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Charting Sportvisions course

Dodging icebergs at 30 knots probably doesn't sound like fun to most 45-year-old CTOs. For Sportvision's Stan Honey, though, it's a vacation.

Honey, the engineering brains behind Fox's glowing hockey puck and Sportvision's virtual football first-down line, is a world-class sailor who holds four major ocean-racing records. He currently navigates Playstation, a 105-foot catamaran that is trying to break the transatlantic record.

In fact, it was pioneering work with navigational software that jump-started Honey's career. He was doing military-related research at SRI International in 1983 when he sailed with Pong inventor and Atari founder Nolan Bushnell to victory in a transpacific race. Bushnell was impressed with Honey's navigational electronics and asked whether he had any other ideas. Honey suggested a car navigation system.

Bushnell gave him $500,000 in seed money, and the digital-mapping firm Etak (named after a Polynesian term for navigation) was born. Honey and some SRI colleagues created a computer-based process that could accurately map a large city like Los Angeles and store it on digital tapes. Combining digital-map data with yachting navigation principles such as dead reckoning, Etak created a system accurate to within 50 feet.

Unfortunately, the $1,200 Navigator was ahead of its time as a consumer product, and Etak sold it to police departments and shipping companies. By 1989, Etak had become profitable and was purchased by News Corp. for a reported $25 million (sold to Sony in 1997, it is now owned by Belgian map firm Tele Atlas). News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch saw Etak's digital road map of the U.S. "as a medium upon which to add consumer services," such as shopping and travel, says Honey.

Honey, Etak's president and chief executive officer, soon became an informal technology adviser to many News Corp. executives and, in 1993, was named executive vice president of technology for News Corp.

The new post was a staff job, however, and Honey liked building things. So he started the News Technology Group to do projects, such as developing a worldwide set-top box for News Corp.'s DTH satellite ventures.

In mid 1994, Honey was briefing FOX Sports head David Hill on how virtual imaging could insert advertising into broadcasts. Hill didn't like that idea but thought a system to track hockey pucks would be useful, since FOX was acquiring NHL rights. Honey said it was technically feasible but too expensive for television. Hill disagreed, and so did Murdoch, who told Honey to build it for $2 million.

So Honey pulled engineers from Etak and recruited former SRI colleagues to tackle the 18-month project, which ranged from the image overlay to the puck-position determination to the puck electronics itself. The 12-member team delivered the glowing "FoxTrax" graphic on time (and almost on budget) for the 1996 All-Star Game.

"In some ways, it was more fun than anything that the group of us had ever done," Honey recalls. "At that point in our careers, it was fun to ... work absolutely focused on a specific project again."

Honey's team was eager, but there weren't any immediate projects at FOX. So Sportvision was spun off in January 1998 with major investments from Mets owner Fred Wilpon and Roy Disney, with whom Honey had sailed. News Corp. licensed the intellectual property behind FoxTrax to Sportvision in exchange for a small equity stake.

The company's first new product was AIRf/x, a vertical-leap system for basketball. The company's big break came with the "1st and Ten" virtual first-down graphic, which was introduced by ESPN in 1998 and is now routinely seen on ABC, ESPN and FOX football coverage.

Sportvision has also developed the BatTrack bat-speed system for baseball and SmashFactor tee-shot system for golf, and its home run-measurement system was used for ESPN's coverage of the 2000 All-Star Home Run Derby. Current projects include Internet streaming coverage of triathlons and an auto racing system that can highlight cars and track such data as turning speed and throttle position.

Honey believes Sportvision is well-positioned for advanced media applications such as gaming and interactive television. "There are very few people in Silicon Valley who really have an operating experience with honest-to-God TV broadcast operations," he says. "So we're kind of an anomaly in that we're heading for the convergence space from the TV side rather than the advanced-media side."