First look at Nextel’s FanView trackside video receiver for race fans

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First look at Nextel's FanView trackside video receiver for race fans

Click here to see the NASCAR Mobile Technology Center slide show…

Indianapolis (IN) – During the first years I attended the Indianapolis 500, before the advent of the video screens all around the track, there were a number of fans who somehow thought they could enhance their racing experience by bringing their portable TVs with them. Little did they know that Indianapolis blacks out ABC’s live coverage of the race every year, taping it for replay later on Sunday evening. So they would often sit in the stands with their TVs tuned to whatever happened to be showing instead – golf, some Gary Cooper film, or an infomercial – even though they couldn’t possibly hear it over the roar of the engines. Some complained there was no way they could know what was going on at the race, simply by being there.

The view from Jeff Burton’s hood, as seen from a FanView device being tested inside the AMD suite at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

There is a very plausible reason for having access to a second source of information for the very race you’re watching. At the Indy Motor Speedway, you can’t see the entire track from any one seating position – it’s that big – so the video boards let you follow the leader when he (or she – begging your pardon, Danica) is on the opposite side from you. Also, the IMS Radio Network has consistently presented the best radio sports announcing in all of broadcasting, while the track announcer is doing his best to catch up. (“Fel-l-lipe Gee-o…Jaff…Giaffone is seven-n-nteenth!…”)

At the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard last weekend (for all of you open-wheel racing fans, that’s a stock car race), TG Daily attended as a guest of AMD, primarily to see the NASCAR Mobile Technology Center truck that NASCAR co-designed with AMD and HP. But also, the AMD folks had been loaned some of the first production units of a trackside video gadget from Nextel – the Sprint division that’s also NASCAR’s principal sponsor – for us to preview. It’s called the FanView, and it’s a portable multi-channel digital video receiver that lets fans interact directly with all the statistics, scoring, video, and audio feeds associated with the race going on in front of them. It’s Nextel’s branded version of a device that’s already seen wider use in F1 races and world soccer (football), called Kangaroo.TV.

As a piece of hardware, there’s some sensibility to its design. Its corners are covered in a soft rubber that could very well absorb the shock of a serious fall through the openings in the bleachers. Its carrying handle is on the bottom, designed to be tethered to a neck strap that doubles as a shoulder strap. The console is contoured to fit the cup of your hand, with the keypad made small but arranged in such a way that, if you have a long thumb, you could conceivably operate the entire keypad. But if you use the shoulder strap just so, you could afford to drop the entire unit to your side if you have to rise up in the stands to let someone through, or to see what’s happening on the last lap.

I can see where this is going: For the FanView to really take off, it has to be what an iPod would be if it were geared specifically for racing. Specifically, it should help the race viewer fill the information gap, by telling or showing him what he cannot see for himself, just from where he’s seated. This is where such a device would be invaluable: Having continuous access to the full-field running order is a must, especially for anyone seated a considerable distance from the scoring pole. (Even if you’re seated a few hundred feet from it, tell me you can always read who’s in 17th position?) You can see the speedway video feed even if you can’t see one of the big screens from where you’re seated. And with the noise-canceling racing headphones, you can clearly hear the audio at full volume, even during restarts. So you can hear the track announcer, or you can check the scanners to hear what the crews are saying to their drivers, while at the same time protecting your hearing.

Next: An unexpected trip back to the ’80s…

‘For Jeff Gordon, please press 24…’

It’s almost there. Every computing device, without exception, needs a killer application to sell it. You’d think the FanView’s would be automatic. But a perfect application needs to be usable, and in this case, we’re not talking usable by Xbox gamers but usable by race fans. There’s nothing at all wrong with the button layout of the Kangaroo.TV device. But the software that makes use of it is ever-so-slightly confusing, which is just distracting enough to make a serious race fan want to put it down rather than fool with it.

For example, with the keypad, you can dial up complete race statistics for the driver of your choice simply by entering his number and pressing Enter. That’s fine, but whoever laid out the graphics for this device was using a much bigger screen at the time, because he forgot how tiny text gets as it fits in the palm of your hand. The attempt to make a kind of bar graph based on the selected driver’s recorded lap times, for one reason or another, reminded me of the old coin-op game Frogger. How fast was Jeff Burton going during the first 40 laps, for instance? Well, you can find out, but there are several bars in the graph, each one numbered “31,” with the fastest lap represented by the longest bar (which doesn’t make sense), and each bar marked with lap times and speeds that are the furthest thing from Microsoft ClearView ever rendered on a display.

