Bigger is better for San Francisco Giants with new video board at Oracle Park

The new video board at Oracle Park, which stretches from light tower to light tower. Credit: San Francisco Giants (click on any picture for a larger image)

When it comes time for a stadium to replace its main video board, the rule of thumb almost always is that bigger is better.

The San Francisco Giants certainly think so, as the team replaced its main outfield display this season with a new screen that is three and a half times bigger, and a lot sharper than the previous technology.

Though he said it wasn’t a slam-dunk decision internally, Giants senior vice president and chief information officer Bill Schlough said the team eventually went with as big a screen as the park’s existing infrastructure allowed, with improving the fan experience as the main driver.

What fans at the newly renamed Oracle Park are looking at this season is a 71-foot high, 153-foot wide LED board from Mitsubishi, with a 10-mm pixel pitch and resolution of 2,160 x 4,672, dense enough to support 4K content when it becomes available. The new board stretches to fill the space between two light towers in centerfield, replacing a previous arrangement of a smaller board surrounded by a batch of static display signs, an arrangement that was part of the internal controversy, according to Schlough.

Is digital always better?

Editor’s note: This profile is from our most recent issue of our VENUE DISPLAY REPORT series, where we focus on telling the stories of successful venue display technology deployments and the business opportunities these deployments enable. This issue also contains profiles of the innovative directory displays at the Mall of America, and an in-depth look at display technology at U.S. Bank Stadium during the Final Four! START READING the issue today!

“It was an incredibly controversial topic inside the organization,” said Schlough of the debate about how big the Giants’ new screen should be. Though conventional wisdom says that digital signage can produce greater revenue than fixed signage due to its ability to change on demand, Schlough said that some salespeople and sponsors still like the permanence of a fixed display.

Crab sandwich and an Anchor Steam is an only-in-SF treat. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

“When you are selling sponsorships there are pros and cons for each method,” Schlough said. “With digital you can have moments of exclusivity, where one sponsor can take over all the signage, and you can animate to capture the attention of fans.”

But the cons of digital signs include the fact that they can be turned off, a fact that may make a signage sponsor less willing to commit if it knows its message may be blanked out — as opposed to a static sign, which can’t be changed. According to Schlough the debate about the size of the new board was one of the most contentious technology decisions he’s seen during his 20-year career at the Giants, with only the team’s then-controversial decision to put Wi-Fi APs under seats (in 2013) coming close.

In the end the bigger-is-better side won out, in what Schlough said is part a nod to everyday experience with TVs as well as a hedge against the fact that stadium video screens often stay in place for many years.

“When’s the last time you came home with a TV from Best Buy and said, ‘it’s too big’ ?” Schlough joked.

On the more serious side, he did note that the Giants’ previous screen had lasted for 12 years — going from being just the third high-definition screen in all of Major League Baseball when it was installed to being the fifth-smallest and second-oldest in MLB by last season.

“You don’t get that many bites at the apple, and if you’re only making this kind of an investment every 10 years, there’s no way you can go too big,” Schlough said. The new board is now the third-largest in MLB, behind only Cleveland and Seattle. The team did seem to compromise for the fixed-sign contingent, adding more static display spots mounted to the light tower structures for this season. The new board also forced the Giants to replace an analog clock, installing a digital version a bit higher above the new board.

More stats, and 4K to come

In researching technology for its new $10 million investment, Schlough said the Giants went around to a host of other stadiums that had recently replaced their video boards, including the University of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium, the Baltimore Ravens’ M&T Bank Stadium, and the Colorado Rockies’ Coors Field, among others. After looking at display technology from all the leading vendors, Schlough said the Giants stuck with longtime “great partner” Mitsubishi, who had provided the screen the Giants installed in 2007, which replaced an older board that was present when the venue opened in 2000.

The 4K-ready clarity of the screen is apparent in daylight or night. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

With all the new space to play with, the Giants are already finding new things to show on the board, including a much longer list of statistics.

“It’s not just batting averages anymore, fans today want all the new things like launch velocity,” Schlough said. “Our baseball analytics team said ‘let’s give fans everything we’re looking at ourselves,’ so we’re putting up as much as we can.”

On a recent visit to Oracle Park, Mobile Sports Report witnessed the board in action, and came away incredibly impressed by the clarity and stunning scenes made possible by the large screen. Schlough wasn’t kidding about the wealth of new stats available for each batter, and the size and resolution made the between-innings video entertainment jump right out at you. Our favorites were a live shot of the San Francisco skyline from Treasure Island (see video below) and a between-inning t-shirt giveaway that inadvertently had MSR editor Paul Kapustka visible on the screen for a few almost-famous moments.

