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Sacramento Kings: Using 5G, VR, and blockchain for the NBA arena of the future

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After experimenting with using Verizon’s 5G and virtual reality to bring NBA closer to its fans, the Sacramento Kings basketball team says it is far from finished with technology projects.

From linking a smart arena to a smart city, to exploring the future of blockchain and cryptocurrency, Sacramento Kings CTO Ryan Montoya says the team is dabbling in whatever it takes to improve the fan experience.

A “21st Century Colosseum” and a hot dog challenge: Pushing tech in the arena

The arena’s mission control room


(Image: Corinne Reichert/ZDNet)

In designing the $500 million Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento, the Kings had four goals: To be iconic, as the world’s first indoor-outdoor arena; to be the most sustainable arena, with 100 percent of its power coming from solar panels and 90 percent of food sourced from within 150 miles; to be the most technologically advanced arena; and to use data to personalise fan experiences and remove friction.

With this in mind, the arena was developed to be smart from arrival — with its smart entry points allowing 1,000 people per hour to enter the venue instead of the 300 allowed by traditional turnstiles — all the way to game time, with fans able to use the tie-in app to watch multi-camera replays, upgrade their tickets, pay for parking, order food and drink, buy merchandise, and even adjust the under-seat thermostat vents.

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The Sacramento Kings – Golden 1 Center app


(Image: Screenshot by Corinne Reichert/ZDNet)

To meet its technological and data-driven goals, the Kings team made hires from Apple and Qualcomm early on. A Disney Imagineer was even signed on to help design the world’s largest indoor 4K scoreboard so that viewers would never have to crane their necks to see the 38 million-pixel screen, no matter what angle they view the game from.

“We wanted to be able to bring in the best perspective, and also we didn’t want to look just at other sporting venues. We looked at everything, and so that’s why we brought in that Disney Imagineer to give us a perspective on that scoreboard … we wanted someone who could understand the UI and UX so that we could deliver the best fan experience,” Montoya explained.

Inside the arena is a 4K broadcast control room, which is responsible for delivering content to more than 800 screens, including the Disney-Imagineered 4K scoreboard.

The arena also houses a mission control centre, which sees 15 staff members monitoring dozens of screens and platforms during gamedays and events. The screens include real-time vision over usage of the app, how many beverages have been purchased, and local weather so as to push out notifications to customers.

It also has vision over how many people have entered the arena, and who.

“If there’s a season ticket holder, for example, who hasn’t been to three of the last four games, we’re able to intercept before they cancel their membership,” Montoya said.

With 1,000 Wi-Fi access points throughout the arena, posting to social media is not an issue for visitors. And with mission control being able to monitor Twitter mentions, it can address any concerns regarding fan experience at the venue.

“If a kid drops a hot dog, for example, in most instances the kid is upset, the parents are upset because they have to go stand in line and buy another hot dog, and there’s a hot dog on the floor — but here, whether we’re catching it on social media or through one of our guest services or a camera or a robot, we are then able to deliver that hot dog within moments,” Montoya said.

Once someone tweeted about how arena staff had swiftly replaced their hot dog within minutes of dropping it on the floor, he said it turned into a challenge on the social media platform.

“It started trending on Twitter, and everyone was dropping hot dogs.”

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(Image: Golden 1 Center/Sacramento Kings)

The mission control team also has the ability to contact Google Maps and Waze to change routes from green to yellow or red to account for real-time gameday traffic.

“But when you come in here during an event, they’re all green — and they’re all green because we’ve totally connected traffic cameras, parking meters, etc,” he added.

How an NBA team is pushing STEM, blockchain, and cryptocurrency

Also in the arena is a tier 4 data centre located right by the smart entry points, used by the Kings to not only handle connectivity — by housing two 100-gigabit pipes thanks to 650 miles of fiber-optic and 300 miles of copper cabling — but also to mine ethereum.

“In 2014, we were the first [sporting venue] to accept bitcoin in the world,” Montoya said.

“This past summer, we started mining cryptocurrency, so we’ve got these cryptocurrency rigs.”

By mining ethereum, the Kings technology team is using it as a way to “give back to the community” via both funding and providing STEM education for schoolkids across cryptocurrency and blockchain.

“We bring in students — some of them may have never heard of blockchain — just to show them that there are these computers in here that sit on a decentralised network, and explaining to them in very simple terms that we are actually creating money, and it’s through these algorithms that we’re able to do this,” Montoya said.

“So to expose fifth graders, eighth graders, ninth graders, tenth graders, that this is a future that they can be a part of, is something pretty exceptional.”

