Forward to the Past: Entering the Electronic Age

(A brief history of electronic punching in Great Britain, reproduced from an article I wrote for the January 1999 CompassSport.)

Electronic punching is now an established part of major international events, and is beginning to extend into mainstream orienteering. The concept is simple: the traditional pin punch and control card are replaced by an electronic control marker and control card. The result is instant punch checking, your own printed split times, and even full timing of the event. CompassSport over the past two years has carried a number of articles on electronic punching. By now many of  you will have had a chance to try it for yourself at one of the test races in Britain, or at major events abroad. The World Masters in the Czech Republic, the Shamrock O-Ringen in Ireland  and the Italian 5-Day all went electronic in 1998, to name just three events. So what is happening in Britain, and why?

A head to head race

If this article was being written 18 months ago then it would have focussed almost entirely on the Emit system (formerly known as Regnly). However, 1998 has seen a huge step forward by SPORTident, and the two systems are fighting hard for their share of the market. Other systems do exist, but are not yet at a stage where they appear suitable for wide-scale use.

The first thing that should be said about the two main systems is that they have both proved themselves in competitions of all sizes. There is no longer any doubt that the technology is capable of being used on a large scale. This leaves a potential purchaser with a real choice to make. What are the main differences between the two systems?

Control cards: The Emit e-card is around the size of a credit card. It incorporates a battery, as well as a cardboard label which acts as a manual backup in case of  electronic failure. The SPORTident e-card is much smaller, being around the size of a little finger. It has no battery or backup system.

Control units: The Emit unit is made of moulded red plastic, and is not much bigger than the e-card.  The design ensures that the e-card can only be placed on the control unit in one orientation. This then ensures that a metal spike within the control unit registers a punch on the backup card. At the same time the electronics in the control unit and e-card register the electronic punch. The SPORTident control unit is a slightly larger box, with a 1 centimetre diameter hole through it. To punch you insert your e-card in the hole.

Feedback: The Emit system provides no feedback other than the physical feel of placing the e-card in the control unit. The SPORTident control unit produces a short beep and lights an LED to show that a punch has been registered.

User acceptance: Both systems are very simple to use. Children grasp the concept immediately, although some adults find it a little harder to understand! Having talked to many users of both systems it is clear that the SPORTident system is generally preferred over Emit for its ease of punching and feedback. It is often difficult to align the Emit e-card correctly in the control unit, especially if the control units are poorly sited and mounted. SPORTident control cards do not require alignment, and punching is therefore much easier.

Event organisation: Both systems come with extensive software to support entries and results, although this does not always fit the British way of running events. Emit control units can be placed in the forest without any configuration, whilst the SPORTident control units need to be programmed before they are used. This involves configuring each unit with a control number and start-up and shut-down time, via a PC interface. Whilst straightforward, this is a significant difference between the two systems.

The future: Both companies are looking at enhancements to the current systems. This includes things such as a radio interface to allow split times to be sent back to the finish. This feature may be used at the World Championships in Scotland next year.

Price: I have left this to last, since it would be preferable to make any decision on functionality rather than price. However facts have to be faced, and neither system is cheap. The economics depend to a large extent on the scale of adoption. Emit control units are cheaper than SPORTident control units, but Emit e-cards are more expensive than SPORTident e-cards. For both systems you also need to consider extras such as mounting stakes, PCs and printers.

Is it all worthwhile?

I have never talked to anyone who didn’t like electronic punching after they had tried it. It has the potential to greatly simplify certain areas of event organisation: punch checking disappears freeing up resources, results are available immediately and planning constraints are eased since the option of taking controls out of order is removed.  At the Shamrock O-Ringen this year it seemed as if half the competitors were changing their start times, but the system allowed this, and results were instantly available at the finish. Whilst most attention has been given to big events, I think that electronic punching is actually a great benefit at the other end of the scale, where it can simplify the staging of training events and colour codeds. On the negative side it will mean more work for organisers in some areas, and the cost is seen as a major issue by many people.

So what are BOF doing about it?

Predictably this cry has gone up on the Internet and elsewhere. The answer, as discussed at the November Technical Committee meeting, is described in the proposed BOF strategy (see box). It is worth explaining why this approach has been chosen, since there will inevitably be criticism if we end up with two incompatible systems being used.

All indications to date are that any purchasing should be done at Club or Association level. This is where events get put on, this is where grants may be available, and this is the sort of scale which should make adopting a system viable.

It may seem odd that BOF do not intend to select a single system, since we run the risk of ending up with both systems in use. The simple explanation is that the choice between the two systems is very difficult, and the correct choice for one Association may be wrong for another. For example, if vandalism is seen as a major threat then cheap control units become important. However, if you need 2000 e-cards then the price of e-cards is a more important factor. This type of decision needs to be left to the people who are getting together the money to finance the system. Having said that, I am fairly certain that a dominant supplier will emerge.

Whilst BOF do not intend to mandate the use of electronic punching at any event, we are already at the stage where many clubs are keen to offer it, and it will soon be seen as an extra attraction at events.

Into the 21st Century

When I took over as Technical Committee Chairman in 1997 I expected to see electronic punching being adopted in this country by around 2000 to 2001. Since then things have happened faster than I foresaw and it seems that 1999 may be the key year. To date I know that the Scottish National Orienteering Centre has purchased Emit equipment, and that NWOA intend to purchase SPORTident. Detailed discussions are taking place about the use of electronic punching at the Scottish 6-Day, and by the time you read this a decision may have been taken.

It seems certain that you will come across one or other system in the near future. In crystal ball mode I see a time when at every event you go to you will have full results on display before you leave for home.

Just like it used to be 20 years ago I hear some of you cry…

Appendix 1: BOF Strategy for Electronic Punching

  1. BOF recognises the benefits that can be obtained from electronic punching systems, particularly in terms of enhanced event quality and a reduction in workload on event officials. It therefore encourages Clubs and Associations to adopt this technology where suitable.

  2. The most sensible method of adoption is at a Club or Association level. This would allow stocks of equipment to be held throughout the country.

  3. The final choice of which system to adopt will be influenced by local factors, such as expected usage and susceptibility to vandalism. It is therefore not appropriate at this point to recommend a single system for use throughout BOF.

  4. Electronic punching may not be appropriate for all BOF events, and certain Clubs and Associations may feel that they are not able or willing to adopt such a system. There is therefore no intention of making the use of electronic punching compulsory at any BOF event.

Appendix 2:  Electronic Punching: a Brief History

1991: Yvette Hague and Ragnhild Andersen are disqualified at the World Championships for mispunching: an event which directly prompted the development of electronic punching.

1992-93: Tests in Scandinavia prove that the concept is feasible.

1994: Norway adopts the Emit system for a major trial, and uses the system for a World Cup event in Kristiansand.

1995:Emit is used at the World Championships in Germany, and at several other major events.

March 1997: SPORTident is demonstrated at the JK in a prototype form.

May 1997: JOK stage the first electronic event in Britain at Shotover Country Park using Emit.

August 1997: Emit is used at the World Championships in Norway.

October 1997: SPORTident is used for the Euromeeting Short Race in the Lake District.

December 1997: LOK stages the first open SPORTident race in Britain at Wisley.

May 1998: SPORTident is used at World Cup races in Ireland and the Lake District.

June 1998: Emit is used at British Elite Orienteering Championships.