Virtual Sailing, the New Reality. And Better Sex
By Kimball Livingston Posted May 4, 2014
1) Can you get a winning edge in design before you build your foiling catamaran for America’s Cup 35?
(Everybody tried, designing AC72s for America’s Cup 34, but challenger and defender were still development platforms when they hit the line for race seventeen.)
2) Can you train a crew on dry land?
(When sailing time is brief.)
3) Can you empower the technical team and the sailing team as mutual development partners?
Joseph Ozanne and Kevin Borrows say yes to 1 and 2, and yes-you-must to question 3. It’s the norm in aviation. It’s the norm in motorsports. And sailing? Duh.
Ozanne and Borrows are software engineers who worked on Oracle Racing’s AC72s—Ozanne goes all the way back with Oracle to V5 monohulls—and they lived through the early teething episodes that were so painful. Yes, we all remember that awful crash in October of 2012 that sidelined boat number one until February, 2013, but these guys are clear that from the very beginning . . .
“The problem was a short runway,” Ozanne says, “and with that, the massive problem of building those boats, which everybody undercooked. They just didn’t see how hard it was going to be. A good example is what happened on day one at Oracle, when we snapped one of our daggerboards on our first day of sailing. And even then the problem was not so much that we’d had a major engineering failure. The problem was that a sailing team that relied upon on-water testing was docked for six weeks. So there we were as a technical team, day after day, getting no feedback from the sailors that we could put into the design of boat number two. And the Kiwis were out foiling day after day, and the media was bearing down, and did I mention there was pressure?”
And then the relaunch, and the crash on sailing day eight. And every specialized technical “department” of Oracle Racing already knew that the boat would crash in that condition, but the wing-trim data was not integrated with the foil-trim data was not integrated with the dot dot dot in a way that could be communicated, much less rehearsed.
Ozanne says, “When I run a VPP of the boat, I get a performance curve, and I put that on a spreadsheet. But as soon as I put that on a projector and run the numbers for a sailing team, I lose my audience. Kevin and I are looking for a new way to communicate, because the sailors don’t use the tools that we use to design fast equipment. We need to get the sailors integrated into development. It shouldn’t be me sailing the boat in the computer. It shouldn’t be Kevin. It should be the sailors, the way they do things in aviation or in Formula One.”
Now comes the looming horizon line of AC35, at the end of another short runway. Ozanne, 35, is a French native who revels in the innovative fervor of Silicon Valley. He and Kiwi-born Borrows are now partners in eb1 Labs, based in Ozanne’s home on Clay Street, San Francisco, where the bones of the house are traditional, and Ozanne’s additions are as 21st century as his outlook for the future of high-end sailing, and for the future of the software product that he and Borrows call driRun.
“On-water testing is incredibly challenging,” Ozanne says, “and it is not well suited to the technology of foiling catamarans. It’s super-complicated. You can do it small-scale, which New Zealand did with SL33s and Oracle to some extent with 45s, and in that you learn a lot about the thing you need to know most:
“In a foiling boat, what is the tradeoff between stability and performance?
“That is, you learn a lot about the tradeoffs between stability and performance in 33s and 45s, but you can’t transfer your numbers and your predictions to a bigger platform. Coming to AC34, nobody had a tool for that, because it required a lot of input from the sailors on the water, and you need to account for their ability to manage a very unstable platform.”
Here is my paraphrase of the company’s self-description:
driRun is a physics engine (dynamic VPP) driving high fidelity computational fluid dynamics models. The physics engine is interfaced using the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to immerse the pilot firmly inside the simulation.
For each given set of environmental inputs, driRun’s engine simulates yacht performance, state and forces several times per second. The data is served back to the user in real time, as in the instrument package of a real yacht. driRun also leverages its database for replays, scenario building and professional performance analysis.
It all happens within the virtual world of the Oculus Rift headset.
Not so long ago, Oculus was seeking Kickstarter funding. Then Oculus sold to Facebook . . . for $2 billion . . . even before becoming a consumer product.
Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, declares, “The mission of Oculus is to enable you to experience the impossible . . . the incredible thing about the technology is that you feel like you’re actually present in another place with other people.”
How far can they take this? Next time, we’ll jump into an Oculus Rift and go sailing. But before I leave you, I hear you asking, Better sex? What’s up with that? Well, my dears, your answer is here.