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.

Final Four displays, new Giants scoreboard, all in the new VENUE DISPLAY REPORT!

Mobile Sports Report is pleased to announce the second issue of our new VENUE DISPLAY REPORT, with in-depth profiles of display technology at the Final Four, a huge new video board for the San Francisco Giants at Oracle Park, and the innovative directory displays at the Mall of America. No need to sign up or register — just click on the image below and start reading the issue today!

A new vertical-specific offering of MSR’s existing STADIUM TECH REPORT series, the VENUE DISPLAY REPORT series will focus on telling the stories of successful venue display technology deployments and the business opportunities these deployments enable. Like its sibling Stadium Tech Report series, the Venue Display Report series will offer valuable information about cutting-edge deployments that venue owners and operators can use to inform their own plans for advanced digital-display strategies.

Our reporting and analysis will be similar to that found in our popular STR series, with stadium and venue visits to see the display technology in action, and interviews and analysis with thought leaders to help readers better inform their upcoming technology purchasing decisions. And in case you are new to the MSR world, rest assured that all our VDR reports will be editorially objective, done in the old-school way of real reporting. We do not accept paid content and do not pick profiles based on any sponsorship or advertising arrangements.

This second issue is packed with real-world information, including how U.S. Bank Stadium uses the Cisco Vision IPTV display management system to help run the 2,000-plus digital displays inside and around the venue. We also take a good look at the huge new video board installed for this season at Oracle Park in San Francisco, and also bring you an in-person profile of the innovative directory display system at the Mall of America.

Start reading the second issue now! No download or registration necessary. You can also go back and view our inaugural VDR issue for more great information!

As venues seek to improve fan engagement and increase sponsor activation, display technology offers powerful new ways to improve the in-stadium fan experience. While these topics are of prime interest to many of our long-term audience of stadium tech professionals, we suggest that you share the link with colleagues on the marketing and advertising sales side of the house, as they will likely find great interest in the ROI enabled by strategic display system deployments.

Sponsorship spots are currently available for future VDR series reports; please contact Paul at kaps at mobilesportsreport.com for media kit information.

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?

Wi-Fi network powers rich data collection at Mall of America

Fans greet One Direction at Mall of America. Credit: Tony Nelson (click on any photo for a larger image)

Fans greet One Direction at Mall of America. Credit: Tony Nelson (click on any photo for a larger image)

If you’re shopping for mobile customer data, why not just go to the mall?

That’s what Minnesota’s Mall of America did, not by finding a service that sells such information, but by investing in a massive and complex Wi-Fi network, designed and deployed by AmpThink using Cisco gear. And the service is free for Mall visitors. While being an attractive guest feature, the service simultaneously provides the Mall with enough data to fill digital warehouses with information about what people do both online and in the real world while on the property.

According to Janette Smrcka, IT director for Mall of America, though the Mall is only at the start of its data analysis program, it is already seeing interesting results that will likely help the Mall better connect with its visitors and, in all likelihood, improve business results for Mall tenants. A recent month-long sampling of customer behavior data gave the Mall a tremendous amount of insight on how activities such as promotions and events affect visitor behavior, information the Mall wouldn’t have had without its Wi-Fi network.

“We’re just at the beginning of being able to use all of this valuable data and translate it into actionable information,” said Smrcka in an interview at Mall of America, located in Bloomington, nine miles south of Minneapolis.

Almost a Super Bowl of data every week

How much data are we talking about? In the world of stadium networks, the most recent Super Bowl at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. set a single-day record with 26 terabytes of wireless data used – 15.9 TB on cellular networks and 10.1 TB on the stadium Wi-Fi. At Mall of America, from the launch of their Wi-Fi network during Thanksgiving weekend last year until May 2016, nearly 320,000 unique Mall visitors connected to the network, using a total of 486 TB of traffic – almost a Super Bowl of data per week.

