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Imagining the Arena of the Future

Once known as the Air Canada Centre, Scotiabank Arena has seen its share of highs, and way more than its share of lows, in Maple Leafs history. Construction was finished in 1998 – the start of a great run of playoff appearances for the Sundin-led Maple Leafs.

The arena is not by any means “old”, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved upon. MLSE has the money for it, and someday, perhaps a long ways in the future, or perhaps within 20 years, the arena will be in some way refurbished. This is not imminent – it’s important to stress that. But still, wouldn’t it be fun to dream about what it might look like? You can picture it: twenty-three Cup banners between 2019 and 2039 installed in the rafters, and futuristic technology installed across the arena.

Local LTE Network for Connected Devices

The reason that the topic of refurbishment is being bandied about is because of an episode of the Internet of Things podcast which was recently released. The podcast’s episode 189, uploaded on November 8th, was largely about news and devices unrelated to smart arenas, but the one relevant thing they touched on was the new LTE modules from Sierra Wireless.

You might be saying to yourself, “This is a sports blog, not a tech blog! What do I care?” And to some extent, you’re right. I’ll keep the tech part as brief as I know how to, but if you’re bored at any point, skip to the TL;DR (too long, didn’t read) below.

To start, I would recommend listening to Stacey Higginbotham and Kevin Tofel, host and co-host of the Internet of Things podcast, talk to you about the modules in question. The conversation starts at 11:53 in the episode, using an NFL stadium as an example, but there’s no reason the same theory can’t apply to an NHL arena as well.

These Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) modules can be used to implement what’s called Citizen’s Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) networks, which is a cellular network within the “LTE” range. This Wikipedia page has more information on radio bands, and here’s another specifically on LTE and the LTE frequency bands, including CBRS. The 3.5GHz band, within which the CBRS band lies, has been dubbed as the Innovation Band.

The CBRS Band has been reserved by the people who are allowed to do that, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, 3GPP. This band is approved to be operated by private entities, such as an NHL arena. The arena would simply install these modules all around to create a private LTE network. Then they would install whatever sensors and connected devices it desired around the grounds (specific applications discussed in the section below). The private LTE network would read data from these connected devices and either relay it through an app for the attendees/customers, or use it internally for condition monitoring, maintenance or operation tasks, or customer service.

It would be similar to having a WiFi network across the arena, which some arenas already do. However, CBRS offers advantages over WiFi. The main advantages are right in its name “Low Power Wide Area”. The wider range and lower battery consumption make it ideal for a large applications such as a sports arena. Here’s a discussion on some of the technical advantages that a LPWA network has over a Wi-Fi network, that leans heavily towards LPWA/cellular/LTE networks.

Additionally, CBRS is managed by the CBRS Alliance, which was created to promote the use of these networks. They call it “OnGo” to presumably emulate the “WiFi” short form we know and love, though it’s doubtful that that will catch on as virulently. This regulation body existing from the get-go can ensure that the modules are built with good quality standards of security, privacy, battery life, and other considerations. For WiFi, the Wifi Alliance is a similar group, but they are playing catch-up in trying to regulate security and other concerns with respect to WiFi.

TL;DR: the stadium to sets up a local cellular network, which is better than WiFi. This would enable very fast communications between connected devices, with user-accessibility on an app.

Connected Device Applications

Whether you dove into the technical details above or not, you can still join me in the dreaming part here. Let’s imagine all that’s possible with this network being in place. All kinds of connected devices could be used for arena maintenance, operation, and enjoyment for its customers. This blog post from Gus Vos on Sierra Wireless’ website covers some of the use cases, which will be dispersed into the sections below, along with some of my own ideas.

Keeping up with the Action

What’s worse than being at the arena but missing some of the best plays? With a private LTE network, the arena could post highlights onto the app which would be view-able from all angles that the stadium has, allowing you to get the best look at the big hits, goals and saves.

One thing I find that I miss when watching a game live is the commentary you get with TV broadcasts. With this app, the arena could send a radio broadcast (Joe Bowen in my ear – yes please!) giving you in-arena play by play, that you can listen to on a Bluetooth headset.

Lastly, for the stats nerds, eventually we’ll see wearable devices on the players’ jerseys that track will track stats. These can be immediately processed and developed into a chart or graphic in the app so you can analyze the game right from your seat.

Security

This connected devices implementation isn’t limited to having information on your phone. One application could be dispersed security beacons in high traffic areas that, on a press of a button, and/or even a voice command (“HELP!” or “SECURITY!”) could notify arena security that you need help at that location. This would be similar to Blue Lights on Queens campus, for any fellow Queen’s Alumni that are reading this, but cheaper to implement if you already have the network in place to communicate the alarm.

As discussed above, CBRS will also be more secure from a network perspective than a similar solution using WiFi would be.

Concessions and Washrooms

An interesting implementation could be a connected beer or soda cup, that can light up when the team scores (like the Budweiser cups, but with much less delay), or let the attendant nearby that your cup is empty and you want a refill.

The app could also show you estimated restroom wait times, allowing you to find the best time to use them while missing as little of the game as possible (if you’re like me and try not to go during the chaos which is intermissions).

Accessibility

While accessibility for those with disabilities is incredibly important, that’s not the type of accessibility I’m referring to here. I’m talking about the ease with which you can get in and out of the arena. We could see smart parking solutions that can show on a map where the free spaces are, or give you directions to that free spot, or even drive a connected vehicle into that spot automatically.

You could also see weather sensors at the arena (far more applicable for open stadiums like in baseball and football) to let you know what’s going on in the area, for those that are travelling from some distance to get there.

Usage

The arena could also want to install seat sensors that get seat usage statistics to allow arenas to have dynamic seat pricing algorithms to see what seats actually have butts in them. They could also see when butts are in seats, to determine when is the best time to show advertisements, send out staff with refreshments, or any other brilliant ideas they can come up with for revenue generation. They’re pretty good at that.

Other Smart Developments

Above are only the ideas that are made possible by the LTE modules that Sierra Wireless has now released. Now that we’re talking about futuristic arena design, though, what other really cool ideas could we see?

Energy Efficiency

One thing that would be great to implement is piezoelectric floor tiles in the high traffic areas of the stadium, which could easily power all of the devices mentioned above. A piezoelectric tile, such as the ones used here at the Paris marathon, could be used to capture all of that step traffic into energy that would be used, either for these smart devices if they’re installed, or just for serving the general lighting energy needed for the arena, to offset the stadium’s electricity usage. This is better for the environment, and better for the arena’s bottom line, saving on energy costs. This, on top of solar tiles feeding a battery bank within the arena, could make for a much greener NHL arena.

Perhaps a partnership with an organization like Greener Rinks could be in play for this futuristic stadium. They’re looking at everything from LED lighting, more efficient ice making/resurfacing, and better recycling practices at the rink to make NHL arenas more environmentally friendly.

Final Thoughts

Does this feel like science fiction yet? I love these kinds of thought exercises but it’s important for me to point out that this is only that – a thought exercise. None of these, to my knowledge, are real plans by the Maple Leafs or any other NHL team for that matter.

Just the idea that this is possible was enough to spark some creativity and I hope you enjoyed reading my brainstorming session. The idea of a technology-filled arena is fun, if not important. Some of the developments above aren’t just about making the arena more fun, but also safer and more green. This would allow the term “smart” to apply not just to the office of Kyle Dubas, but to the arena itself.

Do you have your own ideas for what a smart arena could look like? What technology in stadiums would you like to see? What technology would you NOT want to see? Let me know in the comments!

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