From smartphones to augmented reality, new technology is making stadiums more fan-centric

Stadium technology: enhancing the spectator experience

From smartphones to augmented reality, new technology is making stadiums more fan-centric and turning spectators into superfans in the process.

If you think going to a stadium to watch a sports fixture is just about the live experience, then think again. A growing number of discerning spectators want to receive information about what they’re watching in a very different manner, and technology is evolving to meet their requirements in increasingly sophisticated ways.

According to Pascal Vuilliomenet, vice president for innovation and technology transfer at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) Research Institute in Switzerland, professionals involved in the development of sporting arenas should investigate the benefits of technology such as augmented and virtual reality to create user experiences that put spectators in the thick of the action.

Vuilliomenet is currently co-curator of a multimedia exhibition at The Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, moving to London this summer, which considers past, present and future stadium design, as well as the engineering innovations and challenges in building flexible, modern venues. Visitors can explore the facilities that cities have built to host the Games – from the Olympia in Ancient Greece through to modern architectural icons such as Frei Otto’s Munich Olympic Stadium and Herzog and de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest in Beijing.

However, in considering the evolution of such structures, one feature which is coming to define the modern sporting arena is the use of technology. So what’s the big draw? How are modern stadiums meeting the needs of their tech-savvy superfans? The main priority is in prizing fans off of their sofas and compelling them out of the comfort of their own homes and back into the stadium; and to do this they need to be placed at the centre of the action, having experiences that keep them coming back.

New technology is doing just that. Venues are using data, apps, beacons and digital innovation to improve operations, player performance and fan experiences. Across America, teams are spending millions of dollars in embedding connectivity and convenience to stadiums. Fans want to be able to share, interact and use social media while they’re there.

Live events are no longer just about watching a game. Fans expect a tailored mix of physical and digital experiences across their phones, tablets, kiosks, concession stands and anywhere else they might find themselves at a venue. So what’s new?

Better Wi-Fi. Connectivity is super important, not just for fans, but for venue staff, contractors, vendors, press and VIP guests. Stadiums don’t want to see younger fans leaving the venue at half-time just so they can get online. A more powerful network also translates into more money from additional food, beverage, merchandise and upgrade purchases.

According to Trips Reddy, marketing director at software company Umbel Corp in Austin, Texas: “Fans expect fast, secure and reliable connectivity. On average, larger stadiums [across the USA] are installing 700+ wireless access points and there are multiple third-party companies like AT&T, Cisco and Verizon that provide end-to-end wireless network services.”

Data from Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies Team, based in Illinois, USA, shows that the rise of smart technologies in stadiums across America are helping to redefine fan experiences and boost the number of people returning to live events. One of the most connected stadiums in the world is San Francisco’s Levi’s Center with over 400 miles of fibre optic cable and 680 access points – that’s one for every 100 seats. Fans can connect their devices to a 40GB-per-second network that’s 10,000 times faster than the federal classification for broadband.

In addition, cutting-edge apps are proving an invaluable means of engaging with fans at live events. These allow fans to do everything from find parking spots, locate their seats and order food to watch high-definition instant replay videos and close-up videos and view exclusive content.

At the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the Dallas Cowboys have a state-of-the-art app which sends a push notification to fans at set times telling them to push their ‘unite this house’ button, causing their phones to vibrate and the camera to flash. The resulting crowd noise and flashes are synchronised in an ‘electronic wave’. Nice.

The UK’s own Wembley Stadium also has a new app, understatedly billed as ‘your trusty Wembley companion’. While this might conjure up an image of a dapper butler standing by your side holding a silver tray, ready to assist said superfan’s every whim (No? Just me then... and I want him to be a hologram…), like other connected stadiums around the world, the Wembley app keeps fans happy with event and ticket info, as well as a handy interactive stadium map and a helpful journey planner.

Plans are also afoot to implement live feeds from cameras on the ground to be linked to a replay app, and there’s even a suggestion that players at Wembley may wear chest cameras to give spectators a first-person view of the action. This has already been taken up at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. The Brooklyn Nets’ app allows fans to access instant replays and cycle through different camera angles in the stadium, ironically giving them a ‘living-room TV view’ from their live seat in the venue.

Augmented reality (AR) also looks set to transform the stadium experience, as EPFL’s Vuilliomenet says. To give people at home or in fan zones a taste of the immersive stadium experience, he suggests both 360-degree cameras and AR projections could be used to enhance the feeling of watching live sport at the same time as thousands of others inside a sporting venue.

Such technology has been developed by Microsoft, whose HoloLens, described by the company as the ‘world’s first fully untethered holographic computer’, was set up to allow users to watch last year’s US National Football League matches as 3D holograms rather than on a screen, as well as projecting displays, player stats and instant replays. As Vuilliomenet comments: “This is not science fiction. These technologies are all in the labs and ready to be implemented. The types of experience just have to be developed.”

Virtual reality (VR) too is being hyped as the future of immersive sports broadcasting and BT’s VR broadcast of a Premier League game into EE stores across London last September could be the start of the technology’s large-scale adoption. Users were able to view the game from multiple angles via a headset using footage from three different cameras.

You might well be asking why anyone would want a virtual experience at a stadium when the real thing is playing out right in front of them, but virtual and mixed reality is already in use in some stadiums around the world. Moving beyond the headset, VR could soon be on a smartphone or on a giant replay screen inside the stadium, like the 360-degree halo screen being built into the roof of Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, an HD video board offering fans clear views from every seat.

The current technology may still be limited, but has huge potential. Speaking at the recent Future Stadium Summit in London, an event highlighting innovations in stadium technology, design and services, Jeff Marsilio, vice president of global media for North America’s National Basketball Association, said: “Once the glasses are small and comfortable and can also do mixed reality and augmented reality, everyone will have them. I can imagine the day where you're sitting in the stadium looking at a player, and his stats come up and float over his head. Or maybe you choose to augment the experience with comic book ‘pow’, bam effects. Anythings possible. It really becomes a question of what the fans want.”

These are just some of the technologies evolving to enhance fans’ expectations of the stadium experience. Add to this the use of stadium beacons for consuming site-specific content, live video streaming to boost interactivity, touchscreen self-service kiosks and downloadable fanpics, and a new breed of superfans are feeling super-connected. From their first shaky steps away from the sofa to their bold, mobile-app-supported strides into the stadium, todays fans are engaged and ready to share the experience like never before.

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