Saturday, April 21, 2012

Photos, Soccer and Bathrooms


The most expensive camera I've ever used cost about $10,000 and it wasn't even made by Nikon or Canon. It couldn't take anything scenic like a sunset or a family at Disneyland or waves crashing at the beach. In fact, every image had the same background, everyone in it looked elongated and I doubt there was ever an image I'd want to frame.

But it was the best camera I've ever come across.

In actuality, the camera wasn't like anything you're suspecting. It was made by a company called FinishLynx and is specifically used to time track and field meets, among other similar sports. It's taken timing to the most accurate level possible and is truly impressive when you see what it can do.

Today, during the annual Woody Wilson Classic during Picnic Day, the FinishLynx was getting a full workout.

Sean Laughlin is the owner/operator of and, in my opinion, one of the most talented people in making sense of the cables, cameras and computers needed to make the system work flawlessly. In the olden days, as my folks liked to call them, there'd be a bleacher full of people at the finish line holding stopwatches, starting them when they heard the gun and stopping them when the runners crossed the finish line. 

That system worked for many years but it's not the most reliable. For example, everyone has a different reaction time in starting their watch after hearing the gun. There's also a delay from when the gun fires to when the timers hear it - the sound does take a noticeable split-second to travel from one side of the track to the other - and then there's the guesstimation of the exact moment a person's torso crosses the finish line, which by rule is when they're deemed to have finished a race. Oh, and there's also the reaction time from that best guess to stopping the watch. Overall, not all that accurate.

At best, meets only use hand-timing as a backup in the event the automatic timing system - also called Fully Automatic Timing (FAT) - fails. If it's used in the results, a total of .24 of a second has to be added on to each time to account for the inaccuracies listed above. But even with that, most big meets don't accept hand times for entry purposes and they're usually not accepted for record-keeping purposes.

Technology has changed all that. The FinishLynx system - and there are others out there - eliminate the deficits mentioned above. So how does it work?

In most cases, the starter holds a small metal sensor in the same hand as they hold their gun, although there are wireless systems that can detect when the gun is fired. At the slightest hint of the gunshot, a signal is sent to the timing system, which is basically a small computer, and the clock starts instantaneously.

Sitting on a pole above the finish line is the FinishLynx camera - and in Sean's case, a backup as well - which is trained to look right down on the finish line, in fact, just a small piece of the line about a quarter-inch wide. Sean is sitting in a tent at the finish line, controlling the camera with his PC. As runners cross, Sean signals the camera to begin taking images of the finish line.

But, here's the catch. It doesn't take just one image. It takes thousands of images, each of them catching a tiny slice of the runner as they pass. Each sliver is assigned a time from the system. When the race is over, Sean calls up what looks like one image but is really many thousands of images strung together. He slides a cursor line across the image, lines it up with the torso, pushes the return key and, bam, the time is recorded.

The image below was actually taken from Saturday's meet. At first glance, it looks simply like a photo of a runner jogging on the track. In reality, what look like lanes are actually the finish line. What appear to be gray lane lines are actually black markings painted on the finish line to help differentiate the lanes. Without them, the whole background would be one color, just like the finish line.

This image is actually many thousands of images of a runner crossing the finish line on Saturday.

FinishLynx can be set to take hundreds or thousands of frames per second. The more frames per second, the more separated the runners will be on the image which is useful for sprints when athletes are separated by barely a strand of hair.

I remember using the system and having a coach swear to me we had the results wrong. He chastised me for screwing up his athlete's win in a hurdles' race. So, I called up the image and he meekly walked away. And I got an apology.

So does the system fail? Sure. Technology isn't perfect. Sometimes the gun sensor fails, sometimes there's too much light on the image or maybe something else falters. With Sean, I can't recall any of that happening though in the many years he's worked our meets. He's been throwing perfect games time and time again.

Sean, along with his coworker Jim Hume, handle the timing, process all the results and send it all to the web instaneously so fans can see what happens as soon as an event in the meet ends.

As a sports information person, what Sean and Jim do is invaluable. It's not much fun getting results for 75 athletes at the same time when a meet finishes, and then having to digest them, figure out what's happened and write a recap for the media while facing a late-night deadline. Live results allow me to work through the meet a little bit at a time.

Sean handles most of the big meets in Northern California. When I see he's working, I know my life is a lot easier. I was always stressed beyond belief when I was running the system. Sean is cool as a cucumber and always the friendliest guy on the track.