Wi-Fi AP visible below Mall of America sign. Credit: Paul Kapustka / MSR

Wi-Fi AP visible below Mall of America sign. Credit: Paul Kapustka / MSR

While the Mall might not match the single-day crush of a Super Bowl, the steady stream of visitors (Mall officials estimate that the six million square-foot facility sees an average of 109,000 visitors on weekdays and 160,000 on weekends) produces some staggering numbers. According to a recent public presentation about the network, Mall of America claimed that one month of Wi-Fi usage on its network equaled a full year of Wi-Fi activity on an NBA-sized stadium network.

According to Smrcka, the Mall knew it needed Wi-Fi connectivity as a table stakes amenity, but it was mindful of fitting performance to price, while achieving return on investment justification in the process.

“We knew we needed something but the challenge was the cost,” Smrcka said. “We knew we couldn’t charge for the service.” Smrcka also said the Mall has seen other malls try and fail with initial Wi-Fi deployments due to subpar service, prompting guest disdain.

“We’ve seen some of our peers put Wi-Fi in, and not do it very well, and get lots of complaints,” Smrcka said. “It’s like airport Wi-Fi. Sure it’s there, but just try using it.”

With AmpThink, Mall of America found a partner who knew the need for high-quality deployments. The design and install company has been behind the Wi-Fi networks at several Super Bowls, as well as recent networks built in stadiums like Kyle Field at Texas A&M and US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Wi-Fi 'ball' visible in middle of theme park area. Credit: Paul Kapustka / MSR

Wi-Fi ‘ball’ visible in middle of theme park area. Credit: Paul Kapustka / MSR

However, this massive Wi-Fi network, along with the unique challenges of implementing it at the Mall, also needed the elusive component of return on investment.

Not easy to build inside a mall

On a recent early morning tour of the Mall, AmpThink president Bill Anderson showed Mobile Sports Report some of the challenges inherent to one of the world’s biggest shopping venues. For starters, there was the need for custom enclosures that fit with the facility’s overall aesthetics as well as cutting through double firewalls (the real kind of firewalls, not the software kind) to keep safety codes intact.

To cover one of the Mall’s more unique spaces, the 7-acre theme park in the center of the facility, AmpThink had to design and build enclosures that look like big lollipops. This “Wi-Fi ball on a stick” design fit the park’s design aesthetics while providing coverage in and around the various rides and amusement spaces. AmpThink also figured out how to fit a Wi-Fi AP inside digital sign kiosks, so the kiosks could connect to the network and therefore the Cisco StadiumVision system for digital display management. In many places, the APs included beacons inside, setting up the network for device proximity capabilities.

From an RF perspective, Anderson said one of the toughest challenges was keeping interference to a minimum between APs on different floors of the multi-level mall. Another large challenge was simply the logistics of construction, with separate scheduling needed for the many hundreds of Mall tenants.

The mall's many levels make it a tough place to tune RF. Credit: Paul Kapustka / MSR

The mall’s many levels make it a tough place to tune RF. Credit: Paul Kapustka / MSR

“We own the space above their ceilings, and would need to get in the stores to run cable through,” said Smrcka. Coordinating construction was a challenge at times, like when teenage clerks didn’t relay scheduling messages to their store managers, further complicated by the need to have security officers present to keep an eye on inventory.

Anderson said that AmpThink deployment teams also needed to make sure they cleaned up after putting in APs, as any drywall dust found on store facades could result in complaints from store owners. Despite the extra hurdles, deployment of the network, composed of more than 600 APs, started in July of last year and launched just before Thanksgiving. Then the data started pouring in. Now, what to do with all that information?

Putting students to work

To help figure out how to best use the stream of information coming its way, the Mall conducted a study of its data in a partnership with graduate students at the Carlson Analytics Lab at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. By mapping visitor behavior using Wi-Fi and beacon activity – tracking where shoppers arrived, where they walked and how long they spent in different areas of the Mall – Mall of America and the student researchers were able to uncover interesting stats on things like in-mall promotions, events and store appeal.

