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How Data Visualization Changed the Way We Experience Sailing

Jon Salm

published on September 20, 2013 in Data

The America’s Cup, the oldest active trophy in international sports and the most prestigious sailing event in the world, is nearing the end of the first to nine series. At the end of racing Thursday, Emirates Team New Zealand led Oracle Team USA by a count of eight races to two. The US team needs seven straight victories to claim the cup and the Kiwis need just one.

But no matter who ends up claiming victory on the water, Americans have claimed a major one through technology with AC Liveline, an augmented reality and visual tracking system that overlays sailing data onto video of the race.


Stan Honey, co-founder and former president of Sportvision, the company that created football’s yellow first down line, baseball’s K-zone, and NASCAR’s racecar tracker technology, brought the same concepts behind Sportvision’s visual tracking technology to sailing.

Honey is also a champion sailor and currently serves as technology director for the America’s Cup Event Authority. Honey first introduced the AC Liveline technology in 2011, but the 34th America’s Cup showcased it on sailing’s biggest stage.

Unlike sports that are played in a compact stadium on a regulation field, sailing is notoriously hard to follow since the races take place across large bodies of open water and must be filmed from helicopters overhead. In the past, TV producers would cut back and forth between shots of the boats filmed from the helicopters and animated simulations intended to give the viewer a more accurate depiction of the action. The results were less than stellar, so Honey began working on ways to combine sailing data with race video.

“The biggest difficulty is that the camera is in a helicopter,” Honey told Visually. “We have to measure the position and orientation of the helicopter, as well as that of the boats. We measure several times per second and then interpolate the data with the video.”


The data displayed on the TV screen includes boat speed, a “ladder” of lines spaced 100 meters apart that gives viewers an idea of how close the boats are to each other and the next gate, yellow laylines that indicate the direction of the wind that allows a boat to sail in a straight line to the gate, and the course boundaries.

Honey and his team relied on advanced GPS and INS technologies to measure boat position accurate to 2 centimeters and the direction, front-to-back tilt and side-to-side heel measurements accurate to .1 degrees. This ensures that AC Liveline measurements are not only accurate for viewers and fans, but render smoothly and clearly. So far, the reaction has been positive among sailing fans.

“It has been very well received,” Honey said. “This technology of rendering things in sports that are hard to see is broadly useful. This is not only of interest to fans of sailing. Being able to accurately do this from a helicopter could work for rally racing, marathons, and more.”

AC Liveline won an Emmy Award for technical achievement in 2012 and NBC Sports, the America’s Cup’s TV partner, cited the technology as key to their broadcast in a press release.

“To change the way people understand the sport of sailing, event organizers have made a significant investment in the production of next-generation broadcast images, anchored by onboard agile HD cameras and 13 microphones on each boat. The backbone of this new visual experience is also a breakthrough in sports broadcasting – augmented reality from a helicopter called AC LiveLine… this revolutionary graphics system enables embedded technical aids for viewers, such as ahead-behind lines so audiences can clearly see who is leading the race.”

More information about AC Liveline can be found online on both the America’s Cup and Sportvision websites.

Jon Salm is an associate client analyst at Millward Brown Digital in New York City and a freelance data journalist in the marketplace. He has a bachelor’s degree in English from Washington and Lee University. You can find him online at and follow him on twitter @S4LM3R.