Context on ice: Penguins fans get mobile extras

A mobile video service delivers Pittsburgh Penguins fans live-action shots and instant replays during game time.

Hockey fans aren't exactly your quiet and unassuming types. They want action with their ice, and lots of it. A smash 'em instant replay on the JumboTron is always a crowd-pleaser.

At Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena, where the National Hockey League 2009 Stanley Cup championship-winning Penguins stick it out, the fast action and instant replay aren't just for the big board. This season, premium ticket holders got a little something extra from the Pittsburgh Penguins organization -- live-action video streamed to their smartphones or other mobile devices.

In respect for their true-blue fans, the Penguins call this feature "Yinzcam," with "yinz" being Pittburgh-ese for the Texas "y'all," or the plain-old "you" for middle-of-the-road American speakers.

The Yinzcam project is the brainchild of Priya Narasimhan, an avid Penguins fan and an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Pittsburgh's own Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Narasimhan co-directs CMU's CyLab Mobility Research Center, where she and her students are studying how context affects the mobile experience.

As part of their research, the team wanted to see how people in large venues would react to having certain types of information available at their fingertips during an event. For the Penguins, "we liked the notion of providing context, such as the location on the ice and the interesting action during the game, to fans," she says.

At the same time, the Penguins were going through a branding exercise. The team had reached out to the Pittsburgh Technology Council, an association for the local tech industry, for ideas on how the organization might use technology to show its "drive, innovation and energy" at a new arena that would open in 2010, says Dave Soltesz, senior vice president of sales for the Penguins. They liked the Yinzcam idea, and gave Narasimhan and her team the chance to test it out during the '09 season in the existing arena.

The researchers set up a Wi-Fi network at the stadium and began offering season ticket holders the opportunity to access Yinzcam from their mobile phones. Fans can select and watch live video feeds from unique camera angles, as well as view and create their own instant replays, game-time information, player bios and personalized content on their Wi-Fi-enabled mobile devices. (The video streams do not violate broadcast rights.)

Particularly popular have been the bench-cam, the goalie-cam and the "follow Evgeni Malkin"-cam, Soltesz says. Malkin is a popular Russian skater on the team.

At Mellon Arena, the Penguins have penetrated 49% of the target pilot test audience of 850 fans, with this percentage increasing steadily to add more fans per game, Narasimhan says. On average, for a two-hour game with four unique premium angles, the target audience watched 30-plus hours of our live video, initiated 500 automated 20-second action replays and did 600 rewinds of the live video feeds, she reports.

"We expect the numbers to scale as we deploy more widely" to more fans, Narasimhan adds.

Due to the success of the pilot, the Penguins have committed to deploying Yinzcam at the new stadium, Soltesz says. Also, Narasimhan's group is investigating whether to commercialize the Yinzcam technology and is talking with other sporting organizations to gauge their interest.

"The cool thing is what we see happening to the fan experience," Soltesz says. "Someone with an iTouch is doing a replay and poking the guy in the seat next to him saying, 'Did you see this?'"

Next: How context-aware mobility is changing the business world

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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