Mall kiosk with Wi-Fi inside to drive the Cisco StadiumVision software. Credit: Paul Kapustka / MSR

Mall kiosk with Wi-Fi inside to drive the Cisco StadiumVision software. Credit: Paul Kapustka / MSR

According to the Mall’s presentation at the recent SEAT Conference in Las Vegas, one analysis showed that if visitors were offered free admission to the amusement park, they actually spent 40 percent of their time at the Mall somewhere other than the amusement park — a sign that free amusement park entry could spur more shopping. The analysis also showed that during events at the Mall – according to the Mall, it hosts more than 400 special events a year – visitors stayed at the Mall on average 1.4 times longer than visitors who did not attend an event. The Mall also found out that 39 percent of event attendees visited the Mall’s food courts, compared to 25 percent of non-event visitors.

During its presentation, the Mall also showed screenshots of interactive “heat maps” showing exactly where visitors entered, where they walked, and how long they stayed. This information was gathered by the Wi-Fi AP beacons, which allowed for accurate device location tracking. With such information at their fingertips, the Mall sees a future where the network helps initiate new features for assisted shopping and custom experiences for visitors without resorting to historic feedback systems like surveys or focus groups.

Data driving the future

“This data is golden when it comes to describing shopper behavior,” said Smrcka, who also talked about the deployment at the SEAT Conference in Las Vegas. Shopper surveys, she said, have proven to sometimes not be reliable, and “who has the time to sit in a focus group for hours?”

How many malls do you know that have a One Direction tribute photo? Credit: Paul Kapustka / MSR

How many malls do you know that have a One Direction tribute photo? Credit: Paul Kapustka / MSR

This information enhances other Mall guest behavior and experience initiatives. “We already have a social media command team watching geo-located social media posts,” Smrcka said. They also employ a text messaging system, which visitors use to send messages to customized numbers to communicate if a bathroom needs servicing, set a reminder for their parking spot, or to find out where the closest gelato stand is.

And while Mall of America, like other bricks and mortar retailers, competes every day against online shopping, Smrcka said there are plenty of people who still want to see and feel the goods they are purchasing. Mall of America plans to use their Wi-Fi network’s data to make the guest experience even better and study the feasibility of possible future services like personal shopping, valet parking, curbside pickup and home delivery.

Moreover, Smrcka and her team can better segment and target its visitors and their entertainment, dining and shopping needs.

“What we’re able to do [from analytics] is still changing from month to month,” Smrcka said. “But the data really empowers a team like ours.”

Commentary: Venues need to think of connectivity beyond the stadium walls

MSR editor Paul Kapustka via selfie from the field-level suites at US Bank Stadium.

MSR editor Paul Kapustka via selfie from the field-level suites at US Bank Stadium.

Last month, if you wanted a seat inside US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis you needed a getup like the one I’m wearing in the picture – including what you can’t see, the steel-toed shoes and the gloves that kept me from scratching any of the already-finished surfaces. Almost ready to open its doors, I can tell you that US Bank Stadium is a beauty, and that we’ll have a full report soon. For now enjoy the “sneak peek” photo essay we posted earlier.

Outside the architecturally angled walls of the stadium, what really impressed me during a recent quick visit to Minneapolis was how well the stadium operators are working with entities like the city, state and other large public gathering places, to ensure that the large streams of humanity traveling to and from the 67,000-seat facility have the best experience possible, both before and after events.

Like most travelers, my experience with Minneapolis’ integrated infrastructures started at the airport, where I took the simple and easy to understand light rail directly into downtown. I noticed that the train already stops directly at one of the US Bank Stadium doors, unlike some other stadiums where mass transit connections are a sometimes-lengthy walk away. That the stadium already has its own stop even before it opens shows that at the very least, people were thinking and talking even before the concrete was poured.