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The Golden 1 Center’s tier 4 datacentre


(Image: Corinne Reichert/ZDNet)

The Kings team is itself also exploring the use of blockchain to improve the fan experience leading up to and on gameday.

“We don’t know exactly where blockchain is going to take us, but we’re experimenting with blockchain every day. We’re experimenting because we know it’s going to revolutionalise a lot of things,” Montoya said.

“We’re looking to various aspects, from ticketing to payments, with blockchain.”

Other tech companies are also using the arena to trial their own innovation projects, including for blockchain applications.

“Because of the connectivity and because people from around the world hear that we’re working with great partners on 5G, we actually have a lot of the smart companies — I can’t disclose a lot of them — come here and are actually testing the next version of their apps,” he said.

“So on every front from AR to mixed reality to blockchain, we are running on all cylinders to be able to deliver the next best fan experience.”

Using 5G with Verizon

One of the companies partnering with the Sacramento Kings is Verizon, which trialled its 5G Home network at the arena just one month after launching the service.

In November, Verizon and the Kings invited a group of 20 students to watch the Kings-Los Angeles Lakers game at the arena, but via 5G-connected VR headsets in the Esports lounge that streamed footage in real time from courtside seats.

“We set up this 360-degree camera on the scores table, and what it allowed us to do was have the kids see the game as if they were sitting in a rare spot, and be able to put on the VR goggles … they would be able to watch the game courtside,” Verizon VP of Network Engineering Brian Mecum told ZDNet.

Mecum said the latency on the 5G network was low enough to watch the game in real time, with 5G providing immediate availability to connect, 1,000 times more bandwidth, and 20 times the speeds available on 4G LTE today.

“Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA, often talks about how we have millions of fans throughout the world, and of those millions of fans only 1 percent have actually attended a game, and then only a very small fraction have actually sat courtside,” Montoya said.

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Fans experience an NBA live stream via 5G and VR goggles


(Image: Verizon)

“So to give these kids the perspective from essentially our owner sitting courtside is an amazing experience.”

The next step will be to bring in more people to experience games in this way, Montoya said.

Read more: Verizon showcases the potential of 5G with drones, Disney and more at CES 2019

5G will also enable real-time access to stats such as how fast players are running, how high they jump, how hard somebody dunks the ball, and whether the team speeds up or slows down in the final moments, which he said will be valuable for both fans and sports betting.

“You’re going to be able to see in real-time a lot more stats, a lot more context, and beyond betting you’re also going to be able to see in real-time eventually player stats,” he explained.

“Whether its AR, VR, or some version of mixed reality, you’re going to be able to look at those players and you’re going to be able to look at different data points on those players, and so it’s definitely going to bring fans closer to the game, closer to the players, and to give them more context and a better experience.”

The “stadium experience” will also be improved with 5G, Mecum said, including offering real-time information on the best way to get to allocated seats, wait times at restrooms and food stands, custom content, and interviews with coaches and players.

Verizon also sees 5G providing players with more access to analytics and insights for improving their performance, making stadiums a great use case for both consumer and business 5G.

Sacramento’s partnership with Verizon on smart cities and 5G

As the capital of California — the world’s fifth-largest economy — Sacramento’s political environment is also favourable towards technology, with Verizon striking a public-private partnership (PPP) with the city back in June 2017.

Sacramento’s city council had voted unanimously for the PPP with Verizon, which aimed to offer free Wi-Fi across public parks, fund STEM education, and increase public safety and city efficiency.

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(Image: Golden 1 Center/Sacramento Kings)

Under the partnership, Verizon connected cameras, lighting, and traffic control. This included installing advanced signal controls at major intersections to manage the flow of vehicles, reduce congestion, and improve public transport as part of Sacramento’s Vision Zero initiative to decrease traffic fatalities and severe injuries, as well as to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Digital kiosks are also set to supply Wi-Fi, security, wayfinding, and notice boards, with the PPP also covering the provision of security and privacy management across the real-time data being collected by the city.

“This partnership will serve as a critical step in upgrading our city’s infrastructure to support the newest and best technology and the economic growth that comes with that technology,” Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said at the time.

“It will also ensure that everyone who lives here or spends time here can experience the benefits of a safer, more mobile, and more sustainable city.”

Lastly, the partnership enabled the deployment of Verizon’s 5G network in Sacramento, with the PPP ensuring “streamlined permitting processes to install this technology efficiently”.

Read also: Verizon connects smartphone to 5G network 

As a result, Verizon in late 2017 announced its plans to launch 5G in Sacramento by the end of 2018, later adding Los Angeles, Houston, Indianapolis, and Panama City, Florida to its launch list.

