High-tech Warriors: A glimpse into the stadium of the future

The Golden State Warriors will open a new high-tech sports and entertainment complex in 2018, and the basketball team's testing some of the innovations in its current arena now.

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The Golden State Warriors have been outfitting their basketball arena in Oakland, Calif., with Apple's iBeacons and other technology. Shara Tibken/CNET

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Floor tiles that generate electricity when people walk on them. Streetlamps that transmit data to people passing beneath them. Virtual reality videos that make fans feel like they're at the game when they're really just sitting on their own couches.

No, this isn't "Star Trek." It's some of the technology the Golden State Warriors basketball team is testing for its new stadium, set to open in San Francisco in 2018. The 12-acre sports and entertainment complex will contain space for retail, restaurants and parks and will play host to not only Warriors games but also concerts and other events.

The Warriors, currently the winningest team in the NBA, have been using their nearly 50-year-old venue in Oakland as a sort of Petri dish to try out new technology. Some, like the use of Apple's iBeacon technology have stuck. Others will only be tested in parts of the stadium before being rolled out in the new venue, while some tech may be scrapped after the trials.

"Our goal is that the experience [at the new San Francisco complex], regardless of whether it's a Warriors game or a conference or an artist or any sort of entertainment, that the experience there is second to none," said Kenny Lauer, vice president of digital and marketing for the Warriors. "We can't light this [new arena] up already being out of date."

The Golden State Warriors' new arena, shown in an artist rendering, will seat 18,000 fans when it opens in San Francisco in 2018. Golden State Warriors

The move by the Warriors to build the most high-tech stadium possible follows similar steps by other sports franchises. As more and more fans opt to watch the game from home, sports teams are looking for ways to entice them into arenas and keep them engaged. High-tech features, such as paying for seat upgrades from a smartphone, gives the franchises a new revenue stream while keeping their fans happy.

With most of the technology the Warriors are exploring, there are still questions about how to best implement the features and how they actually work. And the rapid pace of change in the technology industry makes it tough for companies and organizations to plan several months out, let alone several years.

The Warriors aren't alone in hopping on the tech bandwagon. Levi's Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers football team in Santa Clara, Calif., was dubbed by some when it opened in 2014, partly because of its location in the heart of the tech world, as well as its high-tech features. Many Major League Baseball stadiums -- including AT&T Park, the home of the 2014 World Series Champion San Francisco Giants, and Citi Field, home to the New York Mets -- are outfitted with iBeacons to ping visitors with exclusive offers and trivia. AT&T outfitted its namesake stadium in Dallas, the home of the Cowboys football team, with large, interactive LED displays to keep fans involved in the game.

At the same time, other teams have taken a different slant. Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, last year criticized the use of mobile devices during games, telling Businessweek that people "use them when they are bored. They don't want more reasons to use them. They want fewer."

But for a tech-savvy region like the Bay Area, expecting fans to put away their phones isn't realistic, said Lauer and Kevin Cote, senior director of digital for the Golden State Warriors.

"We have a unique fan base because we are in the Bay Area, so we have executives from Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter at every game," Cote said. "Even when a game is close, with five seconds left, everyone has their phone out because they want to record that game-winning shot."

Ping me

The Warriors, while not as early with some technological advancements as other sports franchises, last March became the first NBA team to install beacons in its arena. Apple's iBeacon technology, first released with the iOS 7 mobile software in 2013, uses low-energy Bluetooth to send notifications to smartphone users located near the beacon. It has popped up at retailers and other sports arenas, giving organizations a fast way to interact with customers and fans.

And iBeacon could become even more widespread when Apple rolls out its first wearable, the Apple Watch, in the coming months. It gets Apple device owners to use more apps, while letting the app makers learn more about using and make money from offers in the app, said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Kantar Worldpanel.

"Of course, through the usage it helps increase stickiness to the ecosystem and increase the engagement, which brings higher brand loyalty," she said.

The Warriors send four types of notifications -- a welcome message, often mentioning promotions such as free socks; offers to upgrade to better seats; special concession deals; and promotions for the team store.

"We don't want to hit fans over the head with messaging to the point where they'd be annoyed with it, but we want to utilize it," Cote said. Before activating a beacon's feature, the function "has to have immediate benefit to the fans, and it has to some way drive the business."

