SBJ/May 23 - 29, 2005/SBJ In Depth

Turning to technology

The image fills the screen with splashes of color and motion that suggest a cross between a video game and a television broadcast, a bit too grainy to be real but so rich and accurate in detail that, watching from more than a few feet away, it seems it must be.

For seven seconds you ride along with NASCAR Nextel Cup driver Jimmie Johnson at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, tilting your head instinctively as his Chevy drops inside Jeff Burton’s No. 99 car, handles a corner at 180 mph, then surges forward to ride the rear fender of the next car up.

Put that image next to the one that Fox aired from Johnson’s in-car camera at that same moment in last year’s race and the similarity is striking. The angles are the same, the cars identical, down to the shadows they cast on the track, as if reproduced from the Fox telecast.

Only this isn’t a re-creation built from video. It was created by Sportvision, the company that brought you the yellow first-and-10 line and its older, less popular cousin, the glowing hockey puck. Sportvision uses GPS tracking and in-car sensors to provide track position and telemetry from every car in the field at each Nextel Cup race.

Fox and NBC turn to Sportvision’s graphics liberally during their telecasts, and NASCAR makes them a standing element on its “In Demand” pay-TV product. They are the foundation of nascar.com’s premium “Pit Command” function, delivered by Turner Interactive to more than 300,000 users each weekend.

In this application — a demo DVD titled “Virtual Vegas” — Sportvision translated the data to build animation that mirrors the Nextel Cup race run at Las Vegas last year. Sportvision executives say they soon will be able to offer near real-time animation that would give online subscribers their choice of five viewpoints taken from any car in the field. The company also would provide those angles to the broadcast networks, which could use them to capture moments that their cameras missed and review those that happen too quickly and chaotically to convey through standard cameras.

When 25 cars went swirling down the track in a heap at Talladega last month in the sort of wreck that racers call “The Big One,” Fox’s cameras captured sharp images of the contact that started the chain reaction, but after that the pictures dissolved into a smoky mess.

Sportvision says its equipment would give Fox and NBC access to vivid re-creations, as seen from any car or any point on the track.

“When a crash happens, you get engine smoke and tire smoke and oil splashing up on windshields,” said Hank Adams, CEO of Sportvision, a cutting-edge company with offices in Chicago and Silicon Valley. “You hold your breath and see some cars make it through and some don’t. But you can’t actually see what’s going on. We can. We can show you exactly what happened.

“The real magic is that we can give you any point of view from any car at any time. If you want 43 in-car cameras, we’ve got the data to do that.”

Sportvision has spent about $10 million developing the RaceFX tracking system that delivers content for NASCAR telecasts and Web-based racecasts, Adams said. About half of that is tied up in equipment deployed at the track each week.

It is the sort of ambitious endeavor that sets racing coverage apart from the work done in other sports. Tech companies have hatched dozens of gimmicky graphics over the years; gadgets that measure the height of a basketball player’s jump, the velocity of a tight spiral or the trajectory of a home run. They sparkle in the lab and they dazzle during a sales pitch, but then wither when placed into the context of a game telecast, where the emphasis is on telling a story.

In racing, where necessities like cameras and crew swallow the lion’s share of the nearly $1 million per race that Fox and NBC spend on production, the appetite for the “Wow!” factor is tempered by the pressures of budgets that are already stretched.

“Most of the stuff you see is cool once or twice, but then it gets old and you’re faced with the question of whether it’s worth spending money on,” said Neil Goldberg, supervising producer of Fox Sports’ Emmy-winning NASCAR coverage. “You want something that provides a useful tool. We’re looking for technology that helps us give the fan the immediacy of understanding. We’re dealing with a huge playing field that we have to cover in a sport that doesn’t stop.”

Still, the fact that success and failure in motorsports so often comes down to measurables that are meaningful — speed, time, distance and the balance between brake and throttle — makes it fertile ground for advances in television technology.

