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Why Felix Baumgartner didn't impress me

The record-setting skydive was noteworthy in ways beyond the adrenaline of the moment.

The moment eight million Internet users gasped in unison.

The moment eight million Internet users gasped in unison.

Earlier this week, Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a balloon 39km up in the air, breaking several records on his way back to earth. I watched, fascinated, as the event unfolded, along with most of the rest of the Internet.

But, while eight million people oohed and aahed over the thrill, the risk, the speed and the height, it was something very different which got my attention. Don’t get me wrong, I was vicariously thrilled by the jump itself – who didn’t feel their heart skip as he stood, saluted, and leaned out into open air?

But I’d done my homework, so the details, while exciting, did not blow my mind. In perspective, the numbers made this look like an evolutionary jump, even one which was long overdue.

The risk… wasn’t. It was exciting, but really not all that risky. After all, whether you jump from 128 000 feet or 10 000 feet, the end result will be roughly the same if something goes wrong – terminal velocity is what it is, double meaning and all.

And the Red Bull Stratos team put a LOT of work into the multiply-redundant safety processes. There was the risk of decompression, I suppose: that’s what killed the last altitude record holder (Nicholas Piantanida). But we put men in space pretty regularly now, and we have great pressure suit technology.

I asked, flippantly, why they even bothered with a pre-jump checklist. I mean, what was he going to do if a light came up red? Quit? Turns out they did have a mechanism to safely descend again. How disappointing.

The height? No, that didn’t do it for me either. Baumgartner ascended to a dizzying 128 000 feet, setting the record for the highest balloon ride ever, but the previous record was only 5 000 feet less, and that was set in 1966, over 50 years ago. The highest altitude jump was also set in the 60s, by Joseph Kittinger.

Spoilt

How quickly we become blasé about the density of information available to us.

We’d put a man in space by then, but hadn’t even invented the pocket calculator. It’s taken 56 years of technology advances to add 5 000 feet? Colour me unimpressed. And Baumgartner might not even be awarded the record for balloon height – apparently there’s some quibbling about whether you have to go up AND come back down in the balloon for it to qualify. Give me a break – was he or wasn’t the highest man ever in a balloon? Of course he was.

The speed? That was impressive, I guess. He broke the sound barrier on the way down, achieving one of the main goals of the mission, reaching 1 342km/h. That’s kinda cool, since it was unpowered and a first, but it’s not like we don’t know all about the speed of sound: we’ve been routinely breaking the sound barrier since Chuck Yeager in the 1940s (and possibly even earlier). Cool, but it didn’t really grab me.

What about the fall itself? Felix freefell for four minutes and 16 seconds, but failed to set the record for longest duration freefall: that’s Joseph Kittinger’s 4:36; 1960s again. Admittedly, Kittinger was slowed by a drogue chute and arched to slow his fall, unlike Baumgartner’s projectile posture adopted for maximum speed: Baumgartner was attempting mutually contradictory records at the same time. Even so, it’s possible Baumgartner could have got the record, but it was always going to be a push, and faced with a fogged up helmet and possible loss of comms, you can’t blame him for pulling the cord a little early. He did get the record for longest distance in freefall – 119 846 feet).

The last record set by the jump was the number of online viewers – eight million simultaneous streaming video participants. That’s a big number, but it’s downright puny in broadcast terms: television broadcasts have hit the billion mark several times before, and 530 million people watched the Moon landing in 1969. Heck, 52 million people watched the last episode of Friends.

But that online record is closer to what got my attention me. What impresses me is the tectonic shift in expectations among the Internet public that has happened this year. In August, 3.2 million people watched the Curiosity rover land on Mars. That coverage, like Baumgartner’s record-breaking skydive, was accompanied by a myriad of information streams, telemetry data, and of course the feedback channel of social media, putting those viewers in touch with each other.

That’s not just a cosy community buzz, either: many experts weighed in with commentary over these side channels, adding their own layers of value to the experience. Even the community buzz itself is far from irrelevant – I nearly missed the jump entirely. I watched the previous, aborted, attempt, but it was only the trending topic which alerted me to the rescheduled event.

So that’s what impressed me. It’s not new – we’ve had all the technology in place for a while. But suddenly it’s the norm. More people watched the Curiosity landing than any US TV channel broadcasting at the same time. Whether we’re watching momentous or mundane events, we expect access. Immediate high-quality access to coverage with multiple streams of video, data, behind-the-scenes footage, contextual information, analysis and more.

We expect that to just work wherever we happen to be, regardless of broadcast licensing deals or technology challenges. The Red Bull Stratos team stepped up big time, providing not only live feeds of the cameras in the capsule and from the ground (the lens and stabilisation on the ground-based camera impressed the heck out of me too), but also telemetry from the capsule, footage of the ground crew, audio feeds of the radio communications between Baumgartner and his capsule communicator (none other than previous record-holder Joseph Kittinger).

And it’s the disappointments which are most telling. How quickly we become blasé about the density of information available to us. I was a little disappointed not to have a feed of Baumgartner’s vital signs, Formula 1 style – I dare say his heart rate might have been in the running for a record of its own. I was also a little disappointed that Felix wasn’t communicating with his fans from the capsule. If the Curiosity rover can tweet from Mars, surely Felix could manage a comment or two from the edge of space? (Yes, yes, I know it’s really NASA.)

Now, I’m frustrated when anything on traditional broadcast coverage isn’t accompanied by the same depth of data. I wish broadcast channels offered tablet apps to push additional information, stats, alternative camera angles and commentary simulcast with live broadcasts. I frequently have twitter feeds running on a tablet, while watching sports or news coverage, for extra context.

That frustration, manifested across the potential audiences of millions, is driving intense innovation in information delivery as providers step up to deliver. And THAT impresses me.


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