Light rail stop at the front door of US Bank Stadium. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Light rail stop at the front door of US Bank Stadium. Credit: Paul Kapustka, MSR

Mass transit a priority for US Bank Stadium

Editor’s note: This editorial is from our most recent STADIUM TECH REPORT, the Q2 issue which contains a feature story on Wi-Fi analytics, and a sneak peek of the Minnesota Vikings’ new US Bank Stadium. DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY today!
With no large parking lots right next to the stadium and only some scattered lots (as far as I could tell) downtown, the light rail is clearly going to be an integral part of getting fans to and from the venue, both for regular-season Minnesota Vikings games as well as for Super Bowl 52 a couple Februarys from now. To make that trip easier, the light rail also extends past the airport to the Mall of America, a key link in the integrated civic infrastructure.

Why is the mall a part of this? Mainly because it is also a transit center (it has a large space where buses, trains and car parking are all together) and because it offers free parking – meaning that fans can simply park at the mall and spend a couple bucks taking the half-hour train to US Bank Stadium (or also to Target Field, which is just a few stops farther through downtown). Courtesy of a recent deployment there is now high-quality Wi-Fi in the mall itself, and at many places in Minnesota proper there is free civic Wi-Fi. There are also plans afoot to bring Wi-Fi to the light rail trains themselves. While it might not seem like much, the idea of being able to be highly connected all the way from parking at the mall to your seat in the stadium is a fan’s dream come true, enabling all the connectivity wants or needs that can happen during a game or event day.

Having witnessed some other stadiums opening without much coordination, it’s impressive and great to hear that the Vikings and Minneapolis are already planning for things like overcrowded trains after games (since more people leave at the same time than arrive at the same time), with plans to close off one of the stadium’s bordering streets and to have dozens of buses on hand to handle the overflow. There’s also plans to have stadium TVs show mass transit schedules as fans depart, and also options to remain downtown for post-game eating or celebrations.

VTA line following Levi's Stadium hockey game in 2015.

VTA line following Levi’s Stadium hockey game in 2015.

How else are the Vikings, the city and the state planning to work together? In our interviews we heard about plans to use real-time traffic mapping to close off crowded exits and to direct fans to faster paths to and from the stadium, and to perhaps be able to communicate such directions to fans via the team’s new mobile app. While it all still needs to be done in real time on a real game day, just the thinking about the fact that a “game day” doesn’t start or stop at the stadium premises is a refreshing one, especially for a venue that will host a Super Bowl in just over a year and a half.

While we’ve heard of other, similar plans to extend connectivity beyond the stadium walls – here we are thinking of the downtown plan around Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, and new plans for “fan plazas” outside such venues as Wrigley Field and Lambeau Field – the Vikings seem to have looked even farther out, to try to ensure that the connected fan experience goes as far as it possibly can. Again, the proof will be in the execution, but like the view from outside US Bank Stadium, the ideas hatching in Minnesota look pretty good.

Minnesota Twins’ Target Field: Photo Essay and Wi-Fi tests

Great sight to see when you get off the plane in Minnesota.

Great sight to see when you get off the plane in Minnesota.

During Mobile Sports Report’s visit to Minneapolis earlier this summer, we had a free afternoon so we took the public tour of the Minnesota Twins’ Target Field, home of the 2014 MLB All Star Game. Though it was a kind of drizzly day we still got a lot of looks (and tests) of the thing we came to see: The park’s new Wi-Fi and DAS networks, which were operational and since it was an empty house, probably running at full capacity for all our tests.

After a short (~30 min.) light rail trip from the airport to downtown, we dumped our bags at the hotel and hoofed it over to Target Field, staying dry by cleverly using the city’s skywalk pathways. Once at the stadium it was just a short wait for the 3 p.m. tour to start, so we cruised the Twins’ gift store where the full-body Twins jammies made us think of cold September nights.

Tech you can and can’t see

Target Field from a nearby walkway. Notice the freeway running underneath.

Target Field from a nearby walkway. Notice the freeway running underneath.

I’d never been on one of these public tours before, but our group of 7 dudes learned a lot of lore from our excellent guide Rick, who had his stats down cold. The big glove outside the stadium, he let us know, is 522 feet from home plate, the longest home run recorded by Twins legend Harmon Killebrew. That home run was hit in 1967 at the old Metropolitan Stadium, where the Mall of America now stands.

