'People are right to question technology' - Virtual Eye chief
The man behind the technology at the heart of the Umpire Decision Review System (UDRS), soon to be used for the first time in an Ashes series, believes that players and umpires need to spend time understanding and questioning its workings so that the system's tools can be improved and their efficiency increased.
Ian Taylor, CEO of Virtual Eye, which will provide the ball tracker for the UDRS in the upcoming Australian summer, told EPSNcricinfo, "We need to be sharing technology with people whom it will affect. We need to spend time with umpires and players, captains of teams, so that we can open up the entire Pandora's box of the technology. I think people are right to question the technology; that is how we make it better."
Taylor said, "The people whom the technology will impact through the DRS could well be those who will give us feedback that can surprise us. They could tell us to take into account factors we may not even have thought of. This is one way to move forward". He said Virtual Eye hoped to bring in the umpires to have a look at the Ball Tracker. "We would love to see people open to the technology", Taylor said, adding that technology would never replace the role of the umpire. "We want to work with the umpires".
The UDRS system in use for the Ashes will be significant as the ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat will travel to Australia with officials from the BCCI. This visit is meant to formally serve as a test run for the use of UDRS in the 2011 World Cup, but it is hoped the Ashes inspection will finally convince the BCCI to accept the technology for India's home games in the future.
"We are happy for anyone to come and see what we are doing, for players and umpires to understand the technology," Taylor said. "If broadcasters are happy with it, if they believe it enhances the viewers' experience, it will be a part of the coverage regardless. If it doesn't happen officially, it will happen anyway."
Virtual Eye will be used by the Australian broadcasters Channel 9 for the first time, starting with the Twenty20 international between Australia and Sri Lanka on October 31. Taylor said that VE's ball-tracker was only one of several features being offered to Channel 9 this season, but it was in "disproportionate focus" because of the debate over the UDRS.
Under the ICC's current regulations, the mandatory requirements for the UDRS system are the ball-tracking technology, Super Slo-Mo and a 'clear' stump mike. It is the ball tracker that is the most contentious, its 'disproportionate focus' is centred around leg before wicket appeals even though the ball-tracker's other functions, to create wagon wheels, pitch map and the 'bee-hive', (which indicates where the ball has passed the batsman), feature more often during the course of a daily broadcast.
"We want to tell stories of all kinds to the viewer - why are particular fields set, what are fielders doing during a course of a day but the irony is that the emphasis of any tracker discussion is around the lbw appeal," Taylor said. "How often will that be used in a day? Half a dozen times?" This is the first time Channel 9 is using the Dunedin-based Virtual Eye package over Hawk-Eye.
Brad McNamara, executive producer of cricket for Channel 9, told ESPNcricinfo that the decision to go with Virtual Eye was "both commercial and editorial". McNamara said, "Legally, the commercial reasons must remain confidential, however, editorially, we believed VE could enhance our broadcast with other new technologies apart from ball-tracking that they could make available to us." McNamara would not go into detail about the 'enhancements', but said that both technologies were similar in cost as well as accuracy. "The ICC have tested both Hawk-Eye and Virtual Eye and there was little or no difference in accuracy. We hope and expect that to be the case this summer", McNamara said.
Taylor denied that companies like Virtual Eye or Hawk-Eye supported the use of technology in the umpire's decision-making because of any commercial benefit to the graphics providers. "That is not true. We don't get paid any extra for the UDRS technologies, all the extra work that is done is not funded by anyone but us and we are prepared to do this stuff if it does make a difference."
McNamara said the ICC should contribute to the costs of putting the UDRS into place. "If the ICC wants to use technology we have developed over the years and currently pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for each year to satisfy their DRS requirements, then they should contribute to any costs associated with getting that technology to air."
It was, however, important for cricket to arrive at a consensus because Taylor said "the broadcasters know what it is they want from us and what they are prepared to pay for. I have to say not a lot of it has to do with the DRS." The sooner cricketing nations could agree, he said, "one way or the other about the role of the DRS, how it is to be used, where it is to be used and how it is to be funded if used, the sooner we can all focus our attention entirely on what needs to be done to make sure that everyone is happy with what is provided."
Taylor said he would like to see a situation where an umpire could overrule the ball-tracker technology "if he felt uncomfortable with a particular result we gave him. The challenge for us then becomes one where we try to make that an extremely rare occurrence."
Virtual Eye's progress in its earliest venture as sports animation & graphics provider illustrates the impact of technological innovation in sport. From 1992 to 2000, Virtual Eye's America's Cup yacht-racing coverage was produced, Taylor said, from "a computer the size of a small fridge" which cost half a million dollars. In 2003, that same computer cost $1500 and had shrunk to the size of a shoe-box. From 2003-04, Virtual Eye was, "delivering on a cellphone." The example, he believed, contained its own message. "We need to look forward and not back at the changes made all across all sport. Technology is happening."
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at Cricinfo