Stan Honey combines work with play for new sailing technology

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Stan Honey has spent much of the past two decades living a double life — as a computer graphics innovator who made televised sports more easily watchable for the casual fan and as a master yachtsman who navigated large boats to a long list of nautical accomplishments.

Honey (pronounced HO-nee), who was inducted this month into the National Sailing Hall of Fame, has finally been able to combine his two seemingly unrelated passions — given that one is usually accomplished sitting in an office while the other takes place on the open seas — in what he has called a "perfect job."

For the past couple of years, Honey has been working with the U.S. organizing committee of the 2013 America's Cup as its technical director, and has helped develop a tracking system, in much the same way he has done for fans watching football, baseball and hockey.

After a discussion with professional sailor Larry Ellison, whose yacht America 17 won the last America's Cup in 2010, Honey left Sportvision, a company he founded in 1998, to develop the LiveLine technology that is being used in the events leading up to next year's America's Cup.

"It's particularly rewarding to do a system like this for sailing," Honey, who won an Emmy in May for LiveLine, said in a recent interview. "It's also probably the most difficult because the helicopter has the mounting for a camera and it's bobbing and weaving and pretty far away [about 1,500 feet above the water].

"The principal thing it communicates to sports fans who are not necessarily sailing fans, it shows who's who, who's ahead, how far ahead they are, and it kind of shows the objective of the exercise. With those 100-meter lines, any sport fan would say, 'I get it, it's a field of play, it's a grid,' and they quickly figure it out."

That has been at the essence of what Honey has done since 1994, when a discussion with David Hill, then the president of Fox Sports, led to Honey and his technology team at News Corp., Fox's parent company, developing a graphic device that helped track the hockey puck on the network's NHL telecasts.

Taking two years and $2 million to develop, it was introduced at the 1996 NHL All-Star Game.

"It was hard to see the puck when the puck was moving pretty quickly," Honey recalled. "Of course the die-hard fans didn't need to see the puck, but new fans were frustrated they couldn't see it. David [Hill] asked me to build a program that would help track the hockey puck. It was a trail behind the puck, and if it ricocheted off someone into the goal, fans would be able to see how it got there. Before, at least on TV, they had no idea how it went in."

The colorful tracker was used for the remaining three years Fox televised NHL games but was abandoned after ESPN acquired the television rights "because it was branded too much to Fox," Honey said. But it became the catalyst that prompted Honey and two others at News Corp. to leave Rupert Murdoch's company to start Sportvision in 1998.

Within months, Sportvision introduced the bright-yellow first-down line for NFL telecasts that Honey had started working on while still at News Corp. In fact, Hill's name is on the patent. Jeb Drake, the executive producer of ESPN's NFL games, won an Emmy for first using it.

"There's been a ton of changes to it," Honey said. "The one major change is that it now works in HD. It's much cheaper to operate. When it was first introduced, it took a 50-foot truck, a ton of gear and a five-man crew. Now it's just a small rack of gear that's in the truck and one or two folks on the crew. The system has the capability to do far more — the line of scrimmage, what down and distance. It's far more compelling."

Then there was the "K-Zone," which Honey and Sportvision introduced around 2000. With the help of a camera zooming in from somewhere near the center-field fence, pitches were tracked to see if they landed within the confines of home plate — or at least the strike zone being called by the umpire on that particular night.

"The most surprising result is that when we first introduced it, it showed how good a job the umpires were doing," Honey said. "Before that, the umpires were very negative about it because they thought it was going to show their errors. They came around and realized it was helping them, and we all realized that the umpires do a much better job than everyone thinks."

While spending countless hours developing these computer graphics, something else was pulling at Honey, who sailed competitively at Yale.

It was his love of sailing, which he began around age 8 while growing up outside Los Angeles. It was also the lure of finally following the career path that some of his former college sailing teammates at Yale pursued after graduation. Though he dabbled in professional sailing for years, Honey decided in 2004 to devote himself to the sport full time.

Hired to navigate Frank Cammas' Groupama 3, the boat set a record of 48 days, 7hours, 45 minutes for circumnavigating the globe, a distance of more than 22,000 miles. It beat the previous record — which had stood for five years — by more than two days. It also reminded Honey why he wanted to sail competitively again.

Honey then navigated yachts to victories in the Volvo Ocean Race in 2005 and 2006. He was named Rolex Yachtsman of the Year in 2006 and 2011.

His development of LiveLine came from a conversation he had with Ellison shortly after returning to competitive racing.

"I mentioned someday that it would be interesting to do what we did for football and baseball for sailing," said Honey, who developed the ETAK computer system used for navigation nearly 30 years ago after getting his master's degree in electrical engineering from Stanford.

This technology might hold a more meaningful place with Honey than what he did in other sports, which also include work he did with NASCAR telecasts. But his goal is the same: to develop a televised graphics system that fans can relate to "because it's very visible and makes a difference. It helps tell the story."

Asked whether there are any computer graphics or other technology being used to help televise sports that he wishes he invented, Honey points to the above-field cameras that home in on huddles, as well as the "Matrix"-like freeze-frame used during the recent Olympic Games to follow an athlete's performance in track and gymnastics.

Honey, 56, is curious to see whether those innovations have the longevity as some of his graphics that are still being used in some form or another.

"If something is just cool, it has a wow factor when it is first introduced," Honey said. "For something to have lasting value, it has to tell a story or has to communicate something that is hard to see. We made that mistake at Sportvision a number of times. The systems that are successful are used as a tool to tell a story."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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