The Grand National is one of those fixtures in the British sporting calendar that commands national attention. When Channel 4 won the rights to screen the race from 2013, the production team decided to use digital technology on mobile to send information to the punters at home that would take some of the mystery out of the “magnificent chaos” of the event.
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James Rutherford, multiplatform commissioning editor for sport at Channel 4, says the ability of digital technology to unveil data to a TV audience is not new, “but what has changed is the ability to send that to a mobile device”.
In 2013 the channel launched HorseTracker, an app that allows the viewer at home to follow their own horse on a second screen, ending the “where’s my horse?” puzzlement that often attends the Grand National.
Rutherford’s team orchestrated a range of specialist suppliers to solve different parts of the puzzle, from getting the data from the race horses’ movement, through getting it to the audience in sync with the television broadcast. Its efforts were recently rewarded with a Computer Weekly enterprise software user award, as well as best in class for that awards programme.
Channel 4 turned to data provider TurfTrax, whose tracking system uses radio frequency transmitters sewn into each racehorse’s saddle cloth. Their tracking chips transmit speed and positional data to a series of antennae located around a course – more than 80 of them in the case of Aintree.
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The broadcaster worked with Monterosa, a second screen technology supplier, to develop the app. This became the number one free app in the UK during the horse-racing festival period in 2013 and 2014, used by more than 100,000 people during the Grand National. Rutherford recounts that Channel 4 had already been pleased with Monterosa’s work on the channel’s game show The Million Pound Drop.
It is important that the Channel 4 application ties into the TV broadcast, rather than existing separately from it. The data the user receives about their horse on their smartphone or tablet has to be in time with what they see on the television.
Broadcast latency and synchronisation
Due to the variation in broadcast carriage platforms there can be up to 25 seconds' latency in what viewers are watching. “The app might be telling you that your horse has fallen over when you’re watching it going over the fourth fence”. To solve that problem, Channel 4 worked with audio-syncing technology specialist Civolution.
Using the magic of an “inaudible” watermark, the app determines precisely the correct time to release data about the race that it has already, in exact synchronisation with what the viewer is watching on television.
Rutherford says there were “a few wobbles in year one", but a sense of elation when it all worked. "There is nothing like a live environment on television. The radio frequency antennas might all work perfectly together in transmitting the data when you test. But on the day, there are lots of people there and other broadcasters, all of a sudden things can go wrong,” he says.
Channel Four did consider using the app for the flat horse racing reason – “but it was a different kettle of fish," says Rutherford. "The races are shorter, with fewer horses, you can see your horse more easily, and so on."
“So, in 2014 we decided to refocus and deepen the experience for the Grand National itself.”
Outside of horse racing, Rutherford’s team has turned its attention to Rio, for the Paralympics in 2016. "Again, using mobile technology to bring people closer to the sport, especially the data regarding wheelchair basketball and rugby,” says Rutherford. Impact force in tackling is one area that could be turned into data for an app, he explains. That way the viewer could see how much impact force one national team is generating over another.