Sir Ian Taylor, KNZM
Managing Director, Animation Research Ltd
“Don’t ever use the word challenge in the same sentence as Covid. Only ever use the word opportunity.”
That was technology pioneer Sir Ian Taylor’s message for delegates at Sport New Zealand’s Connections 2022 conference in Christchurch.
Sir Ian recounted the experience of his Dunedin-based company Animation Research Limited (ARL) – a company that delivers animation such as cricket’s DRS and ball tracking for golf tournaments and baseball matches - to augment the broadcast of major global sporting events.
Founded in 1990, ARL, had never followed a business plan. The closest thing a company staffed with sports fanatics had to a mission statement was thinking: ‘how do we use technology to get to all the best sports events in the world for free’?
The successful use of data to create ball tracking or plot America’s Cup yachts’ progress on a race course has provided exactly that opportunity.
ARL landed contracts with major sporting organisations all over the planet.
One week its operational staff would be in the broadcast control truck at a golf tournament in Texas, the next they’d be at a yacht race thousands of miles away. It was exhilarating work, albeit work that produced a significant carbon footprint due to the extensive air travel.
Then came COVID-19. Global Sport shut down overnight. ARL’s team returned to its Dunedin base with no clue as to when, or even if, they would return to work.
“In two weeks we lost every sporting event in the world,” Sir Ian says. “We’d gone from our best year ever in 2019 to absolute zero.”
Sir Ian gave his staff two instructions – go home and look after yourselves and your families. Oh, and have a think about what the world might be like when the pandemic passed.
Not long into the first Level 4 lockdown he received a call from the company’s head of innovation John Rendall.
Rendall posed what seemed to be a cataclysmic possibility for a company that relied on being present at sports events to deliver its service: what if global sports started again and the borders were still closed?
Rendall also tabled a possible solution: that the company find a way to feed its graphics packages into live sports broadcasts remotely from its offices in Dunedin.
“Imagine if we didn’t have to travel again,” Rendall said.
“That was the most outrageous thing I had ever heard,” says Sir Ian.
But it wasn’t.
Within a few weeks the company had tweaked its technology to enable it to do exactly that.
When the PGA Tour re-launched – albeit without crowds – ARL was ready to go.
The new system not only worked seamlessly - but allowed the company to explore a new possibility – providing its service to multiple events simultaneously.
“That would have been impossible before COVID,” Sir Ian says.
Adapting to deal with COVID has opened up a world of opportunity for the business – and cut its carbon footprint by 80 per cent.
“The lesson we learned was that it was never a challenge of technology – it was a challenge of attitude,” Sir Ian said.
“We found that the technology was always there - it just hadn’t been used properly. So, as we face these problems in the world just keep in mind: ‘what have we got already that will help us’?”
And to never let a challenge stand in the way of an opportunity.