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Virtual Eye raises sports broadcasting bar to new heights

by Louis Vuitton Media and Sail-World on 10 Nov 2009
Visitors to the race village at the Louis Vuitton Trophy Nice Côte d’Azur watch the virtual broadcast of the racing. Bob Greiser/Outside Images http://www.outsideimages.co.nz

The fledgling Louis Vuitton Trophy, sailed at Nice Cote d'Azur has been notable for the huge advance made in the live coverage of sailing, and sports broadcasting generally. Combining a mix of graphics, video and audio feeds the product from New Zealand's ground breaking Animation Research Limited, the live feed is both cost effective, very informative and entertaining.

The fact that the regatta, so far, has been sailed in very light winds - the bane of regular sailing TV producers - and a sure audience turn-off has been a test of fire for the new production.

Are the days numbered of a fleet of camera boats, a flock of helicopters carrying expensive gyroscopic TV lenses, and a small city of prefabricated huts aka the International Broadcast Center?

The feed from Nice has built nicely on the inaugural broadcast at the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series where the broadcast for the whole three weeks of the regatta employed just one landbased camera and a sailbag full of GPS units, each about the size of a small paperback, and attached to the competitors and racing marks.

The rest of the broadcast was pulled together in a lunchroom in the Emirates Team New Zealand base, which also doubled as a shore based studio.

Since 1992 computer animated graphics have greatly augmented the live television coverage of the Louis Vuitton Cup. The graphics clearly illustrate details like distance between the yachts or time to the laylines in ways that live video can’t.

Today, Virtual Eye added a new dimension to its coverage of the Louis Vuitton Trophy Nice Côte d’Azur: live audio commentary from the raceboats. Guest audio commentator Ross Blackman of New Zealand rode as 18th man aboard Emirates Team New Zealand and provided live commentary to the virtual broadcast.

'This is why yachting lends itself so well to technology,' said Ian Taylor, the Executive Producer of New Zealand-based Animation Research, Ltd.. 'With animation you can tell the story of how the race is progressing. Now, with live onboard commentary, the event can tell its own story.'

Play-by-play analysis is being provided by America’s Cup veteran Peter Lester of New Zealand, who’s in a studio watching the feed from off the water. The addition of Blackman’s onboard commentary takes viewers into the boat-on-boat action.

Blackman’s commentary added great insight during Team New Zealand’s match against Russia Synergy this morning, easily the most exciting match of the young regatta. The match featured an OCS and four lead changes, including one just 10 lengths from the finish when Team New Zealand rolled Synergy in its own private puff.

It also featured huge windshifts, which Blackman was able to talk viewers through as they happened.

'It was unbelievable. It was hero to zero and zero to hero,' said Blackman. 'One of the hardest things is giving a description of the action and not your opinion. You can’t hear the skipper and tactician and strategist talking, but you can see the instruments. So you can relate the live wind conditions. As a viewer that’s the sort of stuff you don’t normally get.'

Blackman’s commentary is being fed to the production studio via cellphone, and Taylor is quick to credit Louis Vuitton for allowing them to push the boundaries of live coverage. The coverage has been well received in the far reaches of the world.

'The event sets a significant new benchmark in sailing with the first ever web broadcast using a mix of Virtual Eye and video, backed up with a superb commentary from Peter Lester and various media guests,' said Richard Gladwell, Editor of the Sail-World web site in New Zealand.

'While we are used to seeing this quality of broadcast on television, this standard is a first on the web, and one that runs without the usual stuttering reception that has been the bane of web broadcasting to date,' Gladwell said.

Taylor is so convinced that yachting is the perfect event for virtual broadcasts that he plans to present a paper at the World Yacht Racing Forum next month in Monaco stressing this point. He wants to see the rules relaxed to allow onboard commentary or microphones on the crewmembers to augment the virtual animation.

'In Formula 1 racing we can listen to Lewis Hamilton talking to his pit boss while going through a turn at 300 kilometers an hour and admire his skill in doing both things,' Taylor said. 'In sailing, we’d like to listen to the crewman up the mast. That’s dangerous up there. He’s more than 30 metres off the water. But what’s he saying to the skipper? We want to know, and so do our viewers. If yachting is going to gather an audience, it’s got to wire the guys onboard.'

You can see Virtual Eye for yourself at www.louisvuittontrophy.com


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