Networks are willing to pay for graphics that help attract and keep viewers. Hard-core race fans will pay — $99 for a season of NASCAR In Car on digital cable’s In Demand; $65 for a season of Track Pass online — for services that deliver data they can’t get from the broadcast.

“We do a helluva lot more football games than we do NASCAR races, but we drive more revenue and offer far more applications in racing,” Adams said. “We just get so much more data off of these events. And we can turn data into useful content.”

Not foolproof

The fragile marriage between high-tech communications wizardry and stock cars that bang into each other at upwards of 180 mph was never more evident than on lap 38 of last month’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega, when the signal from the “Aaron’s Dream Machine,” driven by Hermie Sadler, suddenly went dead.

It was only a few minutes before Rich Hawley, one of the Sportvision technicians, identified the cause while watching a replay of another car blowing a tire and spinning on the backstretch. The tire caught Sadler’s car on the windshield and the fender, clipping his Sportvision antenna along the way. Though the Sportvision crew was certain of what went wrong, there was nothing they could do to fix it.

Sportvision is working on a system that could offer near real-time animation of the action taking place on the racetrack. Above are samples, with actual race broadcast footage on the insets.
In the days, and even minutes, leading up to a race, teams are surprisingly accommodating to Sportvision, allowing its technicians — one of whom is a former race team engineer — access to the cars to perform emergency surgery on bad wires and loose connections. NASCAR requires all cars to carry the equipment and to allow technicians to service it, a process that clearly became a priority to all the teams after they watched Robby Gordon lose a race in 2001 when the battery pack on his Sportvision box overheated and set his car on fire.

Still, once the race starts, the cars are off limits to Sportvision’s technicians. When a signal disappears, all they can do is watch the monitors and hope it will return. Losing data from Hermie Sadler’s car is like misplacing a favorite wristwatch. An inconvenience. Losing Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s signal — as Sportvision did for good on lap 56 at Talladega — that’s more like losing your wedding ring. There is disappointment, and then there are consequences.

Sportvision’s producer for the race, Jeremy Walker, buried his face in both hands when the techie to his right, Jason Stromberg, delivered the bad news. Stromberg’s screen, which shows detailed data coming from each car and monitors the quality of the signals, had gone red next to the No. 8 that represents Dale Jr. When Earnhardt made a brief run toward the front later in the race, Walker blurted out a “No!” and clasped his fingers atop his head. He flicked deftly at the touch screen to flash up pointers for the cars in front of Earnhardt and behind him, but he couldn’t deliver anything on NASCAR’s most popular driver.

In Demand viewers watching from Earnhardt’s in-car camera lost the dashboard telemetry. Pit Command subscribers lost his locator and much of his data.

While the Fox crew spared them any tongue-lashing during the heat of the race telecast, Walker looked crushed to have let them down.

“We like their technology so much that when something does go wrong with it and we lose it, yeah, we’re upset,” Goldberg said. “We’re disappointed, because we want to use the tool.”

By all accounts from Fox, NASCAR and Sportvision, they aren’t disappointed very often.

“Our track record of having a complete show week in and week out is pretty good,” said Jeffrey Pollack, managing director of broadcasting and new media for NASCAR’s digital entertainment division. “When you think about the complexity and the conditions you’re dealing with, that any of it works is a miracle. But it does.”

How it works

The Sportvision 18-wheeler typically arrives at the speedway on Tuesday. Wednesday and Thursday are spent on setup, with technicians creating and tuning a computer map of the track and identifying camera positions so that graphics can be placed properly on the screen.

For all the data that it tracks, the most valuable function of the RaceFX system remains its basic ability to find a car on the track and position an identifying pointer above it, on screen, on demand, in a way that doesn’t obscure any of the other cars.

To do that, it must know precisely not only where the cars are, but where the cameras are.