Verizon’s 5G Home service then launched in October 2018.

The Kings are “a big part” of the push for technology innovation in Sacramento, Mecum said, with Verizon utilising its partnership with the NBA team to push through its 5G and smart cities deployments with council.

“That [5G deal] we brokered on our own with the City of Sacramento, but it doesn’t hurt that the Kings are so tied to the politics so closely and pushing for all of these initiatives,” Mecum said.

“We found favourability also in Los Angeles … but Sacramento moved along faster and moved along further. Sacramento is doing really well with 5G Home, and it’s also the only NBA venue we have connected in the United States.

“So you see 5G just blossom across the board in Sacramento.”

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Both Volkswagen and Tesla are preparing cheaper EVs

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A new report is going around that claims new, more affordable electric vehicles will be coming to market. According to the report, both Tesla and Volkswagen have given new EV programs the green light to create cars selling for between $25,000 and $30,000. That is a price point that will undoubtedly make transitioning to electric vehicles more affordable for people worldwide.

Pricing is one of the main concerns cited by vehicle shoppers for not choosing electric vehicles compared to a traditional car. Many have been waiting for EVs to reach price parity with similarly equipped traditional vehicles. That parity has been achieved in some parts of the luxury segment making EVs more popular in that part of the market.

Advancements in batteries have helped bring the price of electric vehicles down as the battery pack is one of the most expensive parts of the car. More drivers are interested in EVs as driving ranges have increased significantly in recent years. One barrier that remains in the way is the lack of charging infrastructure in many parts of the world.

Many also cite long charge times as a reason they’ve yet to adopt an electric vehicle. With new electric cars in the $25,000-$30,000 price range, one more barrier of entry will be removed. Tesla announced in September that it was planning a smaller long-range electric car using new battery technology that would start at $25,000. Elon Musk also noted that the vehicle will be fully autonomous and revealed a timeframe of about three years from now. The VW car is dubbed the Small Battery Electric Vehicle.

Volkswagen is aiming at a car about the size of its Polo. Volkswagen has offered no indication of when exactly its vehicle might come to market. Reports indicate that the 2024 through 2025 model range is a good guess for when the vehicles might arrive.

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Hyundai and Kia fined $210 million over vehicle recalls due to engine trouble

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced consent orders this week with Hyundai and Kia related to recalls of vehicles equipped with the Theta II engines. The automakers were hit with combined penalties amounting to $210 million. The NHTSA found that Hyundai and Kia conducted untimely recalls of over 1.6 million vehicles that used the Theta II engines.

The NHTSA also found that the automakers reported certain inaccurate information to it during the recalls. The consent orders establish monetary and non-monetary measures that will enhance Kia and Hyundai’s safety practices. Kia will create a new US safety office headed by a Chief Safety Officer. Hyundai will build a US test facility for safety investigations.

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Kia is subject to the total civil penalty of $70 million with a $27 million upfront payment. It’s obligated to spend another $16 million on specified safety performance measures with a $27 million deferred penalty payable if certain conditions aren’t satisfied. The consent orders don’t impact other ongoing investigations by the NHTSA regarding allegations of fires not related to crashes in Hyundai and Kia vehicles equipped with the Theta II engines.

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The NHTSA is opening an investigation into the Tesla Model S and Model X

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The NHTSA announced this week that it was opening a preliminary investigation into potential safety concerns raised by owners of Tesla Model S and Model X cars. The agency has received 53 complaints alleging failures of the left or right front suspension fore links. Of those 43 complaints, 11 incidents occurred while driving.

In its statement issued about the investigation, the NHTSA says that the complaints appear to indicate an increasing trend with 34 complaints received in the last two years, with three of them occurring at highway speeds. The agency intends to assess the scope, frequency, and consequences of the alleged fault.

The investigation will cover Tesla Model S cars ranging from 2015 through 2017 model years and Tesla Model X SUVs made from 2016 through 2017. As these vehicles age, they could be prone to defects that didn’t surface when they were newer. As of now, there has been no official statement from Tesla on the investigation.

There is also no indication that a recall has to be issued at this time. Tesla vehicles have had their share of issues with fire potential from battery damage during accidents. Several fatal accidents have also been blamed on inattentive drivers and Tesla Autopilot driver assistance systems not recognizing hazards in the road.

On Wednesday of this week, Tesla announced that it was issuing a recall on over 9000 Model Y and Model X vehicles due to issues with bolts. The Model X also had an issue where roof trim could detach over time, leading to potential accidents or road hazards. Despite the recalls, Tesla shares are booming, having gained more than 600 percent in 2020 despite the pandemic.

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