October 2, 2014

Stadium Tech Report: Levi’s Stadium network lives up to hype, but team app still needs work

Levi's Stadium from Section 244. All photos: Paul Kapustka, Mobile Sports Report

Levi’s Stadium from Section 244. All photos: Paul Kapustka, Mobile Sports Report

At the very least San Francisco 49ers fans Sunday could take heart in the fact that the wireless network in Levi’s Stadium largely lived up to its advance billing, performing quite well even as the team on the field sputtered and failed to connect. In its first “real” test with an almost-full house on Sunday the Levi’s Wi-Fi and cellular networks seemed to work well throughout the game, delivering solid speed test results from almost every part of the new 68,500-seat facility, even as Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the 49ers were dealt a 34-0 preseason drubbing by Peyton Manning and the visiting Denver Broncos.

And just like the team, the Niners’ stadium technology lineup still has some weak spots that will hopefully be fixed before the regular season home opener on Sept. 14. Among the disappointments Sunday was a no-show by the highly heralded instant replay feature, the crown jewel of the new Levi’s Stadium app. We also experienced some location-connection problems with one of our devices, exposing what we consider a flaw in the Levi’s app, namely an over-reliance on location technologies to enable key parts of the app, like wayfinding and on-site video streaming.

Ticket scanner with Niners visor to block sun

Ticket scanner with Niners visor to block sun

Some other not-so-advanced technology flaws that could use fine-tuning include the volume level on the main stadium public-address and announcing system, which was so loud that it made it a struggle just to talk to the person next to you for long stretches of time. The ticket scanning machines also seemed to have issues working in the bright sunlight, a problem that found a low-tech fix when ticket personnel placed Niners’ visors around the tops of the machines to shade the scanning area. And many concession stands around the stadium were unable to serve guests or could only take cash because the staff operating the stands said they weren’t given access codes to the point-of-sale systems.

Overall, however, the first football game at Levi’s was a success on many levels, including the fantastic sight lines available from most seats and largely incident-free travel and parking operations, with noticed improvements especially on the VTA light rail front that struggled mightily during the stadium’s opening-event soccer game two weekends ago. Most fans also probably got a little weight loss from the no extra-charge sauna situation, thanks to the cloudless day and bright sun that bathed most of the seats in searing heat for long times after the 1 p.m. start.

Smooth start for early VTA riders

What follows here is a somewhat minute-by-minute account of my trip to the game, and my experience with the network and stadium operations on site.

Mtn View lot sign, not in operation at 9:30 a.m.

Mtn View lot sign, not in operation at 9:30 a.m.

Since I wasn’t given press access to the game, Mobile Sports Report attended like a regular fan, purchasing a single ticket through the NFL Ticket Exchange service on the 49ers’ web site. My plan to get to Levi’s from San Mateo was to drive to downtown Mountain View, park there and take VTA the rest of the way. (I didn’t take CalTrain mainly because I didn’t want to have to sync my return schedule with the CalTrain options going northbound on Sunday.)

Though I was somewhat incredulous about having to buy tickets online — VTA said that the ticket machines in Mountain View would be shut down Sunday to keep big lines from forming — upon further review the VTA app was slick and easy to operate and understand. After purchasing a ticket for $6.50 Saturday night I activated it Sunday, and showed it at the gate where they checked boarding passes. For people who didn’t have tickets there was a tent set up where they could buy a pre-loaded Clipper card for $10 good for a day’s worth of VTA riding. There was an abundance of VTA workers on hand, as well as a large and very obvious police presence. As a nice touch there was also a large bank of porta-potties, and behind the trains there were express buses waiting, according to one VTA employee, in case of crowd overloads.

“We learned some lessons from two weeks ago,” he said.

If there was a glitch in the VTA operations it was with the city of Mountain View — though a couple city lots were designated as places where fans could buy all-day parking passes, and there were clear signs to those lots, at 9:30 a.m. those lots were not yet staffed with anyone to pay; MSR found one sign leaning up against a post, waiting to be deployed. Fans could also park in the CalTrain lot for $5, payable via the CalTrain track podium ticket machines.

