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

Not only are the Sacramento Kings working with Verizon on 5G and VR, the NBA team is also looking to a future of blockchain and cryptocurrency across smart stadium and STEM education initiatives.

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

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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.

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.

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The Sacramento Kings - Golden 1 Center app

(Image: Screenshot by Corinne Reichert/ZDNet)

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 AngelesHouston, 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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