Here’s the full-field rundown, for instance, taken from an actual screen during last weekend’s Brickyard 400 race. It was a good idea to use the iconic number emblems for each driver; in NASCAR, their numbers are now their logos. But if you’re having a hard time reading who’s in 29th, 31st, 32nd, or 33rd position, that’s not my camera’s fault. The screen simply isn’t that crisp for a graphic that tries to be this glitzy. If you’re a software developer, you’ve probably already conceived any number of ways the information in this graphic could be made clearer and more legible, without changing a thing about the hardware.

Now, suppose I’ve dialed up the stats for #31, and I want to see the view of the track from his camera. Being able to dial up the camera views from any car in the field, is a race lover’s dream. At this particular race, FanView viewers didn’t have access to every car’s camera, which isn’t surprising and not terribly disappointing. But you’d think if I’m already looking at how well Jeff Burton’s doing on my Frogger scoreboard, I’d be able to poke a button and see his in-car camera. No, I have to switch to TV view, and then change the channels like a late-night surfer until I notice one with a Cingular logo on his hood (which I’m sure Sprint really appreciates).

Think about this: How often do you watch a race on television where you’re looking at the view from an in-car camera, where you don’t see some part of the driver’s stats superimposed over part of the view? If I’m interested in one driver, I’ll probably want access to both elements at adjacent times. So there should be one-button switching, at the very least, between the Frogger graph and the in-car view.

Rather than blend together access to audio, video, and stats – for what I’d call multitasking – FanView would have you exit one task to get to the other, which is a bit like taking a DOS computer to the racetrack. I can listen to a driver’s crew radio by dialing his number and pressing Enter. I do the same thing if I’m viewing his stats, so why wouldn’t it have been possible for me to just dial one number and get both? Or get the stats and press a key to get the audio feed?

Is there an echo in here?

Even with all these nitpicks, I’ve saved two important criticisms for last, and they’re only because I’m a bigger race fan than I am a gadget collector. At most races, I carry with me a reporter’s notebook. I take notes during all my phone calls, I take notes when I’m watching important newscasts, and yes, I take notes when I’m watching a race. Yes, I understand I should see a psychiatrist. But I’ve found that notes are critically important to me as a race fan, because they help me recall which driver did what maneuver, when. I can go back and read the running order from 40 laps ago and tell you how fast someone’s moving up in the ranks. I need access to the race history, and FanView doesn’t give me that. Sure, it updates me on the present statistics, and it can show me some past statistics for certain drivers in a way only a 1980s Sega coin-op designer could appreciate. But anyone who really follows racing knows that when the cars are closely matched, pit strategies become critical; and if you don’t know who pitted on what lap, you can’t estimate how long someone would maintain the lead. Jimmie Johnson won last weekend’s race partly on successful pit strategy.

A technologist’s toolkit for the Speedway: from left to right, digital camera bag, Robic stopwatch, Sprint Nextel Fanview, reporter’s notebook, Mead portfolio.

And then there’s the criticism that Sprint and Nextel, most of all, probably would least expect: The FanView device is too slow. Between the time something happens on the racetrack and the time you see it happen on this screen, at least two seconds have passed, perhaps more. And two seconds in racing is an eternity. I watched the last lap spinout last weekend. I counted one-filipe-giaffone, two-filipe-giaffone, three-filipe-giaffone, and I watched it again on my little device. Granted, instant replay is generally considered helpful. But there was a three second gap between the time the field was frozen, and the time FanView reported that the field was frozen. If the IMS Radio Network took that long to report this, I’d say something was wrong with Mike King’s headset.

These are all solvable problems, and have little to do with this device’s hardware whatsoever. With the exception of a flip-clip that wouldn’t stay flipped when I placed the unit down (probably just a one-time defect), Kangaroo.TV has a clever design. They need to work with some software designers to make the interactive program more useful and more informational – and frankly, more fun – for the race fan. When they get that done, believe me, I’ll be someplace around the track willing to test it out..

Click here to see the NASCAR Mobile Technology Center slide show…