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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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2022 Ford F-150 Lightning gives new electric pickup its EV name

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The all-electric Ford F-150 may still be a ways out from hitting dealership forecourts, but we now know what it’ll be called: the 2022 Ford F-150 Lightning. The plug-in pickup will be unveiled officially on May 19, though Ford hasn’t been able to resist confirming the badge that the new EV will wear.

It’s not the first time that a Ford truck has borne the Lightning name, mind. Back in 1993 the automaker launched the SVT F-150 Lightning, a performance pickup intended to take on Chevrolet’s 454SS.

That, though, had a V8 under its hood, whereas the new F-150 Lightning will take a very different approach. It’ll be fully electric, with Ford promising more horsepower and torque than any other F-150 currently on sale. It’ll also have sky-high towing and payload ratings, the automaker says, and accelerate faster than even the speediest current F-150.

“Every so often, a new vehicle comes along that disrupts the status quo and changes the game … Model T, Mustang, Prius, Model 3. Now comes the F-150 Lightning,” Jim Farley, Ford President and CEO, said today. “America’s favorite vehicle for nearly half a century is going digital and fully electric. F-150 Lightning can power your home during an outage; it’s even quicker than the original F-150 Lightning performance truck; and it will constantly improve through over-the-air updates.”

This isn’t the first time Ford has opted to use a familiar name with a new, electric twist, of course. The automaker risked frustrating fans when it opted to brand the its all-electric crossover, the Mustang Mach-E, with a name more commonly associated with gas-burning two door coupes and convertibles. Even now, years after that announcement, arguments about whether the Mach-E is a “real” Mustang continue.

Meanwhile, GMC took a similar strategy with its high-profile electric SUV. It resurrected the Hummer brand – probably best known for its profligate gas engines – for the all-electric reboot, keeping the burly styling but pairing it with up to three electric motors.

Ford hasn’t said exactly what configuration it has planned for the 2022 F-150 Lightning. The expectation, however, is that there’ll be a dual-motor arrangement for the electric pickup, for all-wheel drive. Battery size and range haven’t been discussed publicly, either, though given electric truck rivals are talking 300+ miles on a charge – and Chevrolet is promising 400+ miles from its upcoming electric Silverado – it seems likely that Ford will aim for something similar.

Part of the F-150 Lightning’s charm, however, will be how functional it is when it’s standing still. Though the current F-150 can act as a generator for worksite equipment, camping, and other situations, the electric pickup will be able to do that without a gas engine running.

Ford plans to begin production of the 2022 F-150 Lightning in spring 2022, at the new Ford Rouge Electric Vehicle Center. Deliveries are expected in mid-2022.

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Harley-Davidson sparks LiveWire as a standalone electric motorcycle brand

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Harley-Davidson will spin out its LiveWire electric motorcycle into a standalone brand, with a whole range of EVs planned. Announced in production form back in 2018 – though dating all the way back to a 2014 concept – the original Harley-Davidson LiveWire bypassed the clutch and the familiar rumble in favor of a battery and zero emissions, though when preorders opened the following year it was with an eye-watering price tag.

0-60 mph in under 3.5 seconds and instantaneous torque – plus around 110 miles of range – would set you back about $30k, the iconic bike company conceded. The LiveWire was to be the first of a series of Harley-Davidson electric models, as it tried to expand its footprint beyond its traditional audience.

Now, it’s shaking that strategy up a little. LiveWire won’t just be a bike, but a whole brand of its own, initially focused on urban use. It’ll have dedicated showrooms in select markets – initially in California – but also support digital from the outset. Select existing dealers from the Harley-Davidson network will be involved, but you won’t necessarily be able to go into any current dealership and find LiveWire product there.

Of course, though it may be its own entity, LiveWire will get to piggy-back on a lot of Harley’s existing setup. “With a dedicated focus on EV, LiveWire plans to develop the technology of the future and to invest in the capabilities needed to lead the transformation of motorcycling,” the company said today. “LiveWire expects to benefit from Harley-Davidson’s engineering expertise, manufacturing footprint, supply chain infrastructure, and global logistics capabilities.”

Developments by, and for, LiveWire may well find there way into future Harley-Davidson models, for example. Indeed, it sounds like there’ll even be electric Harleys in the future, as LiveWire tech goes full circle to help bring its originator up to speed.

Harley-Davidson has faced challenges in recent years, as it tries to modernize and embrace things like electrification while keeping a grip on its traditional audience and branding. The company launched its “Rewire” plan for restructuring in 2020, trimming select models in some regions, and generally aiming to cut costs. Key, though, is attracting a new, younger audience of riders with Harley conceding a few years back that its appeal among millennials was lagging significantly behind.

We’d already seen the first fruits of that expansion strategy late last year. In November 2020, the company unveiled its Series 1 Cycle e-bike line-up, the first models from its new brand for electric bicycles. Come July 8, meanwhile, we’ll see the first LiveWire branded motorcycle revealed. There, the big question will be whether Harley’s hewn-off nameplate can compete with existing electric bikes on factors like range and price.

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Sleeker Pony.ai self-driving SUV hints at more road-ready autonomous cars

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Autonomous car headgear keeps getting smaller, with Pony.ai revealing its latest self-driving car design and its much sleeker, Luminar-powered scanning hub. Far from the “upturned trashcan” aesthetic many still associate with the bulky LIDAR sensors atop driverless vehicles, the new version adds less than 4-inches of height to Pony.ai’s modified Lexus SUVs.

That’s a considerable difference from the vehicles the company has been using so far. The existing SUVs have a large, roof-rack style block on top, and then a sensor turret rises from that. It’s for good reason, mind: that allows the LIDAR sensors to have a full, 360-degree field of vision around the car.

For effective volume production, though, not to mention aesthetics and practicality, the system needed to be smaller. That’s just what Pony.ai says it has achieved now, tapping Luminar’s slimline Iris LIDAR sensor along with other tech for a much reduced profile roofline. It’ll be just 10 cm high, though still deliver 360-degrees of visibility for the various sensors inside.

The new design will be used in the company’s “automotive-grade production autonomous fleets,” it says, from 2023. Currently, it operates robotaxi services in three cities in China – Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing – and two in California, Irvine and Fremont. Its fleet of 200+ vehicles have collectively provided more than 220,000 robotaxi rides, Pony.ai says, with over 3.1 million miles of driving across a total operational coverage area almost 330 square miles in size.

Luminar is gaining a higher profile in LIDAR circles, including attention from not only autonomous vehicle startups like Pony.ai but established automakers too. Volvo invested in the company back in 2018, then two years later confirmed that Luminar LIDAR would be a key component in its upcoming SPA 2 platform. Expected to go into production from 2022, it’ll be used initially not for full autonomous driving, but for advanced driver assistance.

Indeed, that’s one of the key aspects of Luminar’s tech, and LIDAR in general: exactly what can be achieved with it depends on the software, the legislative environment, and the ambitions – and risk profile – of the company using it. Volvo’s system, dubbed Highway Pilot, will be a Level 3 system designed to take over on select highways and operate without human supervision. However it’ll hand control back over to the human driver outside of that domain.

Pony.ai’s approach, in contrast, is to relegate the driver to passenger status at all times. The company has been working with backer Toyota – which most recently invested $400 million in February 2020 – and the two developed the AV pilots in China together.

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