The creak, the groan, the water-weary
faces—that’s what tells the story.
That was exactly the goal of the technology behind
one of the most impressive comeback stories
in sports history: to showcase the strain, the fear, the
thrill of competing in the America’s Cup race on the
chilly waters of San Francisco Bay.
But how do you get that from a yacht whipping
across the choppy bay at 30 knots an hour, when every
pound is accounted for, and no sailor in his right
mind would simply let an engineer bolt a bulky camera
onto the mast?
That was the problem faced by America’s Cup
Television, SIS LIVE and NBC—which, along with NBC Sports Network, broadcast the final
13 days of racing from Sept. 7 to the exciting
finale on Sept. 25—in their quest to
cover the 34th America’s Cup race, a situation
made tougher by other factors: Covering
a sport that takes place entirely on water,
and doing so in a way that keeps a viewer
engaged to a sport that seems remote by
Success came from partnerships and
technological innovations, according to Paul
McNeil, head of the SIS LIVE special cameras
team at SIS LIVE, a U.K.-based television production
company. The first good news was
the ability to bundle together the onboard
cameras and the RF reception in a single box.
Simple as it sounds, that was the first step in
building a technology infrastructure that was
streamlined and efficient.
The next successful innovation: working
with an IP connection. Sportvision, the company
handling graphics for the broadcast,
relied on IP connectivity to communicate,
“so all of the data that we wanted to control
could go on their secure Wi-Fi network,”
McNeil said. “That was a big plus,” he said, as
compared to working in the more typical
UHF or VHF setup. “That means that every
operation we wanted to do on the boat—
zoom, focus, color correction—was just
[configurable] via an IP address,” he said, adding
to increased efficiency.
At an event like the America’s Cup, sometimes
real estate is the first big battle. “The
hardest bit is getting your space on the boat
or getting RF space,” he said.
The second: building solid relationships.
“Because we were in on this process very
early, nearly three years ago, that meant we
could talk to the boat builders to make our
equipment part of their boat,” McNeil said.
Working in conjunction with the ship’s designers,
SIS LIVE built specialized camera
housing and mics directly into the holds and
masts of the new carbon fiber sailing ships. “We were able to get cameras in places they
couldn’t have otherwise been,” he said.
The event resonated with TV audiences
for another reason. One of the most talked-about
technologies in the race was the AC
LiveLine graphics technology, a real-time
tracking system that embedded real-time
graphics into the live broadcast.
|The AC LiveLine graphics system triangulated the speed and path of the boats via an onboard telemetry system and camera system mounted to an overhead helicopter.
The technology is a sister of the first
augmented reality tracking system, devised
by Sportvision in the mid 1990s for use on
Fox Sports’ hockey coverage. The technology
smacked into the path of sailing in
2010 when Oracle Co-founder Larry Ellison
reached out to engineer Stan Honey to create
a version for sailing. The result was “Live-
Line,” a system that triangulated the speed
and path of the boats via an onboard telemetry
system and camera system mounted to an
overhead helicopter. Boats could be tracked
accurately up to 2 cm, Honey said.
Technology has a way of transforming
things, even in the midst of a race. “After the
race management group understood that we
had that kind of accurate data, they asked me
to take on development of the race management
system, which used the same tracking
and telemetry,” said Honey, director of technology
for the America’s Cup organization.
“It was very rewarding, as the America’s
Cup was very aggressive in using data to officiate
the event. It was also frightening,” he
added, knowing that this telemetry data was
being judged down to the centimeter.
Engineering on the go
They say necessity is the
mother of invention. True, especially when water threatens to derail your
When it came to devising a
plan for keeping its cameras clean and dry, SIS LIVE did their homework.
Engineers installed wipers on cameras, to keep them clear as the 131-foot
yachts in the America’s Cup pounded their way through the choppy waters of the
San Francisco Bay.
But what happened when the
boats came to a stop, and were gently bobbing at rest? “We had wipers on agile
cameras, but we foundthat when the
racing stopped and [the commentators] began a live interview,there was a problem,” said Paul McNeil, head of
the SIS LIVE special cameras team. “The commentators wanted to speak to the
sailors, but because the boats were not racing, water was not splashing onto
the lenses,” and that meant that the automatic wiping mechanism was not being
triggered. The result: the lens sat there with random drops fogging up the
The engineering team
encountered this at the last World Series sailing race. In response, the SIS
LIVE team created a small housing that sat underneath a camera, but because it
was too late to run cabling, “we made a self contained cassette with a battery
with circuitry, and when you switched it on, it did a magnetic field check,”
McNeil said. On the camera they installed a small magnet, and using the Earth’s
magnetic field, the wipers could be triggered to keep the lens clean.
“To be honest, we could
have sat on the land, and said that’s that,” McNeil said. “But we found that
you’d have a lovely shot, but it could be all misty. We were problem solvers.
It all fell into place.”
Much like a hiking switchback, the technology
displayed the racecourse clearly, allowing
fans to more easily interpret what
was going on.
“The LiveLine technology set clear
boundaries for the entire course, displayed
distance between boats and real-time wind,
current and boat speeds,” said an NBC
spokesman. “As a result, the technology
complemented our announcers’ analysis,
and allowed them to provide additional insight
on each team’s actions and strategies.
The combination gave viewers a true understanding
of the excitement of America’s
THROUGH THE SAILOR’S EYES
Across the event, the proliferation of
technology was widespread—cameras
were mounted to the yachts, helicopters,
chase boats and on land. SIS LIVE installed
six robotic HD cameras on each of the
world’s fastest yachts—called the AC72—
including on the 131-foot-tall mast and the
72-foot-long carbon fiber hull. A zoom on
the robotic cameras allowed them to get
into the emotions of the sailors on board.
“Instead of cameras from shore or a helicopter,
you’re actually in the boat in the field of
play,” McNeil said. “We wanted to see what
the actual sailors see.”
Sides are being taken on what was the
most dramatic: such as when these boats
tipped nearly vertical to the side, and the
so-called “dolphin striker,” or the HD camera
that was rigged under the boat, would lift up
out of the water and give viewers a view of
the yacht vaulting out the bay. “It told the story
we wanted to tell completely,” McNeil said.
Or perhaps it was the sound. “Most of
the emotion [from watching the race]
came from the sound,” McNeil said. Five microphones
were installed around the boat
and on the crew: the henchman, the technical,
the strategist, the jib trimmer and the
wing trimmer. His favorite piece: the microphone
strapped to the hull so you could
hear the boat groan and “whump” through
Four broadcast images were packed into
one RF stream that radiated from atop of
the yacht’s mast to aerial arrays. That signal
and the resultant 14 sound channels were
packed onto an 8 MB channel and sent into
a SIS LIVE production area before being
pushed to NBC for branding and broadcast.
Yet despite all that technology, what
was the biggest problem? “Water is always
a problem; salt is a killer,” McNeil said, referring
to the camera problems that plagued
the last World Series sailing event.
Regardless, the race proved to be a thrilling
one, with the trailing Oracle Team USA
coming back from an 8 to 1 deficit to beat
Emirates Team New Zealand. The technology
can say the same, too. “We pushed the
bounds of technology, and delivered it,” Mc-