Smart stadium TV: NFL FanVision, hands-on

This year's hot piece of stadium gear streams live NFL games and multi-angle instant replay in a compact device with a 4-inch screen. We take it for a test-drive at the Jets-Patriots game at the Meadowlands.

Sports fans can easily find the live stadium experience to be paradoxically out of touch compared with the instant stats, superior commentary, and HD replays available to home viewers. DVRs, HDTVs, and smartphones can't follow you to the live game. At stadiums, it's hard to get any smartphone to work properly. Streaming radio apps black out live game broadcasts, unless you're using Sirius. As for video, unless you've got some portable TV with an HDTV antenna converter box, you're out of luck.

This is the promise that NFL FanVision offers to a seasoned fan. At first glance, the device--a dedicated ruggedized handheld with a 4.3-inch screen formerly used at Nascar events--looks like a castoff from the early '00s, some idea of a personal media player from the early age of iPods. Purportedly waterproof (though we didn't test it) and boasting a 6-hour battery life for streaming, it's a bit too big to pocket and hangs from a lanyard around one's neck. Sure, it's not nearly as elegant as an iPhone. What it does, however, bears consideration. A live TV feed of the current game (plus audio commentary), multiple viewing angles, instant multi-angle replay after every play, plus live video of other games around the league, the NFL Red Zone channel, and stats...it's compelling for a hard-core fan.

How it works
Others might ask, why not just watch the real live game in front of you? That's a valid point, but not for me. I'm a New York Jets fan, and my dad has been one for 45 years. We know the players, and we like to know what's happening down to the fine details. FanVision's audio commentary and stats offer more than what's given via the minimalist PA system and the infrequently updated HD megascreens. And instant replay, the killer app for the home user, is offered up at the press of a button.

FanVision device: earbuds and lanyard included.
FanVision device: earbuds and lanyard included. Sarah Tew/CNET

Even better, FanVision seems to be set up to be overload-proof. FanVision works via a dedicated local UHF channel that's licensed to broadcast in the stadium and the parking lot area. The device is really a higher-tech TV, one that can receive up to 10 channels of digitally compressed video and stat data and cache highlight videos for replays. Once booted up via a small power button, the device locates the nearby broadcast tower and downloads team-specific data and channel programming. After a few minutes of initialization, the device is up and running. By avoiding Wi-Fi or 3G, FanVision's broadcast concept shouldn't suffer from slowdown.

It all sounds great on paper, but we wanted to test it for ourselves.

Pregame and tailgating
I tested the device first in our pregame "tailgating" mode, in the parking lot and around the stadium 2 hours before kickoff. My dad had a unit as well, but I didn't explain how to use it--I left it for him to figure out. A circular button configuration acted as an interface d-pad, and outer buttons launched Video and Stat modes without back-pedaling through the interface. Pop-up windows offered a selection of five live video feeds before actual kickoff, including relevant games around the league (i.e. divisional matchups) and the NFL Network's Red Zone Channel, a live-updated highlight reel of scoring action around the league that's also featured on cable and Verizon phones. These worked well, as did an easily accessible live-updated stat feed from around the league, presented much like what's available on most smartphones. A fantasy player stat-tracking widget is also included, a useful quick-glance tool in case your phone's browser isn't loading.

Included noise-isolating earbuds worked well even in incredibly noisy stadium conditions, and the screen was bright enough to work in semidirect afternoon sunlight, although we sometimes needed to shade it with our hand.

FanVision at game time: stat lines looked crisp.
FanVision at game time: stat lines looked crisp. Scott Stein/CNET

Kickoff
Once the main game began, an additional set of up to five feeds showed the game broadcast and several other dedicated live cams, ranging from sideline cams to views of the cheerleaders for those who didn't come for the game. We found ourselves switching up our use of FanVision in a live game setting: obviously, we didn't watch the game feed on our small screens as much. Instead, we relied on FanVision for stats and instant replay. My dad remarked with some satisfaction that the headset volume worked even in the raucous environment, and the screen remained visible in the intense September sun.

The instant replay window offered multiple-angle, instantly watchable replays of the last play, along with recommendations from FanVision on the best choice of all the views. Between live plays at a game, the downtime varies from a handful of seconds to 5-minute chunks. We usually required quick-responding instant replay load-ups, and they generally worked as promised. Sometimes the clips weren't perfectly edited--the action seemed clipped off or blurred--but this will hopefully get ironed out over time. During controversial calls or challenges, the device offered a pop-up invite to press the center "OK" button and dive right into the replay being analyzed. On a disputed Brodney Pool interception, I could watch the play transpire for myself without relying on the stadium's screen. When a player was injured, I could scan the sideline cam to see who it was.

FanVision's tiny but dense nerve center, where feeds and replays are selected.
FanVision's tiny but dense nerve center, where feeds and replays are selected. Scott Stein/CNET

Behind the scenes
These curated moments and feeds, along with the viewing-angle selections and live game offerings, are the work of a three-man broadcast booth installed on the premises of every stadium that has FanVision. At the Jets games, the operators worked in a small concrete bunker on the third level, crowded in front of a complicated array of monitors and field views, in front of which they marked, edited, and compiled information that's streamed to FanVision devices. This type of hands-on concierge-style service is unique in a landscape of automatic smartphone apps. It also adds a bit of intelligent design to the FanVision service, especially when selecting angles and replays.

Post-game
After the game, the service is still live--FanVision runs through the end of the 4 p.m. games, and streams the post-game conference and other late-running matchups. During the long trip home out of the parking lot, the device helps kill some time, too. The pre- and postgame functionality of FanVision is nearly as compelling as its in-game replays. Is it for most users? Well, at the Meadowlands, 5,000 devices are being seeded for free to owners of the highest-PSL season tickets. For others, the device costs $199 for a season of service, which amounts to six more regular-season home games. The ticket holder gets to keep the device, but next year's service will cost an additional $5 to $10 a game to activate, FanVision execs say. It's not cheap, but it's a better value proposition than an overpriced stadium beer.

Not all stadiums have FanVision--in fact, only 12 do at this count. The Jets do, but the Giants don't. Other competing services do exist, including Wi-Fi-connected devices and browser-based smartphone apps, but they're unlikely to offer as rich a media package. New Meadowlands Stadium will get its own Wi-Fi network blanketing the arena, but it's not live yet--nor is the dedicated platform-agnostic Web app for smartphones that will offer some features for free.

Until broadband wireless networks become reliable for mass-media streaming, FanVision's dedicated UHF method seems to be the smartest and most reliable solution. And it works, although some users reported occasional problems getting channels. One of our devices had a faulty audio-out jack, but the other two worked perfectly.

That's our exhaustive take on FanVision at first blush; as the season continues, we'll check back in and report on how it was through an entire eight-game home campaign.

About the author

Scott Stein is a senior editor covering iOS and laptop reviews, mobile computing, video games, and tech culture. He has previously written for both mainstream and technology enthusiast publications including Wired, Esquire.com, Men's Journal, and Maxim, and regularly appears on TV and radio talking tech trends.

 

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