VALENCIA, Spain (Reuters) - When Queen Victoria watched what became the first America’s Cup race in 1851, her minions scanned the horizon with telescopes to watch the demise of the British fleet at the hands of the schooner “America”.
A few decades later, the buoy-by-buoy results were fed back to land by homing pigeons and in 1899 Guglielmo Marconi used the America’s Cup to show off his new telegraph technology, sending results to the New York Herald from sea.
In 2007, the America’s Cup is again pushing the boundaries of information technology as well as sailing know-how, using the global positioning system (GPS), Internet TV and pixilated versions of each race sent live to the web and mobile phones.
Even the most hardened sailing fanatic would find it hard to be in Valencia for the whole America’s Cup run, with 11 challengers starting their run-offs in mid-April and the winner finally taking on defender Alinghi from June 23.
To make sure people get hooked and stay hooked, Franco-American telecoms company Alcatel-Lucent has created a series of products that let people watch the racing meter by meter whether they are at their desks or on the beach.
“The media world has changed radically in the last few years and sailing is well positioned to benefit from all the new technology. A previously niche sport is suddenly very accessible,” said Scott Robinson, who is leading the new media project.
One of the major challenges for America’s Cup Management, the body organizing this year’s regattas, was how to increase the media appeal of sailing, which in turn lures more sponsors to the multi-million dollar sport.
To make for good and interesting coverage, they had to make sailing understandable and exciting for people with no experience of yachting and the tactics involved.
Television coverage of sailing is not easy as camera angles from the water and air often give no sense of which boat is ahead and by how much because they are often hundreds of meters apart as they approach the next buoy.
To get around that problem — while not treading on television rights holders’ toes — Alcatel-Lucent captures the exact position, speed and direction of the yachts from GPS and bearing data beamed from the boats and transforms it into a three-dimensional pixilated version, Live Sailing.
On the web (www.americascupanywhere.com), you can move your camera angle around with the mouse, see the wind speed, check how fast the boats are sailing, how close they are to each other and the buoys and listen to live commentary.
The service is only slightly reduced on mobile phones.
The virtual eye technology has also fed back into traditional media, making the commentators’ jobs much easier and more exact.
“With telecoms and media converging, that part of our business is increasingly important. The America’s Cup is a showcase, a way we can experiment and develop new skills,” said Alcatel-Lucent’s Robinson.
To increase the excitement of the TV, Internet and mobile coverage, ACM has also employed a bevy of chatty sailors to give running commentary on each race and explain what it is like to be on the winches pulling down a 500 square meter spinnaker or up the mast scouring for wind.
The organizers have also put together an extensive series of video interviews and features which are available online, explaining anything from the history of the Cup, to profiles of the teams and an explanation of what the 17 crew members do.
If all that, video podcasts and simulation games would have been eye-opening for Marconi, the Nobel-prize winner might have been yet more astonished by the fact the whole experience is also going virtual.
Alcatel-Lucent has also crowned the America’s Cup with new tech-savvy status symbol of a Second Life island so that even 21st century avatars can get a taste of sailing’s excitement and the luxury lifestyle, watching the racing live and partying away much like the real world of sailors, sponsors and fans.
Queen Victoria might just have been amused.
* To read more about Second Life, where Reuters has a bureau, visit secondlife.reuters.com