Ever wondered what it’s like on board ETNZ’s AC75 Te Aihe as she howls along at 40+ knots, precariously balanced on a tiny, scythe-like foil? Us lesser mortals will never find out, but a visit to Spark’s 5G virtual reality facility at Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter provides a pretty good idea. Story by Lawrence Schäffler.


A collaboration between Spark and ETNZ, the new 5G Race Zone opened to the public at the beginning of October. It’s a fabulous, multi-sensory experience with seven interactive zones that gives visitors perhaps the closest-ever insight into the modern America’s Cup phenomenon – and a sense of what the AC75 is all about.
The seven zones focus on the various facets of what it takes to optimize an AC75’s performance. For example, visitors are able to explore how the wind moves across the Hauraki Gulf – and how wind conditions dictate which of five available courses is used on any given race day.
It’s worth noting that the graphic display of the wind – on the floor of one of the zones – is in real time. It reflects the current conditions out on Gulf. ETNZ studies masses of NIWA data from across the region to understand the differing wind states.
In another zone visitors can explore the mind-bendingly complex design of the AC75 and, using one of a number of provided tablets, they are able to ‘design and build’ their own boat, selecting sails, hull and foil shapes to meet the selected sea and wind conditions. And in a nod to the artistic and creative souls among us, they are also able to give the vessel a custom paint job.
One of the most ‘demanding’ zones is the simulator – its exactly the same as the one used by the ETNZ crew for training when outside conditions aren’t ideal for sailing – and for testing different settings and configurations.
It’s a devilishly difficult piece of equipment to master, in particular synchronizing the lowering/raising of the windward/leeward arms as the boat goes through tacks and gybes. It’s enormous fun and definitely raises the heart rate – but watching fumbling newbies panic as the boat approaches capsize is even more fun.
My favourite zone, however, is the 270° surround screen – it’s the closest you’ll get to actually being on the boat, in the middle of the action. ETNZ has recorded much of the video with a fancy 360° camera placed near the back of the boat. The accompanying soundtrack adds to the reality – you feel like you’re aboard. And yes, you get a sense of the AC75’s remarkable speed.
All in all, an excellent experience and one well-worth taking the trouble to visit.

5G technology
The entire Race Zone experience is, of course, a vibrant advertisement for future communications based on ‘fifth generation’ (5G) wireless technology. It will bring super-fast downloads, minimal latency, massive connectivity and outstanding reliability.
How fast? Well, the gurus are suggesting download speeds of up to 100 times faster than is available over our existing 4G network, opening up huge possibilities for business and the way New Zealanders live, work and play.
Establishment of Spark’s 5G infrastructure is only just beginning – New Plymouth became the first city to receive Spark’s technology earlier this year (as a kind of test site) – and the rest of the country will follow. ETNZ has been using a smaller, dedicated 5G infrastructure for its boat development – the technology runs deeply through Te Aihe’s DNA.
To appreciate the capabilities and potential of 5G you only have to look at ETNZ’s application of the technology. Superfast wireless communication has enabled designers and sailors to ‘get up to speed’ a lot faster than would have been the case in earlier editions of the America’s Cup.
Previously, critical boat data – collected from numerous onboard sensors measuring loads, speed, angles and so on – would have been saved to onboard computers. This data (and there are gigabytes of it) could only be downloaded and analysed when the boat returned to base, after which the designers would discuss tweaks to be trialed the following day. 5G’s speed has eliminated this clunky process.
Instead, massive volumes of data are transmitted (in real time) directly from the boat out on the Gulf to the analysis team at the base. This means tweaks can be trialed in real time, allowing the crew to try different sail and foil settings in various conditions, a much faster (and more reliable) way to optimise performance.
Perhaps more importantly, the technology has played a crucial role in the development of ETNZ’s second boat (yet to be revealed) – the testing and tweaking will have underscored the design changes expected on the new boat.
Technology and innovation, says ETNZ CEO Grant Dalton, have always been critical elements of successful America’s Cup campaigns, and this year the team is pushing the boat out further, innovating and testing harder than ever before with the help of Spark’s 5G.
“The America’s Cup is as much a technology race as it is a yacht race. Spark’s 5G Race Zone is a place for anyone who wants to get closer to how we’ve been preparing our America’s Cup defence.”
The family-friendly experience is free to the public and bookings can be made at spark.co.nz/racezone.
Spark worked with key technology partners Nokia, Huawei, Cisco, HP and NIWA, with a shared goal of educating New Zealanders about the potential of 5G technology.