Fans transferring from CalTrain to VTA at Mtn View station

Fans transferring from CalTrain to VTA at Mtn View station

I boarded the first VTA train to leave for the stadium, along with many fans who had just gotten off CalTrain. The pleasant, air-conditioned trip took just 27 minutes, passing many Silicon Valley company headquarters and one neighborhood with “no parking here” patrols before stopping pretty much right at the Levi’s Stadium entrance. A few steps later I was in the parking lot, and took the first of many Wi-Fi speed tests and got a signal of 29 Mbps download and 23 Mbps upload, a good sign for network operations.

Looking for Wi-Fi, finding lots of it

DAS antenna in "Faithful Mile" area

DAS antenna in “Faithful Mile” area

Once inside the gates — and past the shaded scanners — I started speed testing in earnest, with the two devices I brought with me: A Motorola Droid 4 on Verizon, and a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 on AT&T. While waiting for the main stadium gates to open at 11 a.m. I got the weakest Wi-Fi signals of the day along the “Faithful Mile” area where promotional booths from sponsors kept early arrivers entertained. Wi-Fi on both devices out there only hit 2 to 3 Mbps on the download, while cell signals on both devices were in the 6-7 Mbps download range. Since I could see multiple DAS radios in the area but not any Wi-Fi access points I wasn’t too surprised; but it was an unusual area not to be blanketed with Wi-Fi, especially since there was good access a couple hundred yards away in the parking lots.

After finally entering the stadium proper, I ran into Niners president Paraag Marathe — who said he was “nervously excited,” and looked ready to start sweating in his suit and tie. “We’ve just got to make sure everything works today,” Marathe said, shaking my hand. Then I went up the escalator and saw the “Kezar pub,” an open-air bar filling the top area above the Intel gate. There, draft beers like Shock Top and Goose Island IPA were available for $11, and bottled beers available for $10.25.

As I started walking around the outside concourse I took my first speed test in the stadium and it blew the needle off the edge: 57.92 Mbps download, 41.00 Mbps upload.

A few minutes later on the inside concourse (where most of the concession stands are) I hit 27.85 Mbps/21.34 Mbps, still impressive. Then I tried to launch the app, and — problem. Apparently the device wasn’t connecting because it wouldn’t show my location on the wayfinding app. Luckily, right in front of me was Racquel, one of the “NiNerds,” the team’s new staff of technical experts who are there to help fans make the app work. But Racquel couldn’t solve my problem, even after we both tried turning on all location services, including Bluetooth.

Racquel the NiNerd

Racquel the NiNerd

“I can try to find another NiNerd who might know more about this device,” offered Racquel, who was visibly dismayed at her failure to help solve my problem. Instead, I moved on, hoping that the problem would solve itself later. But it didn’t.

Failure to locate… and other app problems

After downloading the Levi’s app to both devices over the weekend, I noticed that the first item on the app list of functions — Tickets — required me to “sign in” with my “Stadium Ticket Account,” something I didn’t have and didn’t know how to get. I did figure out how to enter my purchased seat location (which I could have used to order food to my seat, or for the express pick-up option), but I could never get the location feature to work on the Samsung device, which kept me from being able to see the live streaming TV option (I kept getting a message that said, “You must be at the stadium to play this video”). I was able to watch the live TV option on the Motorola device, after turing on location services. But for both devices — and, as it turns out, for everyone in the stadium — the final feature on the app, Game Center, where we were supposed to be able to see all the instant replays we could handle, remained labeled “coming soon.”

Finally sitting in my most excellent seat — section 244, row 3, seat 17 — I noticed that the Motorola device could no longer connect to Wi-Fi, even as the Samsung device was hitting marks in the 15-16 Mbps range. I started tweeting about the problem, and instead of a NiNerd coming to help me I got a personal visit from the Levi’s version of a Jedi Master, namely Dan Williams, the team’s vice president of technology. (Never underestimate the power of a complaining tweet!)

Niners VP of technology Dan Williams attempts to fix my Droid 4 Wi-Fi issues (while trying not to laugh at the fact that I actually have and use a Droid 4)

Niners VP of technology Dan Williams attempts to fix my Droid 4 Wi-Fi issues (while trying not to laugh at the fact that I actually have and use a Droid 4)

On my own, I had guessed that the Droid’s inability to connect came from its having only a 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi radio. If you’re not familiar with Wi-Fi networks, the 2.4 GHz band of unlicensed airwaves is what most first-generation Wi-Fi networks used; more recent devices are able to also use the 5 GHz band of unlicensed airwaves, which simply offer more channels and more bandwidth. The iPhone 5s, for example, mainly uses 5 GHz for Wi-Fi, as does my Samsung Note.