In the future, Schlough forsees the Giants showing 4K resolution content, which has not yet arrived for stadiums on the production side — but knowing that it someday will, he’s happy that the team has “future proofed” its main display for when 4K content arrives.

So far, Schlough said, fan response has been “awesome” in support of the new screen, making it clear that people in the seats agree that a bigger screen was a great choice.

“In the end the fans won,” Schlough said.

(More photos and a video from our recent visit below)

If this video looks blurry, blame the cameraman’s iPhone, not the Giants’ video board.

Can you spot MSR editor Paul Kapustka in this picture?

New static signs were pushed into the light towers to free up more room for the video screen.

Venue Display Report: Small directories do big job at Mall of America

The Mall of America turned to small digital directories to solve a big wayfinding problem. Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, VDR (click on any picture for a larger image)

With hundreds of stores, shops and restaurants – and an embedded amusement park – being big only starts to describe the breadth of the Mall of America. Yet to help guests find what they are looking for and to find their way around the 5.6 million square-foot property, the Mall went small with its digital-display directories, a winning move that has produced more than 10 million interactions since going fully live just more than a year ago.

Once upon a time, the Bloomington, Minn.-based Mall of America was no different from any other shopping mall when it came to directories. In what was somewhat of a shopping center tradition, the Mall of America had four-sided standalone structures with four-foot wide printed displays, crammed with maps and lists of locations. While big, printed directories may have been the way malls always did things, they didn’t fit in with the Mall of America’s recent moves to embrace digital technology to improve the guest experience.

“Those old directories were monstrosities, and they were obsolete the moment you printed them,” said Janette Smrcka, information technology director for the Mall of America. During a visit this spring by Venue Display Report to the Mall, Smrcka said attempts to put granular information on the printed maps – like stacked graphics showing the multiple oor levels close together – produced a mostly frustrating experience for guests.

“You had to walk around these things, and it was really difficult to find anything, because there are so many stores,” Smrcka said. “And the maps were kind of information overload. We found guests didn’t react well tothem.”

Going digital for directories

Editor’s note: This profile is from our most recent issue of our VENUE DISPLAY REPORT series, where we focus on telling the stories of successful venue display technology deployments and the business opportunities these deployments enable. This issue also contains profiles of the new big video board at Oracle Park in San Francisco, and an in-depth look at display technology at U.S. Bank Stadium during the Final Four! START READING the issue today!

Thin lighted poles show where directories are located, without blocking the view

For the technology-forward Mall of America – which installed a high-definition Wi-Fi network throughout the property a few years ago – digital touch-screen directories seemed a logical next step ahead. According to Smrcka, the generational shift to embrace more touchscreen devices like phones and tablets, and the emergence of similar devices in many public places like airports and restaurants has produced a public that is far more comfortable with touching a display.

“Five or 10 years ago a touchscreen directory might have been too soon, but now very few people are hesitant [to use touchscreens],” Smrcka said. “Everything is a touchscreen, and people expect it. Everyone feels comfortable [using them].”

An important caveat for Mall of America, Smrcka said, was finding a way to make the mall directory experience more personal and private, like using an ATM.

“We always knew we wanted the screens to be smaller,” Smrcka said. Some other shopping centers that the Mall of America team had scouted had larger interactive displays, which Smrcka said could produce a “creepy” feeling since personal searches could potentially be viewed by people walking by.

“We felt like we wanted the screens to be a size where your body could be a shield,” Smrcka said. “Nobody needs to know what I’m looking for.”

As part of its deployment strategy, the Mall of America followed its agile development ethos and rolled out a small number of test units live in the Mall in late 2016. The displays, about the size of an iMac desktop screen tilted vertically, are from Aopen, and use a Chromebox commercial base for the operating system. A local Minneapolis-area wayfinding solutions firm, Express Image, provided the programming, and without much fanfare, the Mall flipped the switch and let its guests interact with the devices to see what happened.

Reducing search times to under a minute

“We didn’t exactly stalk people, but we did watch them [using the directories],” Smrcka said. Though some of the features enabled by the devices – like a search field – were obvious adds, exposing other services like maps and wayfinding weren’t as straightforward.

“There is a real problem of how do you logistically show 5 million square feet,” Smrcka said.

The start screen exposes some of the most-used directory services.

After watching users interact, the Mall of America has currently settled on a 2D mapping feature that can, if users choose it, show an animated path from where they are to where their desired destination is.

“The focus is how quickly can we help guests find what they are looking for,” Smrcka said.

