Three, two, one, snap: AJ Hackett teams with Apple to capture action

By Aus Geo ADVENTURE 20 October 2023
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Aus Geo Adventure’s own photo guru checks out AJ Hackett’s latest iPhone tech used to capture action in a way it’s never done before.

The world of documentary, outdoor and adventure imagery was once the domain of specialist adventure photographers carrying hardy rangefinders or hauling oversized cameras across oceans and over mountains. These super-humans of the documentary world were not only photographers and cinematographers but were also part Yak and part athlete. From the Kodachrome magic of Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl to Jimmy Chin’s DSLR-shot Meru film, the excitement and exploration of our world came delivered in multiple mediums, and this continues today, with the ever-increasing use of smartphones, such as Apple’s iPhone, to record those epic adventures. 

Photo exhibitions toured, magazine pages were thick and hardcover books showed off our adventurous interactions with the world. Then TV joined the party with documentaries and mountain films, and Warren Miller changed the landscape of ski films on VHS. And what seemed like moments later we were watching Felix Baumgartner jump from the stratosphere to Earth on these crazy little devices we called iPhones and on this crazy little thing we call the internet.

But not everything has changed, long-haired groms are still busting backside half cab heelflips at the local skatepark (whatever that means), just like they did decades ago. The only difference is now they’re capturing it on their smartphones and streaming it live. 

Our ‘new world’ is about speed. How quickly can we capture moments? And how quickly can we share them with others?  Whether you’re a lover or hater of the high paced world of digital image sharing, there’s a good chance you’re a ‘user’, even if you won’t admit it, and smartphone magic is now creeping into the realms of professional delivery for commercial clients on a large scale. 

Nowhere is this shift more visible that the Southern Hemisphere’s home of extreme action (or extreme insanity), AJ Hackett Bungy Jumping in Queenstown NZ. 

An adrenalin sport icon

For many, the mere words AJ Hackett tightens the chest muscles; Some in fear, others in excitement. You see, way back in the late 1980s, ‘Kiwi-Kid’ Allan John (AJ) Hackett decided jumping off structures on oversized elastic bands was not only bloody good fun, but potentially a commercially viable adventure attraction. In the late ’80s he chose to ‘test the waters’ of his big dream by jumping from the the Eiffel Tower in Paris. AJ was promptly arrested by the French Gendarmerie but soon let go, apparently with a few subtle pats on the back. Beyond the fines, AJ knew he was onto something.

Returning to New Zealand, AJ opened the first ever commercial Bungy site at the Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown NZ in 1988. AJ and his business partners soon realised that like the filmer’s and photographers before them, capturing action was key to Bungy’s success and they installed oversized video cameras and later, high resolution DSLR’s to manually feed imagery to complex room-sized multi-screen editing suites with an aim to deliver the ultimate customer experience. 

The AJ Hackett name quickly grew to become one of the world’s most iconic brands in adventure tourism and they now operate in more than ten countries around the world. But like many adventure sports, the challenge to capture the thrill of Bungy was no easy feat.

And this is where I join their rather odd story. A decade ago, I decided, myself, to gaffa-tape a DSLR to my hand and jump from a perfectly good tower into thin air to try and capture that ‘bungy feeling’. I promptly promised myself I would never Bungy again. 

A promise broken, all in the name of research

That promise lasted until very recently, when I found myself at Nevis Bungy in Queenstown, NZ. The Southern Hemisphere’s largest and longest free-fall bungy jump; I’d heard rumours they were using Apple iPhones to capture the massive 134m and 8.5 second free-fall and I was intrigued. 

As usual, my intrigue rapidly led to being in over my head. I somehow found myself signed up for a bungy jump, but if that wasn’t enough, I unthinkingly also appeared to have ticked the boxes for a canyon swing, and catapult… Yep! you heard right. A “Catapult”. Why not go for the thrillogy? 

Watts goes all in with AJ Hackett’s triple-treat of bungy experiences, all in the name of a well-researched story.

Pretty soon, teetering on the edge of a 134m free-fall with only a couple of elastic bands wrapped around my ankles, I was second-guessing my interest in AJ’s new-age iPhone video and photo capabilities. 

Oddly, instead of pondering my imminent death, or whether the iPhone tech would capture it, instead I considered whether olive oil ice-cream might in fact be the best flavour ice-cream in the world?” (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it). From memory I was still pondering the olive-oil dilemma when a casual kiwi-kid half my age, but with a very authoritative tone, counted 3-2-1… then I was plummeting. 

Related: Apple’s Emergency SOS via satellite now available in Australia

And this is when the magic happened. Not for me – I was far too busy being terrified – but more in the realms of imaging. Whilst my brain was trying to catch up with the fact that I was about to die without imparting my olive oil ice-cream wisdom, thirteen iPhone 14 Pros somehow manage to use some high-tech stuff like ARKit and LiDAR technology to recognise a human subject and detect distance from the camera. AJ Hackett’s very own app called ‘Epic’ then used Apple’s machine learning algorithm, Core ML, to detect myself and the Bungy cord travelling through the frame. The multiple phones then managed to capture both video, and high-res still imagery of every moment of my terrifying plummet into nothingness … all from multiple angles. 

If I wasn’t so terrified, I would have been impressed. This all sounds like space-age tech but is at our fingertips, literally. Or at least in our pockets. 

A raft of iPhones are used to capture every second of the action – and the fear on your face!

Not only was AJ’s complex iPhone system rather more advanced than my previous gaffa-taped DSLR effort but incredibly all the phones instantaneously buzzed their content through cyberspace to Nevis HQ to be compiled, edited and packaged up for me, all before I could even check whether my eyeballs were still in their sockets. 

By the time I shakily stumbled pale-faced back to Nevis HQ a complete video edit and photo package were waiting for me, apparently to prove that the latest smartphone tech is much faster than my terrified human brain can comprehend.

When my brain finally settled, I began to ponder if I could somehow outrun this new tech?

iPhone: the perfect complement to adventure?

Fortunately, I had the world’s biggest human catapult at my disposal. And so yet another kiwi-kid tightened my neck brace, to ready my body to accelerate at 3Gs from 0-100km/h in a 150m slingshot, I contemplated whether this really was a smart way to consider the latest A16 Bionic chip tech. I guessed it probably wasn’t, but too late. Whoosh. Then it’s time for the “Swing”… by now you know the pattern. “It’s best to go backward and no-handed,”the kiwi-kid reassures me. I don’t believe him, but I do it all the same and then three, two, one… brain explosion.

Again, and again, vision of a wide-eyed me is captured and whizzed back to home base where, yet again, a photo and video package sits waiting to reiterate how silly this entire game is. 

I finally decide I can’t outrun all those little lenses peeking up at me; to be honest the 48MP cameras and six-core CPUs of the iPhone are coping better than my own grey matter.

From the safety of a bar back in Queenstown I find myself impressed with the implementation of the latest iPhone tech into a pro workflow and wonder, “where to next?”. I decide, however, that the next time I choose to query the merging world of smartphones and adrenalin sports, maybe I’ll just check out what the local groms are doing at the local skate park; this idea of plummeting off perfectly good structures never was a good idea, but I must admit, like AJ discovered, it is kind of bloody good fun.

See Apple for more info on the latest iPhone camera tech.