Written by Scott Alle
Photography by Animation Research Ltd
Sailing boasts a tradition of rolling back the boundaries of innovation, and the boats competing in the 35 America’s Cup contests since 1851 have always been at the leading edge of the technology of the day.
Only the most ardent pedant would dispute that the introduction of the new foiling monohull AC75s for the next America’s Cup in Auckland in 2021 is the next exciting step in the sport’s long history.
But harnessing or inventing new technology has also been the way the Cup has been brought to its audience.
In 1899 Thomas Edison used his newfangled motion picture camera to film JP Morgan’s Columbia defeat Sir Thomas Lipton’s Shamrock off Sandy Hook, New Jersey in the 10th America’s Cup. The reel helped introduce Americans to motion pictures.
Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated radio for the first time in the United States by broadcasting an update on the yachts’ progress from a ship on the race course.
Fast forward 118 years to Bermuda and the dynamic real-time vision from aboard Emirates Team New Zealand and Oracle Team USA was created by multiple camera positions. 360 view, as it’s known, involves a suite of eight GoPros – one looking up, two looking down and five covering a 360-degree horizontal radius.
Coupled with high-powered 3D graphics generating lay lines, mark circles and advantage lines showing who’s ahead and behind, it creates a privileged omnipotent spectator experience. We saw how the crews handled the challenges thrown at them and we also obtained a unique strategic overview of the contest, thanks to a raft of data coming from both on and off the boats.
360 view’s sense of involvement and enhancement has been taken to a new level by 360VR. Viewed through a virtual reality headset hooked up to a mobile phone, the application makes it possible to hitch a virtual ride sitting in the centre of a flying AC50 Class catamaran.
“The great thing that 360 view brought was the sense of being on the boat,” explains Ian Taylor, CEO of Animation Research Limited (ARL), the New Zealand company that developed the system.
“One of the best [examples] was when Team NZ got stuck after the start of the crash with LandRover BAR and LandRover were about 500 metres ahead before Team NZ got off the line. Then Pete [Burling] says, ‘Ok guys, let’s go run them down.’ And that’s what they did,” Taylor recounts to me with obvious relish, given the fact he is a proud Kiwi of Maori descent.
Regarded as a digital pioneer, Taylor is still very much at the helm of ARL. The company has effectively revolutionised TV sport, and has a long association with the America’s Cup, going back to 1992. Its Virtual Eye division is a world leader in both real-time and analytical 3D graphics for a host of other sports, including Formula 1, cricket, golf, snowboarding and surfing.
ARL provided the now familiar animated simulation of a pair of digital AC75s duelling on a virtual Auckland Harbour, but its designers and technicians face a much bigger challenge in trying to work out the camera positions and data collection systems for the new boats.
A couple of things are for certain though – in 2021 there will be greater use of drones, enabling better angles and even closer proximity to the action than helicopters or chase boats. Another is some kind of improved 360VR experience will be offered.
“For us the really exciting thing this time around is the boat is truly the hero,” Taylor enthuses. “Our job is put together the technologies that we need to tell its story best. We have an R&D project in place that will run for two years.”
A lot of that R&D is focused on determining where cameras and sensors will actually go and developing the systems to process the footage and data.
The camera package has to be extremely weight sensitive, and the AC75’s massive T-foils come with highly complex drag issues. ARL has created a simulator that allows producers and production teams to start testing where cameras could go.
“You might want to put 20 cameras on board, but you don’t have the transom that the AC50s did and a lot of other points where you mount the cameras, so that’s going to be a very big challenge,” he reveals.
Then there’s the added complication of integrating the promised new 5G network to export footage and data off the water in real time. (On the plus side, 5G promises to offer substantially faster internet speeds; with some claims of 20 times faster than existing 4G technology).
Spark, an Emirates Team New Zealand partner and New Zealand’s largest internet service provider, is aiming to have a 5G network up and running on Waitemata Harbour by July 2020.
5G is expected to boost the fan and viewer experience, with the potential for each AC75 to be monitored in real time. But the ARL chief acknowledges that this new data usage could prove problematic.
“It’s the same as putting your competition on the back of your boat,” Taylor concedes. “One way to manage it of course is not to go live – a one hour delay.”
If the shore team interprets the data and sends instructions back to the boat as its racing, then this could be easily construed as outside assistance, and therefore illegal. According to Taylor, ARL is “working closely with Emirates Team New Zealand, we are talking to the design people about what data we capture off the boat.”
If all goes according to plan, we’ll get our first look at the AC75s at the America’s Cup World Series off the southern coast of Sardinia in October. It will also be an early gauge of what the 2021 coverage might aspire to. For Ian Taylor, the technological wizardry simply enhances the story at the heart of the contest.
“It’s all about what we are going to do, what’s new,” he emphasises.
“The technology is here, the question is: how do we apply it to the most important things that are new about these boats that will help people understand how good you have to be as a sailor.”
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