The Technology of Umpires At The America's Cup
“America’s Cup racing is more aggressive in its use of technology, particularly in officiating, than any other sport. Baseball uses lots of data, but the umpire still calls balls and strikes,” said Stan Honey, director of technology for the America’s Cup Event Authority. “The America’s Cup has chosen to use data to make (officiating) calls in real time — all calls based on measurement are made in the booth using data and subjective judgment calls are made by officials out on the water.”
Honey was on dry land recently at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. discussing the technology used in the coverage of the sailing match races contested next month on San Francisco Bay. Joining Honey on stage were two members of the Oracle Team USA Racing America’s Cup crew.
Matt Mason, a grinder on the massive AC 72 multihull racing yacht and Ian Burns, the team’s head of performance. Computer History Museum CEO John Hollar moderated the discussion, which was part of the center’s ongoing “Revolutionaries” series, sponsored by Intel.
Sporting fans many not have heard of Honey, but they’ve seen his work. The engineer who once worked at the Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International, where he designed radar systems for the military, is best known for the yellow first down line used during televised football games.
His technology company, Sportvision, also is behind the superimposed strike zone TV viewers see during baseball games and graphic insertions used in live video coverage of hockey, auto racing and the Olympics. For the America’s Cup, Honey and his team have developed AC LiveLine, which overlays geo-positioning lines and other data — with accuracy within 2 centimeters — onto live race video shot from helicopters and on the water.
“The principal objective of inserted graphic systems is to take things that are hard to see and make them easy to see,” said Honey.
“Inserting graphics into live sports broadcast provides the most value when there’s information you can’t see. The first down is important to almost every play in football, but you can’t see it. The same is true with sailing. The graphics allow people to interpret visually basic information like who is winning (not always obvious in sailing races when boats are sailing at different angles towards the finish line). The graphics define the field of play and basic information so viewers can embrace the tactics.”
Burns endorsed the value of having graphics help viewers understand the races. He said, “Even expert racers can’t tell when watching sailing racing on TV which boat is winning because everything is moving on the water, nothing is fixed.”
All that motion creates problems that Honey and his team didn’t face with graphic insertions for football, baseball or hockey.
“All the other sports have cameras mounted on tripods,” said Honey. “With sailing, the camera is on a helicopter that’s moving around the sky. The distance is huge, the location, speed and camera angle all change constantly — it’s really a measuring challenge.”
It takes big processing power to compile all the camera variables, data coming from sensors on the boat and insert graphics into live video in almost real time (the TV broadcast is only a second or two behind the action on the water), but it takes a much smaller footprint than when Honey got started.
At the 1996 NHL All-Star game when the puck-tracking technology Honey and his team developed made it’s debut, the set up required a 50-foot truck filled with Silicon Graphics workstations. Today they use less exotic technology.
“We use quad-core PCs,” said Honey. “We get the most powerful PCs we can conveniently buy and run them up to the top edge of what they can do.”
In addition to his technical accomplishments (he’s an IEEE Fellow, holds more than 20 patents and has won multiple Emmy awards), Honey has long harbored a second, parallel career as a professional sailor. He’s been the navigator on private yachts for the likes of Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, which led to his work with the America’s Cup. He was named U.S. Sailing’s 2010 Rolex Yachstman of the Year and was the navigator aboard the crew that held the Jules Verne Trophy for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe (in 48 days).
It’s only in his current project that his engineering and sailing careers have merged and his work may bring a new generation to the sport.
“It’s about telling a story so that sports fans who are not sailing fans can become sailing fans,” said Honey.