In scanning the available Wi-Fi networks, I had also noticed something else that I thought could be gumming up the Droid’s connection — a bunch of personal Wi-Fi hotspots in the immediate area, including several labeled as GoPro cameras. After curiously examining my Droid 4 — and its slide-out keyboard — Williams and a technician from Wi-Fi gear provider Aruba Networks concurred that my device was getting bogged down in the 2.4 GHz mess, and also wasn’t refreshing the available networks list, a device-specific problem.

Bottom line? Levi’s is no country for old phones.

Initial verdict: Wi-Fi and cellular is world class… but app needs work

After staying into the third quarter — and visiting another friend in section 109, where I got another hefty Wi-Fi speed test (24.42/25.39 Mbps) — I followed the lead of many fans and took an early leave of Levi’s, which meant no lines at the VTA trains and just a couple short delays due to track congestion that stretched the return train trip to 40 minutes. Overall, my travel to and from the stadium from San Mateo took just over an hour each way, a happy stat to report.

My initial verdict is that the Wi-Fi and DAS (cellular) networks delivered as promised, with solid speeds all around the stadium every time I checked. It’s no small accomplishment just to deliver such world-class service to such a crowded space, especially in the middle of Silicon Valley. True to its roots, the crowd Sunday was device-happy, with many iPads and GoPros being carried around as video cameras, in addition to all the phones that were in constant use. It’s a tribute to Williams and his staff, as well as the technology suppliers like Aruba, Brocade, Comcast (backbone bandwidth supplier) and DAS Group Professionals, who built the distributed antenna system (DAS) which brings advanced cellular connectivity inside the gates, to have built a solid network that worked well on its first big test.

The team app, however, did not even come close to living up to its advanced billing. To equal the network I think the app needs more advance instructions, especially on the ticketing/registration options as well as on the location services needed to make everything work. And until we see the multiple-camera angle live replays in action, to me the app is an incomplete project. The good news is, the Niners and their technology teams have several weeks to make improvements, including another preseason game Aug. 24 against the San Diego Chargers.

It’d also be helpful for the team to reach out a bit more to the VTA and players like the City of Mountain View, since the VTA site maps and Mountain View’s parking maps are far from what you would call “advanced design.” I think it’s up to the Niners to help pay for improvements to the city and transportation entities’ technology offerings, simply because of the burden placed on those operators by the fans going to Niners’ games. At the very least, more links from football to getting-there operations seems in order, instead of trusting that all parts of the operation will work in sync.

VTA lines going home

VTA lines going home

Google seeks to expand ‘wearable’ options with Android Wear program

The Moto 360 Android

The Moto 360 Android

Google made a lot of noise a few years back with its push for Google Glass project, a pair of glasses that are connected to the Internet and now it is adding a second front in the wearable war with a push that it calls Android Wear.

The company has launched the Android Wear project in an effort to greatly expand the market for wearable hardware and related technology, with but not limited to helping a new generation watches running the company’s Android operating system.

The core of the effort will be a Software Developers Kit (SDK) that the company will be delivering to interested developers later this year.

While connected watches seem to be the first area that this effort will have an impact Google sees the effort expanding into other areas including bringing additional technology to more established platforms such as tablets.

However watches seem to be at the forefront of this space and potential developers that include everybody from Nike to Apple have indicated some level of interest in developing a watch. In addition there are already several connected watches on the market such as the Samsung Galaxy Gear and Pebble’s Steel Watch. Google has a number that have now announced their intention. With such a huge position in the smartphone operating system already Google has a huge advantage and it looks to be building on it quite quickly.

Several partners have already announced intentions to build watches and in some cases have shown examples of their development efforts. Motorola, unsurprisingly, has one in development called the Moto 360 Android that it said will be available this summer while LG Electronics said it would introduce its first Android watch, the G Watch, sometime this quarter.

The watches will be equipped with a variety of sensors and the ability to connect to an Android phone. So it can sub for the fitness trackers that are popular with the athletically inclined. It will allow notifications and text messages to be forwarded from a user’s phone and enable voice replies.