About 10 percent of the 19,000 people at each game receive the beacon pings, Cote said. The franchise needs about 20 to 25 beacons around the stadium to send all the notices it wants.

The Warriors have placed about two dozen beacons around their arena. One, at the team store, sends special offers to visitors. Shara Tibken/CNET

Less than a year after rolling out beacons, the technology is showing results for the Warriors. The team uses them to ping fans heading to the nosebleed section, giving them the option for seat upgrades. About 15 percent of all seat upgrades are directly tied to beacon notifications, Cote said.

An even more successful area has been the beacon for the stadiums' team store, which delivers deals through a notification. Typically, it's for a free item after spending a certain amount. Fans with the beacon promotion spend 93 percent more than those without the offer, Cote said.

Still, not all of the beacon offers have been successful. The Warriors haven't yet figured out how to get fans to take advantage of concession stand notifications despite offers such as free popcorn with the purchase of a slice of pizza.

Stealth signal

Along with the Bluetooth ping, the beacons also have the ability to send inaudible tones as a trigger for the phone. That lets the franchise push out a notification through the sound system to everyone sitting and watching the game in the arena or even to people watching at home.

"We're looking at the concept of second screen, sending inaudible tones to those watching on broadcast and then activating the app there," Lauer said.

Another use for the beacons is providing better indoor mapping and navigation, though the Warriors don't yet use their beacons for wayfinding.

"There's so much you can do with contextual awareness that we're striving to do in the future, but we know we're not a be-all, end-all of this stuff," Cote said.

Virtually there

Warriors and other NBA teams are also keen on augmented reality. The technology can work by overlaying a digital image on top of a view of the real world. For instance, shooting percentages may pop up on Google Glass or a smartphone when you point the device at a player on the court.

And then there's virtual reality. The team's technologists work closely with the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab to find out about things such as cinematic VR, which can put someone in the game by shooting video with specialized cameras and then streaming the footage to VR headsets. The NBA commissioner and representatives from more than a dozen teams will soon visit Stanford to see how virtual reality would work for basketball, Lauer said, as the groups figure out how to make fans at home feel more involved with the games.

"We've talked to a group that can recreate, from blueprints, our entire arena so someone with an Oculus [VR headset] can physically walk through it and then turn to the left and see a game," Lauer said.

Making fans actually in the arena feel closer to the action is another priority for the Warriors. One feature they will roll out in part of its arena this coming week is called "sound amplification. It involves putting microphones on the court and then broadcasting the sounds that normally only people sitting courtside could hear, such as bouncing balls, squeaking shoes and banter between the players. The Warriors did a test run involving one section of its arena for three games last year. Its new trial will broadcast the sound through the arena's speakers to the entire east side of the venue for five games.

Light years ahead

One of the more futuristic technologies being explored by the Warriors is known as LiFi. The technology uses light to transmit data, letting users do things like stream Internet video to a TV from a light in the ceiling.

LiFi works by attaching an Ethernet-wired ceiling-based device to a standard LED light. The data about to be beamed through the air are sent to that bulb, which is instructed to flicker millions of times per second to communicate a signal -- kind of like an extremely speedy morse code. The light signal -- which looks identical to a normal light -- is picked up by a receiver.

In the case of the new Warriors complex, LiFi could be implemented in lampposts outside the arena, passing information to people as they walk nearby. The beams could act like the beacons inside the arena, distributing content to passersby.

The Warrior technologists recently had a demo, and they plan to conduct a test in the arena's media room. "Thinking about the challenges we have with Wi-Fi and the available frequency space in the visual light spectrum, the opportunities are unreal," Lauer said. "These are the kinds of things that are fascinating."

Another potential technology that could hit the new stadium is tiles that generate electricity when people step on them. "You could actually have people, fans, walking around, powering lights or harnessing that energy into batteries and using them somewhere else," Lauer said.

The Warriors plan to conduct a small test with fans using the tiles at its current stadium to better understand how much electricity they generate and whether they'd be practical at a sports and entertainment complex.

To take advantage of these capabilities, the Warriors are working on building an internal group, called the "innovation project" or "innovation engine," to focus on futuristic technology, while another group, the "production engine," will look at implementing things immediately to improve the fan experience.

"Failure is good. Learning is good," Lauer said. "It's a really big question and a really big challenge but we believe with this structure, we will continue to be able to deliver today while innovating for tomorrow."

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