Scanning In The Streets

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Anyone who’s visited Fenway Park to see the Boston Red Sox knows that current principal owner John Henry is among the world’s best in sports event marketing. The Red Sox Nation experience spans generations and economic strata and reaches from eastern Maine to Tokyo. So what else does John Henry do for fun? He’s a simracer. He likes it so much that in 2004 he and Dave Kaemmer launched Motorsport Simulations LLC. Kaemmer, a simulation video game programmer and creator with a slew of titles to his name, has created an Internet-based simulated racing service for professionals who race in the physical world and hobbyists who simultaneously race each other over the Internet. The company aims to deliver many of the benefits currently realized by Formula One teams with proprietary, seven-figure simulation suites. In late August, it launched its much-anticipated subscription-based service allowing virtually anyone anywhere in the world with an up-to-date PC, high-speed Internet access and a set of automotive-style wheel-and-pedal controls to race in real-time, online competition. The simulation environment of offers rich opportunities for embedded product placement and linkages.

How does this sector of the entertainment world relate to surveyors? Plenty. To read how, buckle up and read on.

The Key Drivers for Scanning
As more firms seek to attract the best peopleparticularly young peoplethe best tools are a must. And the more 3D tools, the better. High-fidelity 3D simulation environments are where 3D solutionsthose technology solutions many surveyors are turning toare headed. Additionally, situational awareness attained from 3D models is a key to the safe operation on a jobsite, whether it is a race track or a construction site. In the transportation sector particularly, there is a long record of innovation in safety and performance migrating from the race track to the road. But will the physical world imitate the simulation? Of course, and that’s where design comes in.

Using a Leica HDS3000, iRacing engineers have scanned 44 race tracks for the company’s digital track inventory, including super speedway ovals such as Daytona International Speedway in Florida, Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte, North Carolina, Atlanta Motor Speedway in Georgia, and Richmond International Raceway in Virginia. Also included are short-oval tracks such as Martinsville Speedway and the South Boston Speedway in Virginia, Toyota Speedway in Irwindale, California, and Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut, as well as a selection of road circuits ranging from Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California, Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Salinas, California, Summit Point Motorsports Park in West Virginia, Virginia International Raceway in Alton, Virginia, and Lime Rock Park in Connecticut. All told, the company has licensed more than 60 tracks in the United States and Europe, including all but two of the tracks where NASCAR’s Sprint Cup competes.

They’ve also modeled (and scanned in some cases) eight race vehicles. Among them are a street-legal road-racing Pontiac Solstice, a Skip Barber SB2000 racing school single-seater, a 1,650pound, 800-horsepower, open-wheel Silver Crown oval-track racer, and a vintage Formula One championshipwinning Lotus 79.

Why scan? According to CEO Kaemmer, it’s the only way to get the accuracy and level of detail requiredthe same reason many surveyors turn to the technology. Using only GPS, video and satellite information is inadequate. The true nature of a race track is revealed in the bumps, minor camber changes and other subtle details, says Kaemmer, who won nearly 20 races in the Skip Barber Racing Series during a multi-year competition career and who once held the Lime Rock Park lap record for the series. "To really learn a race track," Kaemmer says, "a driver needs a very accurate `sight picture’ from the cockpit. Laser scanning, which provides millimeter precision, is the key to providing that. The point cloud from the laser scan is the skeleton for a representation of the track that has stunning verisimilitude."

Using Leica’s Cyclone software, iRacing engineers register scan data and export it to proprietary tools for processing. To get real-time performancethis is racing after allthe track builder loads and unloads local model data into memory based on the distance to the vehicle. iRacing’s software also organizes racers according to their experience and safety record.

iRacing’s core technology also includes a physics engine with a proprietary tire model to simulate vehicle dynamics. Kaemmer and Ian Berwick, who heads iRacing’s race car engineering department, collected data for the model by testing real racing tires on a 75,000-pound test rig at the Calspan Tire Research Facility in Buffalo, New York. According to Kaemmer, "Race-tire technology remains something of a black artno matter how accurately the track and the car are represented, the simulation experience won’t be `right’ unless the tire model is accurate. Our goal is to go beyond curve-fitting to a model that is actually predictive."

To be useful as a simulation tool for racers preparing for a race on a physical track requires both detail and accuracy. Drivers take their braking cues, for example, from fine track markings or objects beside the track. They have to be in the right place in the driver’s field of view. According to the company, its beta users report that using the system is equivalent to getting the first practice set completed.

As track time can cost up to $30,000 per hour, simulation economics make sense, too. Not only is track time expensive, supply is scarce on race weekends. Time spent on familiarizing drivers with the track is time that’s not available for fine-tuning the car for the race.

An Entrepreneurial Business Model
The business model for iRacing is every bit as intriguing as the company’s use of technology. The company has nonexclusive agreements with International Speedway Corporation and Speedway Motorsports, Inc., which own all but two of the NASCAR tracks. iRacing owns the digital models. What’s in it for the track owner? According to Steve Potter, iRacing’s director of communications and former vice president and general manager at Lime Rock Park, community and eyeball potential are important, particularly when it comes to getting sponsorship and broadcasting revenues. For tracks that host top-tier racing series, such as NASCAR, sponsorship and broadcasting revenues exceed ticket sales at the track by a wide margin. Of course, the up-front investment for the simulation is borne entirely by iRacing, not by the track owner. iRacing has found a new way to keep the most enthusiastic champions of the sport coming back to the trackvirtually!

Tom Greaves is CEO and co-founder of Spar Point Research in Danvers, Massachusetts. He has more than 20 years’ experience in engineering, product development, and business research and analysis.

Author Note: A few weeks after I wrote this story, Bruce Hall, president of Velodyne LIDAR, and I paid a visit to iRacing’s headquarters to experience the system firsthand. After a few warm-up laps, Bruce and I raced each other around Lime Rock for eight laps in entry-level Pontiac Solstices. What a blast! After 30 minutes (which seemed more like three seconds or three hours) my head was spinning. The realism of the track, the car and the response is truly astonishing. An earlier version of this story appeared in the SparView newsletter, Vol. 6, No. 10. If you’d like to learn more about how laser scanning and other 3D imaging technologies are changing the rules of engineering, construction and surveying, attend SPAR 2009 (March 30 April 1) at the Hyatt Regency Denver.

A 1.521Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE