A nice article about new ways to watch sailing by Richard Gladwell on Sail World.
One night in the winter of 1991 a group of five people gathered in a meeting room in Television New Zealand to talk about ways of improving the television coverage of the upcoming 1992 America’s Cup.
Paul France, then TVNZ’s General Manager of Production was frustrated. A keen sailor, he had been the Producer of Television NZ’s America’s Cup coverage in Fremantle, and had really been unable to tell the story other than with conventional video.
His team couldn’t show the nuances of yacht racing, the rules and tactics. More importantly France was totally reliant on a cameraman and boat to be exactly in the right position at the right time to catch that crucial incident which could determine the outcome of a race, or indeed the fate of the America’s Cup itself.
A system had been tried in Fremantle consisting of the yachts being ‘shot’ using accurate survey equipment located on hills around the race course, and the output used to produce a GPS track of the yachts. While it looked promising, the system didn’t deliver.
Ian Taylor, of then fledgling Animation Research Ltd (at that time a co-operative venture with Otago University), and his team had done some work in making animated yachts move across a screen, but lacked the ability to make them react to yacht movement on the water.
A week later, and visit to the Animation Research Ltd facilities in the bowels of an old brick television studio, the ideas started to come together.
Tom Schnackenberg, who headed up North Sails in Auckland, had developed a tactical matchracing game which could move two yachts in response to signals generated by pushing keys on a PC keyboard to turn the yachts left or right.
With a little adaption the engine of Schnakenberg’s game was driving the images generated by the ARL team, and the yachts could be moved at will.
Several thousand kilometres away in Silicon Valley, the computer generated graphics industry was in its infancy.
Connecting with Silicon Valley
Jim Clark’s company, Silicon Graphics had developed the first computer generated images which were cut into a movie – Terminator 2. (Jurassic Park which featured substantial amounts of computer generated images was just a couple of years away.)
A few more conversations later, and Ian Taylor decided to make a bold move – putting one of his bright young team, Paul Sharp, into Silicon Graphic’s campus for three months. There Sharp would learn how to generate the graphics being used in the movie industry – and apply these to the America’s Cup. A few months later ARL had a basic working product at the 1992 Louis Vuitton Cup in San Diego – acceptable graphics, suitable for broadcast, that could be viewed from any chosen position – like being in a helicopter.
The only outstanding issue was how to generate the data from the America’s Cup yachts – to drive the live, or real-time, graphics and produce the broadcast video.
Up stepped Alan Trimble, then a Software Developers’ Advocate at Silicon Graphics Inc. Trimble was also a keen sailor, and his job was helping developers bend or break the rules at Silicon Graphics to ensure that they got the right assistance with their projects and applications.
It was Trimble who took on board the task of developing the first on board ‘black box’ which had a GPS unit, gyroscopic compass and transmitter – all located in the bowels of the competing yachts.
Sharp worked some incredible hours over the 1992 Louis Vuitton Cup and America’s Cup to tweak and tune the breakthrough application in sports broadcasting.
Other large international networks were aware of the ARL project, but never believed it would work. But it did, and although others tried imitations they were never quite the same.
Back where it all started
Eighteen years later, the same meeting room at Television New Zealand still overlooks the Viaduct Basin.
America’s Cups and come and gone from Auckland. The ARL technology has become an integral part of any yachting broadcast not just at America’s Cup level but at a myriad of other events and sports.
At the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series, ARL will be making another giant step in the television coverage of sport – the entire broadcast of the two and a half week regatta will be done using virtual cameras only. Almost.
There will be one land based video camera on North head at the entrance to the Waitemata Harbour, but aside from that all footage will be computer generated using data supplied from the competing boats – and screened live, in real-time.
Computers of various types, functions and locations will be interfaced to provide all aspects of the coverage.
The key to the Virtual Eye coverage is a new onboard ‘black box’ which is much smaller than previous models (previously the size of a small chilly bin), and more accurate. As well as the GPS position, heading and speed of the yachts, pitch and yaw are also transmitted enabling the software developers to generate even more realistic onscreen graphics.
The chief driver behind the system being used in the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series is one of cost. No more is there the usual outside broadcast costs of gyroscopic cameras, camera operators, camera boats, crew and all the issues associated with getting a signal ashore.
All the signals come ashore via regular mobile communication links, and are fed into the ARL graphics software to produce the product known as Virtual Eye.
‘Our next step, which is quite a small one really’, says Taylor ‘is to turn this all into a turnkey solution for sailing worldwide, so that regatta organisers anywhere can just install the onboard box into the competing yachts, we hook up our computers and produce a broadcast quality feed.’
‘We can do everything from data collection, to visualization and full on screen production.’
For regatta organizers, the availability of such an application is a huge bonus, Firstly broadcast costs are reduced significantly – making it more cost effective to provide visual coverage, and providing more benefits for sponsors.
Secondly, the feed can be run into a television production, or just streamed through the internet. This enables fans to see the signal wherever they are. For the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series all options will be used – from a giant screen at the Viaduct Harbour, to home TV viewer, and to those watching via the internet.
For competitors the Virtual Eye system reduces disturbance on the course from camera boats – typically large fast launches which put up a large wake, which also interfere with the wind, making it ideal for the coverage of top level sports boat sports.
Events covered to date by Virtual Eye include the Monsoon Cup, Korea Cup (both Matchracing events), TP52 Worlds and the MedCup (both sailed by professional teams in spectacular 52ft keelboats).
Taylor’s special achievement is a recent powerboat championship in Dubai. ’26 powerboats racing at over 200km per hour, and we covered it live!’
And Paul Sharp, the graphics software developer is still with ARL, and is just as involved with this latest application as he was with the first 18 years ago.
To see more on Animation Research Ltd and their work in the graphics are see www.arl.co.nz
Details of the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series coverage can be found on www.louisvuitton-pacific.com Virtual Eye will be streamed on Television New Zealand’s site www.tvnz.co.nz and the audio coverage of the event can be heard at www.bsport.co.nz or on BSport Sailing 103FM in Auckland.