Timing meets and handling results used to fall on our shoulders in this office. Getting that darn camera to line up perfectly on the finish line was the most frustrating job. Then making sure all the pieces - the sensor, the computer, the camera - all work seamlessly was not easy either. Thank goodness for timers who do this for a living.



Sometimes the best assists don't happen on the pitch. Just ask Tom Hinds, the campus's director of marketing, who witnessed a good deed on a recent morning involving the Aggie men's soccer team and made sure the world knew about it.

While riding the Unitrans L line, Tom noticed some passengers in Aggie men's soccer team apparel. Not long after, a female student boarded the bus but she didn't have the necessary ID nor fare to ride. Without prompting, one of the players sprang into action and handed the bus driver a dollar so the student could ride to campus.

No fan fare and no cameras, just a simple act of kindess so a fellow Aggie could make it to class on time.

Tom posted the encounter on UC Davis' Facebook page and within a few hours it had generated a few comments and more than 250 "likes".

Tom relayed the story to me when our paths crossed later that morning and, after perusing the roster online, he thought he recognized the player but wasn't 100 percent sure.

It's probably best that way. Give credit where credit is due but anonymous acts of kindness are sometimes the most appreciated. And it's nice to think that any of the players I see around campus might've been the one who made someone else's day just a little bit brighter.



You know there's not much on TV early Saturday morning when I stop on the DIY Network, intrigued by a show called "Bath Crashers." 

Don't get me wrong, I think "House Crashers" is a pretty good show which led me to occassionally watching "Yard Crashers" but I don't generally seek them out while channel-surfing. I didn't even know there were other ".... Crashers" out there - until a couple of weeks ago when "Bath Crashers" entered my life.

My dog Annie and I set upon "Bath Crashers", me moreso than Annie who decided to just listen while closing her eyes. In case you don't watch these types of shows, an unsuspecting handsome couple goes into a Lowe's or Home Depot looking for some inoccuous items such as, well, light bulbs.

A film crew ambushes them, convinces them their bathroom needs to be flushed, and then follows them home to redesign a whole new sanctuary of peace. My question that morning was, "how come those shows never come to a store in Sacramento?"  

I half-heartedly watched the couple explain their bathroom woes to Matt Muenster, the show's host. Watching TV in the mirror's reflection was only possible on the wife's side of the sink. The shower head, sink and "throne" were too low for the husband. Yeah, I thought, that makes sense. He IS pretty tall.

Dominic Callori and his wife Kassidy talk bathroom plans with Matt Muenster, the host of "Bathroom Crashers".

Moments later, the magic of TV had contractors flooding the house to begin work on a new bathroom. That's when I noticed those shows DO come to Sacramento since all the contractors had local phone numbers. That's cool, I thought, and decided to tape the show and watch it later. 

My wife and I finally cued it up a few nights later, I gave her a brief background of the few minutes I barely watched and told her about the unthinkable odds that "Bath Crashers" had actually come to Sacramento.

(Stop yelling "Bath Crashers" fanatics, yes I now know the show is mostly taped locally although it plays throughout the country).

It didn't take long for the show to hit even closer to home. The husband looked familiar. Really familiar. And when they said his name, "Dominic" and later "Dom", it hit me like the toilet hit the ground they later threw from the second floor of their house.

Dominic Callori. Longtime Aggie fans will remember Dom as one of the top front line basketball players in school history. He's just one of four players on both the Aggies' all-time scoring (9th, 1,339 pts) and rebounding (3rd, 844 rebs) and was an all-region selection. And one of our all-time nice guys.

And he's got a new bathroom to boot.

He and his wife Kassidy, who played hoops at Chico State, got a pretty cool remodel. A huge shower with an embedded flat-screen TV on the shower wall, appropriately heighted his-and-her sinks and - most importantly for Dom - the best seat in the house and one that saves his knees. He embarrassingly tried it out for the cameras.

The unsuspecting handsome couple had a quite bit of fun with the show and visa-versa. Check your local listings. You might just catch the rerun or, if not, maybe another Aggie.

Mike Robles is Assistant Athletics Director for Communications at UC Davis. He still marvels at the technology of FinishLynx and is grateful he doesn't have to try and run it anymore. Robles also hopes that "TV Crashers" - if there is such a show - comes in and saves him from his Emerson special which provided the image above. 

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