After pulling the trigger to roll out 100 of the directories in mid-2017, the Mall’s IT team was rewarded with extensive usage analytics, which they put into an immediate feedback loop to improve the directories’ feature list and what was shown to users first.

“By far, the number one search was for restrooms,” Smrcka said. The Mall took that information and now has a prominent button on the main screen that will quickly show users the closest restrooms to that spot.

“There’s nothing like that immediate need,” Smrcka sAaid. “That was a quick win.”

Analyzing more of the data helps the Mall’s IT team do a better job of predicting what users are looking for when they misspell store names, or if users are having difficulty with directions. According to Smrcka some data analysis showed that one physical location of a set of directories was causing confusion since “people told to take a left turn ended up inside a Cinnabon.” Moving the directories around the nearby corner helped improve the directions feature, she said.

The directories got a good workout during Final Four weekend.

The problem of how to show directions to places on different levels of the mall was solved by having a different screen for each level; the animated directions will even advance the pathways up and down escalators or stairways. Srmcka is also proud of the Mall’s desire to make information as real-time as possible; that effort includes a kind of “mall hack” where cheap power meters feed information into the directory system to let guests know if, say, an escalator is temporarily out of service.

“Little things like that make a big difference,” said Smrcka.

In a casual mall walkaround, VDR observed many guests taking turns at the numerous directory locations, seeming to find what they need quickly without any obvious confusion. According to Smrcka, the directories have now logged more than 10 million interactions, with the average interaction time at 38.98 seconds.

Some features in the directories, like the ability for users to enter their phone number to get information via text message, may take longer to take off, Smrcka said. “There are always going to be some people who don’t have the comfort level to put their number into a public device,” Smrcka said. But overall, the small digital directories have added up to a huge success.

Commentary: More tech needed for signs

Security sign at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

At the Minneapolis airport, I had just checked my bag and was looking for the departure gates, wondering which way to go since I remembered from a previous trip there was a choice of security lines. Turning to my left, my question was answered without having to dig out my phone to look at an app: Instead there was a huge neon green sign that said “Less than 10 minutes… all passengers, all gates.” I smiled and kept walking toward the sign and then took a picture, to remember the power of a highly visible and intuitive message board — something stadiums and other large venues could use a lot more of.

Though we make it a point here at MSR to report as much as we can on app-based developments for stadiums, increasingly these days when at a game I find that many times it is simply not convenient to pull up information on my phone, especially so with wayfinding. Let’s leave aside wayfinding apps and beacons for a minute and ask — why, in this age when we can deliver personalized information to a phone, isn’t there more being done with large, video-based signage?

Give me direction, not just live action

Editor’s note: This column is from our most recent STADIUM TECH REPORT for Winter 2017-18, which is available for FREE DOWNLOAD from our site. This issue has an in-depth look at the wireless networks at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, home of the upcoming Super Bowl 52, as well as profiles of network deployments at the brand-new Little Caesars Arena and Orlando City Stadium! DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY today!

For sponsors and advertising, the revolution over the past few years of LED boards replacing static signage is like moving from telegraph to radio. Stadiums everywhere are pushing each other to see who can add more in the way of ribbon boards, big LED screens on concourses, on walls and of course, to see who can come up with the latest in big main video boards.

But even as it’s great that video screens are proliferating inside venues — you may never miss a live play anywhere inside a stadium again, including inside elevators — I would argue that in many stadiums, the strategy behind mounting signs and putting relevant content on them is still in its infancy, especially when it comes to things like updated wayfinding.

And while I doubt any of us really wants a future like the one depicted in Minority Report, where signs detect you and show you personalized marketing as you walk by, wouldn’t it be nice if the screens did more instead of just showing live action and synchronized ads? How about some proactive wayfinding, with time-sensitive messages, to help fans find what they need inside the stadium walls? With quick, easy to digest information that doesn’t require three clicks to find?

My beef with wait time apps and wayfinding

If there’s one loudly touted stadium app feature I’ve never fully bought into, it’s the whole “you can see how long the bathroom line is” app. Though it seems simple and good (and many reporters write about it without questioning it), I see a bunch of holes poking through that are never described in the press releases. First and most telling is that even with multiple versions of this service launched, nobody has yet provided us with any stats on usage, even though we’ve asked politely.

Picture of a monitor at American Airlines Arena, showing wait time information (not during a game). Credit: Miami Heat

(Consider this a mass appeal for more information from any app providers or teams with apps reading this: If there is a part of your app that shows wait times for bathrooms or other lines, how many fans have used it? Has use of the feature grown? What have you changed recently to improve it? We’ll hang up and wait for your answer.)

