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Can An App Make Attending NFL Games More Fun? Our Q&A with a 49ers Tech Honcho

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Considering the location of the 49ers' new Levi's Stadium (Santa Clara, in the heart of Silicon Valley) and its price tag ($1.2 billion), building a venue that was anything less than a technological wonderland would have constituted a treasonous act. So, the Niners anted up. Back in May, Tim Newcomb wrote about many of the stadium's impressive specs; more recently, news emerged that the team was developing an app that will facilitate concessions delivery to every seat and help fans find the shortest beer and bathroom lines.

Orchestrating all the techy efforts has been a team of front office execs with formidable Silicon Valley pedigrees. Niners president Gideon Yu was previously a SVP at Yahoo and CFO at both YouTube and Facebook. Dan Williams, who is working on the new stadium's network and infrastructure, and CTO Kunal Malik both came from Facebook. And Doug Garland, the team's General Manager of Stadium Experience and Technology, is a veteran of Google, Yahoo, and Shazam. With the start of the team's final season at Candlestick just two weeks away, we caught up with Garland to learn more about the technological horn o' plenty awaiting fans in 2015.

Extra Mustard: You guys are building this fancy new stadium, and soon you'll have an app to match. What goals did you have while developing it?

Doug Garland: On a meta level, we set out to make it so that the decision to come to a live game is less of a trade-off in terms of giving up some of the things that you can get in your home experience. The most common refrain we hear from our fans is that as exciting as it is to come to the venue, the competition from the home—with HD programming, commentary and replay, and your fridge right around the corner—is stiff. We want the venue experience to be the best experience, and every development on the stadium and app is being carried out with that in mind.

One aspect that deeply resonates with fans is the ability to access on-demand instant replay for every play from a variety of camera angles. We're going to encourage fans to bring their mobile devices -- tablets and smart phones -- and let that provide an “in the lap” experience. The replays will come from a live feed of the play-by-play, and we will also be updating statistics in real-time and providing critical updates, like the status of players' injuries. These are things that fans know right away when they watch on TV, but forego in the traditional stadium experience. We've also talked about incorporating NFL Red Zone, and though nothing is officialI'm fairly certain we'll do so.

Then there's in-seat food delivery, a utility to help fans navigate the stadium to find concessions stands or merchandise outlets with specific offerings, and mobile ticketing, which will enable fans to enter the stadium by scanning the barcode on their device, and allow season ticketholders to transfer their seats.

How far along is the app?

We're not on model 1.0, but we are early in the prototype stage. We have a build that simulates in-game activity—it's presently hooked up to a stand in Candlestick to test ordering for food, beverages and merchandise. We ran a trial of the app on a small scale with 49ers staff for our preseason game against the Broncos, and the technology worked even better than we thought it would. We were able to transmit food orders from mobile devices, and they were delivered to the seats.

I'm thinking about how long it takes to get food at games right now. With delivery orders added on top of that, it's easy to imagine concessioners getting bogged down. What's the target delivery time for in-seat orders?

We don't have specific targets yet, but you and I both know that if it takes, say, an hour to get your hot dog and soda, that’s too long. We need to make sure that we have enough staff on hand to deliver food in a reasonable timeframe, and at the same time it's important that we create only a minimal disturbance to other fans sitting in the section. Many questions remain: What’s the traffic going to be like for food runners? If you’re sitting in the center of a section, what is the most effective way to get the food delivered to you? We're going to offer this service for every seat, not just prestige ones, and that's a big undertaking. There are smaller implementations of delivery at various venues, but I don’t know anybody that is doing it for 70,000 people. It's a lot to consider.

What I can say is that when someone places an order, we’ll let them know estimated time of delivery and then keep them updated on the progress. At the same time, some fans might not want in-seat delivery because they like to walk around. For them, we'll enable pre-paying for express pickups: You pay for your order ahead of time, and then identify yourself when you get there. No more waiting in long lines.