I imagine it would be a great tool to use to cheat on exams, but that might just be me. However being in a meeting and getting, say, March Madness game updates, could be a boon for those times when it is frowned upon to look at your smartphone. However the flip side of this is that many, at least those of us old enough, might just see this as a glorified pager with a bit more functionality.

Friday Grab Bag: MLB to live stream World Series

Taking its digital game up a notch MLB’s Advanced Media has announced that it will start permitting subscribers to its MLB.TV using its At Bat app to watch both the All-Star game as well as well as the entire World Series on their registered mobile devices and computers.

The games will be broadcast over the air by Fox Sports and some details still need to be worked out as Fox’s broadcast partners will be involved in some manner in the vetting process. Still this is a great move by MLB opening up the games to more viewers. Think it will go back to day games for the Series? Me neither.

Samsung teams with Mandalay Sports Media on second screen content
Samsung Electronics America will be working with Mandalay to develop new and original second screen content that will then be made available on select Samsung products. The content will be built around Samsung’s Automatic Content Recognition (ACR) technology platform to enable complementary and supplementary content experiences for TV programming.

The programs will initially be distributed on Samsung’s 2012, 2013 and 2014 Smart TVs as well as select tablets and smartphones. No word yet on what types of shows will be developed under the program.

NFL to add two more playoff teams in 2015?
The NFL has hinted that it is looking at adding additional playoff teams in the future because, well the owners will make more money. The rumors appear to be picking up steam and the Washington Post has reported that it will happen in 2 years.

This is interesting in that in the last postseason the league had issues selling playoff tickets and the addition of more teams will dilute the value of the regular season and possible create even more issues in selling playoff tickets.

ESPN talks about ESPN
There used to be an adage in reporting that “You reported the news, you are not part of the news.” Well that message has never sunk in at ESPN as the latest round robin of repeating itself has taken on comic qualities.

After one of its analysts reported that he would not take Johnny Manziel as a QB for his team, ESPN’s talking heads then discussed this comment endlessly for the next day or so. Awful Announcing does a great job in dissecting how much coverage the network gave to a comment made by one of its own people.

Variety of apps to support the Sochi Olympics

nbcsports

NBC’s broadcast of the Olympics should be boon to its online and streaming viewership, even though this is something that the network has made available for some time. As with many apps and capabilities users often only discover them when looking for specific tool or event.

There are a surprising number of apps available for the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics that will be held in Sochi starting later this week. They range from simple calendars to one that will be showing live events.

Actually this is probably not surprising but then it’s hard to say why you would want something aside from the one that is available from NBC Sports, the official broadcaster of the games. Aside from the fact that the app, NBC Sports Live Extra, is from the broadcaster it was hardly just conceived for the Olympics.

The app also provides live sports events that air on NBC, NBC Sports Network and the Golf Channel so that over the course there will be IndyCar, the PGA Tour, Premier League Soccer and the NHL to name just a few.

We have already mentioned most of the features of the app as it pertains to the Olympics but it’s good to mention that there will be 1,000 hours of live streaming video with some replay on demand capabilities. It is free to use with select caveats.

However if you are looking for different functionality there are plenty of options starting with the U.S. Olympic team’s official app. It details who has made the team, links to athletes’ social media and an up-to-date following of how they do.

Another general purpose sports app, this one with a more international flavor, which will have a special focus on the Winter Olympics, is BBC Sports. It will have live coverage of events at the games and can be used to follow a wide range of International sports.

samms

An interested app is the Sochi 2014 WOW (Wireless Olympics Works) that comes from Samsung Electronics, one of the major sponsors. The app is customizable so that a user can have it focus on their specific interests. Not too surprising is that it is also optimized for Samsung devices.

Tablets, phablets and rumors at CES

ces

Tablets have already taken the market by storm, essentially killing PC growth while moving into ever increasingly different areas of our lives. A host of new or possible tablets are making the rounds this week at the International CES show in Las Vegas, and here are a few of the more interesting ones.

There are major names involved in some of the news, and some that you may have never heard of before, or never considered in context with tablets, like Audi. Yes Audi has a tablet, although it functions as an extension of a car’s entertainment and directional equipment.

The Audi Smart Display is one of the first fruits of the recently announced Open Auto Alliance and it is a tablet designed to be used with the cars’ in-vehicle infotainment system. The 10-inch tablet will allow passengers to control a car’s connected features including navigation, telephone, audio and other features. Expect this to be the first of many announcements over the next year from car manufacturers in this area.

