How NVIDIA Turns High-Tech Sailing Into a Game of Inches

by Brian Caulfield

You’ve heard the slogan “the way it’s meant to be played,” but this is ridiculous.

When the America’s Cup finals kick off this Saturday, the umpires will see the race with new eyes. Eyes supplied by the event’s technical gurus and enhanced by NVIDIA GPUs.

Servers equipped with NVIDIA Quadro K5000 GPUs will generate a real-time representation of the action that gives judges the position of each boat to within a fraction of an inch, and each boat’s heading to within a tenth of a degree.

Even the curvature of the earth — which tilts the course by one centimeter from one end to another — is taken into account.

Everything you need, nothing you don’t: a stripped down interface shows judges what they need to know.

While the world will watch NVIDIA-powered television feeds that layer immersive 3D graphics over shots of AC-72 catamarans the size of 13-story office buildings skimming over the waters of the San Francisco Bay at more than 45 miles per hour, the race’s umpires huddle around monitors displaying a stripped down version of the action that looks — at first glance — more like a 1980s arcade game than a minor marvel of 21st century technology.

In this case, simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication.

“This is about how much important information we can get to them, and how much unimportant information we can keep away,” says Tim Heidmann, one of a team of a dozen technologists who have helped reinvent the way the America’s Cup is run.

It’s an interface that gives judges unprecedented precision. At an event like the America’s Cup, that’s a revolution. That’s because sailing, at this level, is a sport like no other.

Boats are tracked to within a fraction of an inch.

Imagine a football game played on a field that is constantly moving, using players who rely on the motion of the playing field itself to propel themselves forward. Now imagine trying to officiate a sport where the goal lines and boundary markers are constantly in flux. The push and pull of wind and wave have made officiating sailing into something of a black art, and the results of high stakes races incredibly contentious.

Until now.

That’s thanks to a stream of real-time data from GPS units and inertial sensors attached to the boats themselves, a trio of camera-equipped helicopters, and an elaborate GPU-powered simulation of the effect of the bay’s unpredictable tides.

Now judges can do more than just enforce the rules. They can impose penalties with near impossible precision. A boat can be penalized precisely two boat lengths — a feat that would have been simply impossible in the past, Heidmann explains.

It’s a system that’s been fine- tuned in nearly a dozen races held around the world in preparation for the Cup, with nary a flaw.