“When your announcers are talking about the 12 car of Ryan Newman, and you’re in a wide shot and there are 10 cars on the track, you can’t take your finger and point to it, as much as you might want to,” Goldberg said. “Sportvision gave us the way to point out those drivers in the pack.”

A technician cleans the lens of an in-car camera mounted in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car prior to this year’s Nextel Cup race at Darlington, S.C.
On the science side, it’s complicated. But on the human side, it’s executed with relative ease. An associate producer in the Sportvision truck — at Talladega, it was Walker — sits behind a computer touch screen that displays the number of each car, reproduced in identifiable colors and type styles that make them easy to pick out quickly. The 24 on the screen looks like the 24 on the side of Jeff Gordon’s car. When the camera shows Gordon’s car in a pack of 12, and the announcers begin to speak about him, Walker touches his screen twice and — poof — the pointer showing Gordon’s name and current speed pops into the telecast, following along as Gordon moves up the track.

With a few more touches, Walker can superimpose other data — such as the distance between cars or time off the lead. Another simple prompt inserts a virtual dashboard when Fox cuts to an in-car camera.

Of course, for any of this to work there must be a clear signal from the car. That’s not always easy to maintain.

The mapping of the track is only half of the data equation. The other resides within the race cars, each of which is equipped with a GPS transmitter embedded in the roof, along with a data acquisition box mounted inside. The GPS allows Sportvision to track the car’s track position via satellite. The box monitors the driver’s use of the throttle and brakes and transmits engine RPMs.

In order to accurately track a car, the GPS unit has to make contact with at least three satellites from most tracks, and four on the larger ones. In the early days, Sportvision too often found satellite coverage to be spotty and the interference from towering metal grandstands to be insurmountable. During qualifying for a race at Charlotte last year, for example, the tracking map showed several cars exiting the track at turn four and heading for the interstate. The broadcast crew had to rely on lap times to calculate speeds.

To reduce that sort of failure, Sportvision two years ago began equipping cars with boxes called Inertial Measurement Units (IMUs), sensors that monitor the motion of a car. Typically, the units are installed in aircraft. Or on guided missiles. Sportvision purchased 24 IMUs at a cost of $15,000 to $20,000 each. It typically deploys about 22 of them each race weekend, holding a couple as backups.

This is the level of sophistication that Sportvision’s scientists have brought to a sport that many still equate with Elvis sightings and moonshine.

“When you go into that Sportvision truck,” said Scott Bailey, general manager of Turner Sports Interactive, “there is nothing other than the logo that indicates that you’re someplace other than NASA.”

IRL tries to catch up

Indy Racing League executives say they’re interested in delivering tech-savvy viewers the sort of data-rich graphics and telemetry that Fox and NBC provide during their NASCAR telecasts.

They say they’ve discussed it with Sportvision on at least 10 occasions in the last few years and enlisted the aid of other tech heavyweights, including Delphi and Cisco.

Yet if you tune in to the Indy 500 on Sunday, you won’t see the sort of live tracking that would make sense for a series with cars that are smaller, faster and more difficult to differentiate than stock cars.

GPS tracking and in-car sensors help broadcasters point out a car’s position on the track and show viewers telemetry such as speed and RPMs.
The IRL says its cars, which weigh less than stock cars, won’t accommodate the 35 pounds of equipment required by Sportvision’s system, and that other, low-weight systems have been unable to track accurately, at higher speeds.

IRL engineers say they want a box that weighs no more than three pounds. Adams said Sportvision can provide an IMU box that weighs less than one pound, but that it would cost millions to develop. The league says it is working to develop its own system with engineers from ABC Sports. It also continues in discussions with Sportvision.

“It’s a matter of weight sensitivity, attached to speed, attached to all this metal around the track,” said Buddy McAtee, vice president and executive producer of Indianapolis Motor Speedway Productions. “Sportvision is a great company. And we’ve got six other companies that have looked at it. They all say they can do it. And then they get in here and they try and, brilliant as they are, they just can’t.”