One especially appealing planned feature is the bathroom line monitor. How in the world does that work?

We’re looking at a variety of solutions -- everything from manual processing to advanced technology that utilizes motion sensors. While there’s always a tendency to leap towards the flashiest new technology, we want to make sure that we are providing the right level of service as opposed to deploying technology solely for technology's sake.

You're promising on-demand video for a stadium that will be filled with nearly 70,000 people. What kind of heavyweight Wi-FI system will you be installing to accommodate all that traffic?

We’re going to use both a standard 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi band and a 5 GHz band that was recently allocated by the FCC for Wi-Fi usage. If you go back even just a handful of years, mobile devices didn't have the capability to work at 5 GHz. Now that they do; it's just a matter of setting up the stadium's antennas and chips in the appropriate way.

It can be a nightmare trying to get a cell phone reception in some stadiums. Moving much of the data load to Wi-Fi should help, but are you guys planning anything to help 4G users get a reliable signal?

The best option is going to be Wi-Fi. However, for those that are unable to access Wi-Fi, we are deploying a distributed antenna system -- DAS -- in the stadium that’s going to allow phones to work more effectively with all the cellular operators.

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What you're doing is more than just building an app—you're also creating the environment in which it will function. How has that flexibility impacted your plans?

Well, the challenge that existing venues have is that there are all these independent systems that work very well for their specific functions, but aren’t tied together—they're islands of functionality or information. We are working to combine every aspect of the stadium into a robust, integrated network. The hardware to make all this work includes video boards, security cameras, our Wi-Fi system, and, eventually, motion sensors to track lines. The software-driven aspect will integrate ticketing and point-of-sale systems, video displays, and content production, and in order to provide instant replay we will have a system for ingesting, cutting, annotating, and encoding the video so it can be viewed by different devices.

The benefit of all this integration is twofold: Fans will be able to interact with these systems through the app, which will initially be available for iOS and Android, and the management will have enterprise software that helps us understand what’s going on from transaction and fan experience standpoints. This will help us manage the operations more effectively.

Your plans would set a high bar as far as the stadium experience goes. Have other teams asked for advice on retrofitting?

There have been a few that I’ve spoken with, and it isn’t just NFL teams or even American franchises. We’d love to see this experience go farther and will be very open with other teams about what’s working, where we’ve learned lessons, and hopefully how we’ve gotten better. Of course, just as when you are building a new house, it is an advantage, from an infrastructure perspective, to know where to drill for the wiring. Though it's far from impossible for teams with older stadiums to improve their technological set-up, it would take a lot of doing.

The major hurdle in retrofitting would be from a Wi-Fi standpoint. Almost every venue out there has struggled with Wi-Fi. You need connectivity, and you need to do that physically. You have to deploy the access points. You have to connect the access points back into a network, and that means physically securing them in the right way and making sure that you can run the network connectivity back to a temple network room. If you’re building into an older stadium, you have to work around some of the structures that are already in place as opposed to planning on all that.

From there, the software systems -- which, as I previously mentioned, are likely functioning independently -- would need to be integrated and designed to work along with the video production systems. This would all be very difficult, but it can be done.

Raising awareness of all these features is going to be an important part of improving the fan experience, especially for fans who aren't tech savvy. Has the team begun thinking about its approach to marketing?

Nothing specific yet, but as we understand things better, we’ll get there. There’s a lot that teams can do to more effectively relate to their fans. In many ways teams have been flying blind—they don’t really understand fan behavior, and because of ticket resale, they may not even know how many games their fans even attend. Teams certainly aren't aware of the specific fans who spend more money on concessions and merchandise, in large part because the methods to get fan feedback have been sub-standard. That’s something we want to leverage with the app for as well. We're still in the early days in terms of how professional sports teams are relating to their fans.

If you follow hundreds of people on Twitter, Ryan Glasspiegel should be one of them.
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