One reason I don’t think wait time apps are a powerful idea for crowded stadiums is the simple fact that sometimes it’s not safe to be looking at your device. At a recent Vikings game at U.S. Bank Stadium I got a refresher — if you are walking on a concourse during a sellout game, the last thing you want to do is pull out your phone and be a gaper snce you might get gored by some guy with three-foot horns on his head who plows into you when you stop suddenly. Blue-dot directions are great in theory but like texting while driving, in some situations trying to stare at your phone may be hazardous to your health.

How about using the app while sitting in your seat, before you leave for the restroom? My question to the app provider is — what guarantee do you provide that if I start toward the bathroom with the shortest line, that it will still be short when I get there? And paradoxically, if more fans start using the app the way I am, won’t that make the short lines instantly long if we all head there at the same time?

More questions: Do any of these things tell you how long it will take you to walk to and from the bathroom with the shortest line? Or is it smarter to wait instead of walking (especially with a full bladder)? Are wait time apps smart enough to figure all this out? I doubt it.

Can you find your way to the Uber pickup at MSP? Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

But here is where smarter signs with more limited options come into play. Like the huge neon words in the Minneapolis airport, more interactive displays could go a long way in wayfinding, especially if they are only trying to do a small number of simple things, like, “SHORTER BATHROOM LINE 100 FEET THIS WAY,” or, “HOT DOG AND A BEER FOR $10, AT NEXT TWO STANDS.” I see a big difference in how such signs could differ from an app, by providing just the last piece of information in a process already begun — without any need for click-throughs.

The Miami Heat are starting down this path, with video screens that face the fans when they come up from the stands at American Airlines Arena, with restroom and concession information (with simple arrows) provided by partner WaitTime. While we haven’t yet interviewed the folks at WaitTime to find out exactly how their sensors and algorithms stand up to our previous list of questions, our guess is that many more fans will find the information via the concourse displays than through any team app, simply because A) many team apps still aren’t well known or well used, and B) everyone pretty much knows how to read a sign.

This is what I mean when I say we need more tech for signs — the updated information is great stuff, but it doesn’t even have to be that digital. At Golden 1 Center in Sacramento there was an incredibly smart decision made to turn some concession signs on the concourse a simple 90 degrees — so you can read the sign while you are walking, without having to turn your head. It’s one of those things that when you see it for the first time, you wonder why we ever did it the other way.

Maybe what is needed are some new form factors, other than the standard horizontal TV screen. The Mall of America (story coming soon!) has some new interactive directories that are more like a big iPad than the old movie-poster models, and they are already reporting millions of user sessions and great feedback from guests. Why not install a bunch of smaller screens in stadiums and other large venues, which could be programmed for specific time-sensitive information?

Instead of one large screen with impossible to read small type about baggage-carousel information about your arriving flight, why not a monitor with BIG type that circles through the most recent flights, mounted above wherever you enter the baggage area? How about big arrows in stadiums as a game finishes, directing fans to less-crowded exits?

Where are we with this issue now? After Levi’s Stadium opened a few years ago, they had stadium employees with handheld signs after games, trying to direct fans to the light rail. In the Minneapolis airport, trying to find the Uber pickup area requires a treasure hunt of sorts, as you have to find and consult multiple portable printed signs to finally find the curbside spot. And at the Denver airport they use similar portable printed signs to direct passengers to quicker security lines. C’mon man. Time to tech up.

Maybe, yes, an app with blue-dot wayfinding could help here but in many real-life big-venue situations — a sellout crowd concourse, or hauling your carryon suitcase to the gate — taking your phone out is sometimes the least attractive option. Instead, let’s see some more tech directed to signs and the strategy behind their placement and content. Let’s call them signs of the times, shall we?

Stadium Tech Report: An MSR Geek Sneak Peek finds fast Wi-Fi, lots of cell antennas at Levi’s Stadium

A Wi-Fi access point near a section sign.

A Wi-Fi access point near a section sign.

The historic idea that big, open-air stadiums are bad places for wireless connectivity may have finally met its match. Though it still needs a test when it’s full of fans, a sneak peek at the incredibly robust Wi-Fi and distributed antenna system (DAS) deployments in the San Francisco 49ers’ new Levi’s Stadium should mean, at least for Niners fans, that poor connections at football games are a thing of the past.

Granted, our tour of the new stadium during its ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday wasn’t any kind of official unveiling of the much-hyped Wi-Fi and cellular networks inside. There weren’t any tech reps on hand, and there were many places throughout the building where it was clear that parts of the network weren’t yet turned on (along with many flat-screen TV mounts still waiting for their electronics). But just walking around inside the concourses and clubs, a trained eye could see Wi-Fi access points and DAS antennas just about everywhere you looked. And, wow — in areas where the network was live, the download speeds were off the charts — we recorded several readings of 60 Mbps or higher, including on the Levi’s sustainable-garden rooftop court.

