bit of advice for his former collaborator: “I haven't spoken to Kevin in a long time. He's definitely passionate about his concept but I feel he would be better represented hiring someone else to do his marketing and taking time to prove out his science more thoroughly.”

Slater concedes he also discussed wave pool designs with Webber in Australia in 2005 or 2006. “Greg and I spoke at lengths probably five or six years ago in Coolangatta about wave pools but didn't catch on to the fact that we were both actually making our own, probably because we were both being tight-lipped or maybe didn't realize the other was serious,” says Slater. “At one point about two years ago we could possibly have joined forces but we were both too far down the road on what we'd worked separately on for years … There are clear differences in our technologies and even Webber is aware enough about that to have modified and re-applied for a patent to include the core idea exclusive to our technology which is a 'Solitary Wave'. Greg himself can tell you the difference between a Kelvin Subcritical Wave (boat wake/wind swell wave) that I believe he is producing and a Soliton or Solitary wave (groundswell) that we are producing.”

Greg Webber, meanwhile, continues to refine his design at the Australian Maritime College in Tasmania, with the help of a $100,000 grant from the Australian Research Council. He says he hopes to have a full-size working model built within two years, at a cost of around $10 million. He is currently in discussions with investors.

“We have had contact from a guy, an Australian surfer with lots of money, who wants it for himself and his mates. His priority was, how much to make two metre waves? He’s not after any business models. That might speed things up for it hugely,” says Webber.
How confident is he that his design will work when scaled up? “100% completely.  I not only know it will work but I know why other things don’t,” he declares.
Webber says he spoke to Roberts in 2005, after his own design was patented. “I was interested to see what he was like, because I thought the concept was highly complex, but what we were doing was achieving a similar thing with less complexity,” says Webber. “We have a US patent which considers his patent. We haven’t infringed on his thing in any shape or form … We know we have the right to build exactly what we’re building. That’s clear.”

And Webber remains convinced his is the superior design. “With all our experience, this is the cheapest and the simplest. It’s the most idiot-proof thing you can get. When you get it right you’re making waves at an incredibly low cost.”
Webber says he welcomes Slater’s presence in the wave pool market for the attention it brings. “He’s giving credibility to this overall design in a way, that I could never do,” says Webber. “With all the media contacts in the world, I’m still only a surfboard shaper … We still get on well. I really think in the end we’re going to end up working together in some way. He’s got the profile and I’ve got the design.”

With the likely acceptance of Slater’s patent, that prospect now seems unlikely. “It won't be long before one or both of us create something people can enjoy. I'm sure it'll be fun either way and as Greg said, competition is good for this type of thing,” says Slater.
Webber, on this point at least, agrees: “Now that they have their own patent getting some traction with the US office then maybe it will just be a matter of both teams trying to make the most amazing waves possible, in different ways, as against what did look like an impending IP battle,” says Webber. “A much nicer battle hey, the battle to make the biggest best waves on earth. Oh, that's right, forgot about Teahupoo.”



For more, check the following clips:

Kevin Roberts’ Surf the Ring:



Kelly Slater Wave Company:


Greg Webber Wave Pool:

One of the world’s first wave pools was built in Budapest, the capital of Hungary,  in the 1930s and is featured in this travelogue at 6:30:

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