Rick started out our tour by informing us that the $600 million Target Field, which opened in 2010, has a whole lot of technology under the field, pipes that heat the field and carry water away from it; there’s no dirt on the playing field, just sand underneath a very thin covering of grass. Baseball capacity now is 38,868, Rick said, though on opening day the park had 40,000+ there. That’s great stuff, man, but what about the Wi-Fi? Though I couldn’t get a Wi-Fi signal outside the gates, once inside the network was clearly humming: As Rick took us through the press box, where there were Ethernet cords in front of each seat, I wondered how necessary those were with a reading of 59.26 Mbps down and 62.67 up as I sat in a front-row seat.

Twins jammies for those cold Minnesota nights.

Twins jammies for those cold Minnesota nights.

As one the MLBAM-led technology deployment deals (in part to get ready for the All Star Game demands) the Wi-Fi inside Target Field is mainly Cisco gear, at least those that you can see. The familiar white boxes (now with MLBAM ID stickers) are fairly ubiquitous. Since we weren’t able to get ahold of the Twins’ IT crew before our visit I’m not sure what the final AP or DAS antenna count is these days. But if you know where to look, and we do, you can see a lot of antennas around.

Dealing with outside-the-park interference

One of the interesting things we learned in our profile of the park prior to the All Star Game was that since the stadium is right downtown, the Twins and the major carriers had to figure out how to keep macro antennas on buildings outside the ballpark from bleeding into the stadium’s DAS. According to another source we spoke with in Minnesota, this year was the first year that Target Field’s DAS didn’t need any more alterations; as you can see by one of pictures here of the Ford Center, which is across the street from the back side of Target Field, there’s a lot of RF on rooftops in the near vicinity.

Inside the press box. Grandpa, what's that cord for?

Inside the press box. Grandpa, what’s that cord for?

Down near field level, the Wi-Fi was still cranking in the mid-40s, an excellent score for a place that’s normally hard to cover. Looking around I didn’t initially see any APs, with none on the wall facing backwards as some stadiums do it. Then after some more inspection I saw the source of the bandwidth, some well-covered railing APs mounted on the railing behind the 10 or so rows of near-the-field seats. On our way out I saw some of the distinctive AmpThink-designed sideways railing enclosures, for the open-bowl seating not covered by overhangs.

Though ideally we’d love to come back on a game day, from the looks of the physical placements we were able to see and the tests we took, it seems like both the cellular and Wi-Fi networks at Target Field are high performers, good news for Twins fans who need connectivity. And if you need to drown your sorrows or celebrate, there is also an in-stadium beer network, which supplies suds from main keg rooms through conduits that are definitely more tasty than copper or fiber. Prosit!

Credit all photos: Paul Kapustka, MSR

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Target Field in panoramic view.

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A silhouette of a Wi-Fi antenna. MSR geek art.

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A Wi-Fi AP and some kind of gun antenna. Anyone know what that is?

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You bought it, you put your name on it.

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Another panoramic view, showing how close downtown is.

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The Ford Center is across the street from the back of the park. We’re guessing those macro antennas on top had to be tuned to keep their signals from interfering.

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Not Wi-Fi, but a network worth building for thirsty fans.

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Anyone want to test download speeds of these pipes?

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Great quote overheard in Minnesota: “It takes a lot of wire to make a park wireless.”

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Tour guide Rick getting set to take his “team” out on the field. BUT NOT ON THE GRASS!

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The railing APs that cover the field-level seats.

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An AmpThink railing enclosure. Rick didn’t know what those were, but he does now.

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Nice hardware in the Twins’ high-rollers club area.

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Our tour didn’t get to see inside, but we can guess what’s behind that door.

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If you can hit one here, the Twins want to talk to you.

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That’s about as close as MSR will ever get to being in “The Show.” Until next time!