On one hand, it’s fair to say that our walk-around tests don’t mean a thing, because the real chore for the Levi’s network is not to impress a few random guests, but instead to handle the huge loads brought on by a sellout crowd of 68,500 iPhone-toting football fans. Over the next month or so we’ll get some more chances for proof points, especially at the Niners’ preseason games, when we hope to see the ambitious on-demand instant replay app being put through its paces, while at the same time Niners fans use their phones to order food delivered to their seats. That’s a lot of potential bandwidth and interactions. But after our tour Thursday, we’re perhaps a bit less cynical than we were before about the network’s ability to handle such loads.

SpeedTest results from Wi-Fi network inside Levi's Stadium.

SpeedTest results from Wi-Fi network inside Levi’s Stadium.

Designed for networking from the ground up

Why? Mainly, it’s the fact that Levi’s looks like the proof of what is possible when you design a stadium from the ground up with connectivity in mind. Though we could in fact see many, many exposed APs and DAS antennas, none were overly obtrusive — in fact, they all looked like they had been mounted somewhere that was expressly designed for them to be there. I’m no network engineer, but the simple lack of a lot of exposed cabling around those antennas and APs says to me that the guts of the building may be as smart as the network. Under one overhang I did see a cable run that reminded me of a data center — a wire basket carrying fiber, with plenty of room for expansion, leading into holes in the concrete that weren’t close to being filled. Again: I carry no union card. But if I can see such things and figure them out, it seems like a lot of thought went into the Levi’s network that’s perhaps not as obvious as the APs and antennas. Which, of course, is a great thing for administrators and even better for users.

Watching the British Open live on a TV inside an elevator at Levi's Stadium.

Watching the British Open live on a TV inside an elevator at Levi’s Stadium.

What else did we see that was amazing, technology-wise? The sheer number of flat screen digital displays, especially when combined with the numerous large, comfortable lounge and club areas says to us that fans won’t miss much action even if they’re not in their seats. In the plush big-bucks clubs and even in the proletariat concrete concourses there was flat screen after flat screen (or at least the mounts where more TVs will be). It’s a simple but profound way to improve the fan experience, maybe a lesson learned from Candlestick, where fans congregated outside the few concession stands with TVs just to watch replays. Sure, the phone app may be one way to get there but my take from walking through Levi’s is that if you want to stand around and enjoy a beverage with friends you will still be kept up on the action even if your phone’s in your pocket.

Like we said — there is certainly more detailed information to come, and we are betting that the folks at Aruba Networks (the Wi-Fi gear supplier) and DAS Group Professionals (the neutral third-party DAS host) are chomping at the bit to talk about their deployments… let the free advertising of the antenna pictures below suffice for now. Though it’s just the start of our planned Levi’s Stadium network coverage, it was an impressive one, right down to the glasses of Iron Horse bubbly served at the post-ribbon-cutting reception. Salut, Levi’s and Niners!

(All photos credit Paul Kapustka, Mobile Sports Report. Copyright 2014, Mobile Sports Report. Please do not use without permission.)

Wi-Fi access points visible on outside concourse structure

Wi-Fi access points visible on outside concourse structure

Two DAS antennas above a concession stand

Two DAS antennas above a concession stand

DAS antennas mounted under overhang.

DAS antennas mounted under overhang.

A guess, but looks to us like directional Wi-Fi AP (on the solar panel roof of the rooftop garden court)

A guess, but looks to us like directional Wi-Fi AP (on the solar panel roof of the rooftop garden court)

A Wi-Fi AP mounting location that says "Death Star" to us

A Wi-Fi AP mounting location that says “Death Star” to us

Just some of the flat-panel displays in the United Lounge.

Just some of the flat-panel displays in the United Lounge.

The boss, Roger Goodell, gives his approval of Levi's

The boss, Roger Goodell, gives his approval of Levi’s

Rooftop garden view. Butterflies and 60+ Mbps Wi-Fi!

Rooftop garden view. Butterflies and 60+ Mbps Wi-Fi!

Cool/scary view of the field from behind the lights, again on the rooftop garden area

Cool/scary view of the field from behind the lights, again on the rooftop garden area

What's behind the red DAS head end door? First rule of head end rooms, don't ask about head end rooms

What’s behind the red DAS head end door? First rule of head end rooms, don’t ask about head end rooms