Among the big names Samsung again stood out, even if you pay no attention to the 105-inch television with a curved screen or director Michael Bay’s melt down at the press conference! The company expanded its tablet lineup with an additional four offerings, and a phablet. They are the 12.2-inch Galaxy TabPro, a 12.2-inch, 10-inch and 8.4-inch TabPro products as well as the latest Galaxy Note phablet, called the Galaxy NotePro and available in a 12.2-inch format..

Count Panasonic in with its Toughpad FZ-M1, a 7-inch format tablet that will be running the Windows Pro 8.1 operating system. Designed to be used in the field in situations a good deal more rugged than more traditional models it has a sealed designed to keep out dust and moisture and has been designed to withstand falls of five feet. It has an Intel i5 Core, a 1280 x 800 resolution display, 128GB SSD that can be upgraded to 256GB supports Wi-Fi up to the ac standard and has a 5MP rear camera. Last year the company used the show to deliver a pair of ToughPads

If you are looking for a tablet that will help keep the kids occupied during a long cross country trip, or when you are watching the first full season of Boardwalk Empire you might want to take a gander at the Kurio 7x 4G LTE tablet unveiled at the show. Designed to be kid friendly the device is part of a pair of announcements from Techno Sources and KD Interactive, the other being a phone targeted at children.

Probably the best rumor from the show is about a possible hybrid iPad that Apple is supposedly working on. Actually the rumor started prior to the show but it has heated up a bit since it first made the rounds. What Apple is purportedly working on is an iPad that uses the iOS operating system in tablet mode and then when docked to a keyboard it would run Apple’s PC operating system OSX.

Another more or less confirmed rumor is a stylus using tablet from Asus, the VivoTab Note 8 that will run on the Windows 9.1 operating system although complete details on the device are still lacking.

I suspect that after the deluge at the show, and probably several major real announcements down the road this year, new tablets will be greeted much the way new PCs were in the past, interesting but hardly worth flying people across the country for. That spot will most likely be filled by the emerging class of wearable computing devices such as Samsung Gear and Google Glass.

Already at the show Sony announced that it was planning on expanding its wearable offerings come spring with several, as yet unnamed, offerings in its SmartWear Experience lineup. They will be based around a component that it calls the Core.

Intel is also fanning the flames with a “Make it Wearable” challenge that will award $1.3 million in cash and prizes to developers that create wearable devices that help advance computing to become even more wearable, I mean connected.

Pebble takes second step in smartwatch space

apeb

Pebble has brought out its second generation smartwatch with the $249 Pebble Steel Watch, a more fashionable, and expensive version of the original $150 Pebble offering from last year. The watch is being shown at the current CES International trade show in Las Vegas.

The Steel Watch will be available in either a brushed stainless or black matte finish as the company develops a look that would not look garish on an executive. It replaces the plastic cover with Gorilla Glass and comes with both steel and leather straps.

The battery life is good for between 5 and 7 days and it is waterproof to 5 meters. The company has added a tri-colored LED and as with the earlier model will run both the Android and the iOS operating system. Scheduled to ship at the end of the month the move coincides with the launching of the Pebble Appstore, a place where users can easily find apps designed to run on the device.

Pebble, the Kickstarter favorite, wow the market when its funding effort went massively over the amount that the company founders were seeking, something that slightly harmed the company, at least public relations wise, by forcing it deliver the product late because it needed to build significantly more than it had expected in its early run. Not that this is not a problem that most startup companies would kill for.

Pebble was certainly one of the groundbreakers, if not the groundbreaker in the wearable computing technology with mainstream devices that connected a watch with a cell phone to bring data to your wrist. There were already sports specific devices that did some of the same features in areas such as golf and running but none that seemed to serve as a pure extension of your mobile phone.

That started a land rush by larger mobile developers to lay claim to this space as well, with Samsung, Apple, Google, Sony, Dell and others delivering products, planning to or simple becoming part of the rumor mill that they have one in the works.

Samsung, Qualcomm and Sony have already brought out products with the Samsung Gear, Qualcomm Toq and the Sony SmartWatch and I am sure this year we will see a wave of additional devices introduced to the market, much like how the tablet space exploded a few years ago. A number will be simply me-too devices while others will take the time to create truly differentiated offerings.