In a case of cowboy culture meeting Silicon Valley, a high-tech gadget about the size of a "plenty pack" of chewing gum is changing the way television viewers look at professional bull riding.
The device is called XPower and when placed on the back end of a bucking bull, its electronic sensors collect all sorts of data that is relayed to a computer set up with software designed to analyze it.
"There's a couple sensors in there and what we do is measure the G-force or acceleration of the bulls," said Stephen Wharton, director of new technology for Tulsa, Okla.-based Winnercomm, a sports production company that acquired the rights to the PRCA's Xtreme Bulls series. "Basically, how fast our sensors get moved around tells us how much force. From there, we're able to calculate all kinds of things."
XPower is the brainchild of Wharton, a bull and saddle bronc rider, who grew up in Silicon Valley and also happens to have an electrical engineering degree.
A little more than two years ago, Wharton was at a bucking bull futurity, an event in which young bulls are showcased with robots instead of cowboys on their backs. He thought there must be a way to quantify the mechanics and physics that take place during a bull ride.
"I've been working on this alone for about two years," he said. "Winnercomm saw the idea and wanted to introduce it when they gained the rights to Xtreme Bulls. Since November, we've been working on it full time with input from (PRCA director of officials) John Davis, (eight-time world bull riding champion) Donnie Gay and (PRCA Commissioner) Troy Ellerman."
The XPower device collects data from the time the judge starts the watch at the beginning of a ride until the ride ends, either at eight seconds or with an early buck off or disqualification.
XPower isn't designed to replace judges.
"I don't think you can ever replace the human in the judging," Davis said. "If a guy's hanging off the side, it's not going to be able to tell that."
What it can do is show a television audience why one bull is marked higher than another. Davis said it can also be used as a training tool for judges.
"Hopefully, it might be something we can use as a training tool at our seminars," he said.
The technology is in its infancy. It was tested at the Red Bluff Roundup in April and used at the Xtreme Bulls tour events in Clovis, Calif., and Tulsa, Okla.
"We're constantly refining and tuning and making things better," Wharton said. "Even between the Tulsa show (on May 12) and the Reno show, we've made a bunch of enhancements to the device.
Right now, the XPower is only used for the television broadcasts of the Xtreme Bulls events on ESPN and ESPN2. The raw data is taken to a studio and graphics are added for the tape-delay television broadcasts. In the next phase, Wharton said, the information will be made available in real time to the live audiences in the arenas.
"The feedback we've gotten so far has been really, really great," he said. "People are really excited."
Wharton compared the technology to the speed gun used to track pitches in baseball or the yellow line that appears on football fields in televised games to designate the first-down marker. It starts as a bit of a novelty, but then evolves into something the fans get used to seeing.
It's something that has already caught the attention of the bull riders.
"I think that it's pretty neat," said reigning world champion Matt Austin.
"It measures the G-forces and things like that. I kind of like that deal."
Wharton said eventually the device might be used in other rodeo events, and perhaps placed on the participants during their events.
Austin liked that idea as well.
"Maybe they can measure how hard we can spur one," he said.