May 5 2014, 11:40am CDT | by Forbes
By Joel Keller
Remember those heady days when the main thing you did with your smartphone at the ballpark was tweet pictures of your buddies, the mascot or your plate of nachos? For years, the folks at Major League Baseball have been experimenting with ways to better integrate your mobile device into the stadium experience to go beyond selfies and tweets. For the 2014 season, they’ve rolled out a new version of the MLB At The Ballpark iOS app that incorporates the use of Apple’s e-commerce product iBeacon.
“Our top priority always has been to build technology to support our clubs and fans with an unrivaled experience in these world-class facilities,” said Adam Ritter, senior vice president of wireless for MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM), in a February press release. “The introduction of iBeacon services in our At The Ballpark app will be the latest evolution in this process, giving us another important platform to engage fans with their surroundings and to enjoy customized experiences through their iPhones.”
The iBeacons, built by third parties to Apple’s specifications, communicate with iOS devices using Bluetooth Smart (formerly known as Bluetooth LE), a version of the wireless communication protocol that uses a lower amount of energy than standard Bluetooth applications. Each iBeacon can track a mobile device’s movements at an adjustable range of up to 50 meters (approximately 160 feet), depending on the ballpark’s architectural features and interference from other devices.
So far, MLBAM has installed the beacons in 20 of the 30 major league parks, including Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Citi Field in New York and Fenway Park in Boston; each ballpark will have about 60 devices
While many of the features of the app will be standard across the league, each team will be able to use the iBeacons to send mobile devices individualized offers after mobile users check in to the ballpark.
In a demonstration held for the press last fall at Citi Field, MLB showed the potential of this combination for a highly customized ballpark experience. In the demo, for instance, a coupon for a hot dog discount popped onto users’ phones as they neared the proper concession stand, and a virtual frequent-buyer punch card also appeared, with the number of times it had been used displayed. Fans who visited the Mets’ infamous home run apple were greeted with a video of the history of the apple at the team’s former home, Shea Stadium. Of course, if the iBeacons track you going into the team store, it could either pop up a map showing you where to get your favorite cap or t-shirt or even provide a discount off that helmet-clad teddy bear for your kids.
“Thirty clubs gives us the opportunity to work with clubs to customize based on their fans,” Ritter told Re/code in February. MLBAM will use the All-Star game at Target Field in Minneapolis to try out more features.
While MLBAM and the individual teams have been keeping the e-commerce potential of the iBeacon project under wraps, other applications have shown the potential for it. According to Wired.com, there’s potential for stores of all sizes to use the inexpensive beacons to provide iOS users with interactive maps, quick check-outs and exclusive discounts that pop up, depending on the part of the store you’re in. Apple is already using the devices in their stores; the Apple Store app activates when in contact with an iBeacon and gives the user the option to get help, support, or use EasyPay.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, right now MLB teams are using the iBeacon technology to do automatic stadium check-ins and activate the app, which has team-and-venue-specific features like in-game replays, interactive stadium maps and social media linkage that aren’t connected to the iBeacons.
The technology is still in its infancy, and MLB promises that more iBeacon installations, and more features that will take advantage of them, will be rolled out during the 2014 season.
Joel Keller is one of the cofounders of the site Antenna Free TV and cohosts the weekly AFT Podcast. He was editor-in-chief of the now-defunct TV Squad, and since those heady days, he’s written about TV, sports, tech and other topics for The New York Times, The A.V. Club, TheAtlantic.com, Fast Company’s Co.Create, Vulture, Parade.com and elsewhere.
(Full disclosure: Joel Keller has previously written freelance articles for SportsOnEarth.com, which is partially owned by MLB Advanced Media.)
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