After being postponed by two months, the Tour de France, cycling’s annual, three-week jaunt around the French countryside, gets underway on August 29, albeit without spectators.
spoke with Peter Gray, senior vice president of the advanced technology group for sport at NTT, on how the technology services provider intends to create a “digital global stadium” for fans. Edited excerpts:
Q. What kind of technology are you leveraging to help fans watch the race from their homes and still be a part of a “global stadium” experience? Will that replicate the real-life experience for them?
The way I think about it is that we’re trying to bring the race to the fans by giving them as much information about it as we possibly can. We’re doing that in a number of ways.
One is through traditional television. We’ll have a lot of new data and visualisations this year, particularly around things like the mountains and the terrain that the race is traveling through. This will be captured through sensors that are mounted beneath the saddle of every rider and provide real-time data on speed and GPS location, every second.
The second is through the RaceCentre website, which can be accessed through the official website of the Tour de France. It will house all of the live data, as well as commentary, information, videos and social media—so it really brings together all the assets that people can use to follow the race. This information can also be accessed through the official mobile app of the Tour de France.
Third, there are some new innovations we’re launching this year for VIP guests of the A.S.O. [Amaury Sport Organisation], which is the owner of the Tour de France. A new augmented reality experience will allow you to project the course onto a tabletop and see in 3D the geography that the race is traveling through. That's overlaid with all the live telemetry captured from each of the riders.
The final one is around the enhancing the fantasy league experience for fans using our machine learning predictions, to provide indications of which riders to look out for.
The experience this year is obviously going to be different for fans. I don't think any digital experience could ever replace the human experience of being by the side of the road at a huge event like the Tour de France. But we’re making sure fans all over the world are able to experience the race in all sorts of different ways.
Q. The race sees millions of fans throng France’s roads every year. What kind of numbers are you expecting this year through the digital channels?
1.2 billion people watch the race every year. Over 10 million users in 2019 logged on to the RaceCentre website, which was provided by NTT. We are already seeing a 30 percent increase in digital traction [over last year] for some of the initial events in the run up to the Tour de France. We expect that will be even larger for the race; we’ll probably see record numbers this year.
Q. NTT has been working with A.S.O. for about six years now. How was this year different given the Covid-19 situation?
We began working with A.S.O. in 2015. While the Tour de France has always had fantastic television coverage, it didn't have a particularly strong digital experience. A.S.O. recognised that to better engage with fans, especially younger fans, they needed to move into the digital age. They chose NTT as their technology partners and since then, we’ve worked on innovations every year to enhance the digital experience for fans.
This year was the most challenging. Typically, we would physically have a control centre located at the race, which manages our operations. But because of the Covid-19 related constraints, we decided, several months ago, to operate all of our technology platforms remotely. Our global support teams located in Australia, India, South Africa, Europe and the US have been working remotely; they connect into a virtual operations centre that we set up and operate all of the digital platforms on behalf of the Tour de France.
Q. Keeping an audience engaged in a virtual setting is difficult, especially over a three-week period. How do you intend to hold viewers’ attention?
There are a couple of things here. The first is the race itself. All the technology we’ve put in place is really just a platform for telling the stories that are actually happening. This year, the race looks to be one of the most exciting tours ever because we don’t know how well riders are prepared for a full three weeks of racing—they haven’t had all of the lead-up races that they would normally have had.
Second, the breadth and depth of ways that people can engage with the race whether that’s through the television broadcasts, website, mobile app, social media, the fantasy game means that people can engage with the event in the way that best suits them at different times.
Q. Can the digital model you’ve come up become a blueprint for other sporting events scheduled to take place over rest of the year and beyond, if Covid-19 continues?
Absolutely. In fact, NTT was also the technology partner for the Indy 500 [an annual car race held in Indiana, US] which was held last weekend. That event, like the tour, was not able to have a crowd and so we created a similar digital experience for the fans. We're also working with a number of sporting organisations around the world to figure out the best ways to bring their sporting events to fans.
Q. Finally, can you tell us about the hackfest that NTT organised for its employees ahead of the Tour de France and whether any of those ideas crystallised this year?
The hackfest is something that I'm incredibly proud of, and this was our second one for the Tour de France. We try to get ideas from employees who are not necessarily experts in cycling, as they’re often able to see things differently.
The first Hackfest crowded some fantastic ideas, like the augmented reality application we’re implementing for VIP guests this year, as well as a concept around gamification. Another was a machine learning model called L’Buzz that analyses all the movement within the peloton [or cycling pack] and helps predict events that are about to occur—like a crash or the pelotons splitting. It basically creates a buzz that is then used by our social media teams and commentators to give fans better insights. You’ll see the output of this year’s hackfest over the next two or three years of the race.