Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Volvo Secrets

Computer simulations like Virtual Spectator and Google Earth have transformed how we follow offshore yacht racing. They can give the armchair sailor the ability to be transported out of the mundane world to join the fleet in the remotest parts of the world, to turn the kitchen table into that of a navigator.

Virtual Spectator up the stakes with not just graphics that give the ability to rewind and replay the crucial stages, but with layers of information that can be overlaid. Showing the isobars and wind direction helps understand the tactical decisions and explain why one boat flies ahead while another hits the buffers.

But it can do more, with access to the telemetry data that would be displayed to the helmsman as he races at over 30 knots through ice cold seas. Data such as boat speed and heading and similar stats for the wind.

That could give a potentially fascinating insight into each of the boats and how the teams have optimised for various conditions. By collecting the stats over each leg you could show radial plots of boat speed against true wind angle, and then compare these against boats by wind strength, by leg, by port vs starboard, by start vs end leg.... the opportunities for number crunchers are immense. And the opportunities for blog writers would be brilliant too.

A quick look at the Virtual Spectator installation showed a whole set of directories, one for each leg, each filled with files called something like "TEL_LEG04_00001.vsd". While the extension of ".VSD" is used by the Visio program, that program refused to open them, calling their file format invalid.

So JP approached Virtual Spectator on their forums here to ask if they could say what file format they were using. As you will see their response is clear - they are under contract with the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) and so are unable to release the data (even if they didn't have issues about protecting the IPR of their file format). They helpfully suggested I contact the VOR directly.

However the response from the VOR transferred the responsibility on, saying "the positioning data which we release to VS is not permitted to be released to the public due to contractual agreements with partners and the teams".

But why would the teams not want the information made public? Well the obvious answer is production of radials might be considered giving away too much of their design secrets, or at least reduce the value of their IPR.

I think that is wrong for two reasons. Firstly that information is already in the public domain as anyone can read it off the VS display. Of course that might take some time as it took me to get the numbers behind this post. But with the motivation and cheap labour or automation the numbers can be extracted.

As the VS forum moderator pointed out, this argument can not entirely be used to avoid the IPR of VOR. When playing a DVD all the bits are on public display, but that doesn't mean each bit is then open to being copied. But there is the concept of "fair use" where by limited copying is permitted - like photocopying a few pages but not a whole book.

So with a DVD - say of the TV series Lost - you can post comments about things you saw in the background if you think it a useful clue to the convoluted and mysterious plot without breaching copyright. Similarly you could argue that to use limited extracts from the data from VS program is acceptable under fair use - as I would argue if anyone complained about the post mentioned.

The second reason for making the data public is related to what is the purpose of the Volvo Ocean Race - in particular for those that actually pay for it. For Volvo, ABN AMRO, Movistar, Ericsson and the likes the purpose is publicity, brand recognition, good PR, corporate branding, moral boosting, CEO ego massaging, you name it. To sail around the world is just the means.

So there is a difference between DVD data and VS data. In the former the IPR owner is trying to make a return on their investment and copying the data will directly loose them revenue. In the latter the IPR owner is trying to get as much publicity as possible and releasing the data into the public domain will not cost them. Rather the increased publicity should help achieve their objectives.

The only counter argument is the boat designer companies might not want that. But remember their role is one of supplier: critical ones maybe, but they are not paying the bills, indeed they are the ones making the money.

And as pointed above, if anyone wanted to get the data out of VS they could. If there was real value in it (and I'm dubious given the lack of control on the measurements) one of their competitors will have done it. And we kind-of know the answer anyhow - ABN1 wins when reaching in winds over 10 knots and stops in less.

So less secrets and more openness VOR and release the telemetry data to the public. Let the bytes sail free.

Image from Virtual Spectator

1 comment:

Tillerman said...

Perhaps the real reason for not releasing the format of the data is to stimulate frustration and anger among sailing geeks, generating hundreds of comments on blogs and forums, creating even more publicity for the VOR, and then eventually with great fanfare they release the format to even more publicity?

On the other hand it could just be laziness.