America’s Cup Video Technology

Formerly the America’s Cup sailing competition was held 20 – 30 miles offshore so few could see it. TV networks were not that interested in covering it. Today’s sailing racers are catamarans which are much faster than single monohulls. This is part of a movement to attract larger audiences to the sport. The competitions are now held close to shore so people can watch the race with the naked eye. I was fortunate enough to see a day of America’s Cup racing in Newport, RI Saturday June 30. It was a thrill.

The next day we watched the competition on TV covered by NBC. On TV there were superimposed graphics which made a huge difference. This difference is part of the campaign to make sailing appeal to more and younger viewers.

Stan Honey was hired by the America’s Cup as its director of technology. Honey is well known for his work enhancing sports television with special graphics such as the glowing first-down line in football telecasts, and he has also developed glowing hockey pucks for N.H.L. games, the illuminated strike zone for baseball and various graphics for Nascar races.

Sailing is not as popular as these other sports. Since Stan Honey was a professional sailor as well as a technical wizard, he was the perfect person to develop this video graphics technology. Sailing is not the easiest type of race to watch. Boats zig zag back and forth to find the best pockets of wind. This makes it hard to see who is ahead and how they are trying to win.

So Honey developed the LiveLine system which superimposes a virtual playing field on the video of the race. The boats have IDs superimposed. Like a football field there are yard markers, but these are created electronically. There are also boundary lines and other symbols which are all overlaid on the live video of the race. But one of the biggest differences between the sailing graphics and the football graphics is that in football and other sports the graphics are superimposed over the shot of stationary tripod-mounted cameras. But in the America’s Cup Sailing competitions, these cameras are mounted in helicopters. They may be stationary for a while, but they are most often moving with the boats. I was surprised to see how close they flew to the moving boats. On the other hand, depth perception on the water is hard to judge.

The position of each helicopter camera and each boat is measured within one inch which is how the lines and graphics are superimposed so precisely. This is not only invaluable for TV viewers, but it has changed the way the races are managed and refereed. The race officials can make rulings and assign penalties by watching the race from TV monitors in a control room. Even new racing rules have evolved from this graphic technology.

Like Nascar, each boat has cameras and microphones mounted on it (4 to be exact). All of this video and audio data is transmitted to the control room and can be used live on TV. It further enhances the show.

All of this serves to attract larger audiences. Before this technology was developed, spectators could only see the boats going out to sea and then several hours later, see them returning. A smartphone app is being developed which will allow viewers to point their phone at the race and see the same superimposed graphics that television viewers can see. This should be available by the time the Cup races are held next year in San Francisco.

Sports and video have had a long and profitable relationship beginning with ABC Sports, headed by Roone Arledge in the 1970s. Business, technology, and sports continue to be inextricably linked.

The LiveLine system won an Emmy.

Full coverage of the Newport races is available on YouTube.

Here’s some more racing from Newport, RI

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