The IRL thought it had a solution last year, when it tried beaming a radio signal from the car and tracking it. They tested it throughout the season, but decided in the end that the cars shook too much to maintain a steady and reliable signal.

The IMS Productions engineers have had better luck developing innovative cameras. Indy was the first to develop a car-mounted camera that turns 180 degrees, giving viewers an unprecedented look at side-by-side racing.

But when the IRL tangles with its car owners, the car owners frequently win.

Consider for a moment the matter of telemetry, the data sent remotely from each car during the race. NASCAR does not allow its race teams access to in-race telemetry beyond the basics that fans can get online — throttle, brakes, RPM, gear ratio, etc. But IRL teams have access to 160 categories of telemetry, including tire temperature, the amount of fuel in each car’s tank and more complex measures used by team engineers. They won’t let broadcasters air the information, or the IRL use it to develop a premium Web component, for fear that other teams would use it to gain an advantage. The Champ Car World Series — formerly known as CART — offers fans a premium Web package that includes six streaming video feeds and basic telemetry.

“I’ve tried over the years, tried my best to talk these guys into doing stuff, but they constantly fight me,” McAtee said. “How great would it be to be able to show people how hot the tires are getting on the right side? They’re afraid that it will give away some of their position. I doubt that. But they won’t listen.”

What’s next?

Watching the RaceFX system in action, working perfectly on all 43 cars for most of the race, but still blinking out in spots when challenged by the rigors of racing, you wonder whether the Sportvision engineers have a few bugs left to swat before launching their virtual speedway.

Turnkey Sports Poll
Following are results of the Turnkey Sports Poll taken in April. The survey covered about 400 senior-level sports industry executives spanning professional and college sports.
Which sports property has made the best use of media enhancements during television broadcasts?
NASCAR
37.8%
NFL
26.6%
MLB
9.0%
NBA
6.4%
PGA Tour
3.4%
MLS
2.2%
NHL
2.2%
ATP
0.4%
IRL
0.4%
Other
2.6%
No response
9.0%
Source: Turnkey Sports in conjunction with SportsBusiness Journal. Turnkey Sports specializes in instant fan feedback (FanTrak) and custom market research for sports and entertainment. Visit www.turnkeysports.com.
If there is no signal, there can be no animation. If a scrape with a flying tire can make an otherwise unharmed car vanish from the screen, what chance is there of tracking a wreck that crumples 15 of them?

“If a car spins or goes upside down or wrecks, they start losing it,” Goldberg said. “They can take you to the point of impact, but when the cars start losing their reference points, they start losing their data to the satellite. It’s not quite there yet. But I love it. It’s great technology that’s right on the brink of doing everything we want it to do. … Everybody is wowed by the technology.”

Goldberg said Fox considered green-lighting Sportvision to start incorporating the animation each of the last two years, but held off because it wasn’t convinced that the return would be consistent enough to justify the expense. He said this year, it’s getting close. The key for the broadcasters may lie in finding a sponsor to put its name on the enhancement.

On the Internet side, the possibilities are even more compelling. Though NASCAR hasn’t sorted out how much it could make available without rattling the broadcast networks, Turner Sports Interactive says it has the capacity to stream as much content as Sportvision can offer. With 39 percent more Track Pass subscribers this year than it had last year and broadband penetration raging, Turner predicts strong demand for an upgrade that would include a virtual racecast.

Pollack said he also envisions uses for it on the In Demand package.

“We think it’s a really compelling application that has a lot of potential for all of our media partners and could be a terrific way of bringing new fans into the sport,” he said. “It really takes our event and turns it into a video game-like experience. That said, it still has some development ahead of it. But the possibilities are pretty interesting if this ever moves off the board and into production.”

Adams envisions products that will connect viewers to motorsports in interactive ways he can’t offer in other sports.

“I can put you in [Earnhardt] Junior’s driver seat,” Adams said. “I can’t put you in Tom Brady’s helmet.”

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