February 1, 2013
It’s the time of year when the National Football League gets a little bit smaller.
Sure, the Super Bowl on Sunday is its championship game and more than 100 million people will be watching, but if the outcome isn’t decided in the last two minutes, more people on Monday will be talking about the funniest TV commercials or how Beyonce sang–or didn’t–at halftime or the post-game homage to the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis as he dances off into the sunset.
It’s been this way for a while now. As the spectacle of everything around it has become bigger, what actually happens on the field during the Super Bowl has gotten smaller. And that’s been okay with the league as long as it’s only happened once a year.
But now, with the rise of giant home video screens and the ability to see every scoring play of every game on the NFL’s RedZone network or watch games from different angles on a computer tablet, people running the league and its teams have realized that they need to pump up the stadium experience. What happens on the field, they fear, soon may no longer be enough to keep the customers satisfied.
Hitting the big, big screen
No question that the Dallas Cowboys ratcheted things up in 2009 when they opened, with much hoopla, the new Cowboys Stadium. Not only did it cost more than $1 billion, but hanging 90 feet above the field is an HDTV screen so large–it stretches from 20-yard-line to 20-yard line–that players who are quite massive in real life look like little Lego men moving around below.
Next fall, the Houston Texans will one-up the Cowboys when they unveil their own field-dwarfing video screen, almost 25 percent larger than the one in Dallas. And now even colleges are starting to join the monster screen club. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, hardly a football powerhouse, just released plans for a new stadium that will include a video screen 100 yards long.
That’s right, it will be as long as the playing field.
Stand up and cheer
Okay, so we can expect the screens to get bigger and bigger. But some think the stadiums may actually get smaller, or at least there will be fewer seats. Instead, more attention will be paid to where people can stand and what they can do while they’re there.
Here’s how Eric Grubman, the NFL’s executive vice president of business operations, described a football stadium of the future in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times:
“What if a new stadium we built wasn’t 70,000, but it was 40,000 seats with 20,000 standing room? But the standing room was in a bar-type environment with three sides of screens, and one side where you see the field. Completely connected. And in those three sides of screens, you not only got every piece of NFL content, including replays, RedZone and analysis, but you got every other piece of news and sports content that you would like to have if you were at home.
Now you have the game, the bar and social setting, and you have the content. What’s that ticket worth? What’s that environment feel like to a young person? Where do you want to be? Do you want to be in that seat, or do you want to be in that pavilion?”
Phoning it in
Other stadium innovations are heading in a different direction. Instead of having the game be only part of a multi-screen, sports bar party experience, they would entertain fans by allowing them to immerse themselves more deeply into the game itself. And they would do it all on smart phones and tablets.
Take the case of the New England Patriots. At the beginning of this past season, they became the first NFL team to deploy a free Wi-Fi network for streaming video in their home field, Gillette Stadium. Fans were able to use mobile apps to watch instant replays on their phones and get real time stats.
And next season, they’ll have more options, ones that take them into the games within the game. There will be apps that allow them to tune into cameras following star players around, apps that let them watch what goes on in their team’s locker room at halftime, apps that listen in on players wearing microphones and eavesdrop on conversations between the coaches and the quarterback (with a 15-second delay, of course).
And there will an app that, by the fourth quarter, could be the most valuable of all. It will tell them where to find the shortest bathroom lines.
Here are other recent advances in football tech:
- A red zone you don’t want to enter: Reebok has developed something it calls a Head Impact Indicator. It’s a thin skullcap lined with sensors that can detect dangerous hits to the head. If a yellow or red light goes on, it’s time for a player to head to the sidelines.
- Now if they could only do something about helmet hair: Meanwhile, engineers at Purdue University say they’ve developed the model for a football helmet that disperses the energy of a smack to the head instead of just protecting a player’s skull. They report that tests with a polymer-lined Army helmet they designed showed it could reduce the G-force a player’s brain absorbed by as much as 50 percent.
- Like we need another reason to boo the refs: You know that imaginary yellow line you see on TV games to show where the first down marker is? After this season, the NFL is going to take a look at technology that would project a laser line across the field so people in the stadium could see what everyone at home has been seeing for years.
- Hardbodies the easy way: When they run out on the field Sunday, four San Francisco 49ers players, including both of the team’s quarterbacks, will be wearing a form of customized body armor under their uniforms. It’s called EvoShield and it’s a gel that hardens to fit a player’s body when exposed to air.
Video bonus: Okay, here’s a sneak peek of two Super Bowl ads already being declared winners, a spot about how getting the keys to the family Audi jacks up the testosterone of a boy headed to his high school prom, and a Volkswagen ad using a Minnesotan-turned-Rastafarian to celebrate the power of German engineering.
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October 15, 2012
The International Association of Police Chiefs held its convention in San Diego earlier this month and one of the booths drawing a lot of attention belonged to a California company called AeroVironment, Inc.
It’s in the business of building drones.
One of its models–the Raven–weighs less than five pounds and is the most popular military spy drone in the world. More than 19,000 have been sold. Another of its robot planes–the Switchblade–is seen as the kamikaze drone of the future, one small enough to fit into a soldier’s backpack.
But AeroVironment is zeroing in on a new market–police and fire departments too small to afford their own helicopters, but big enough to have a need for overhead surveillance. So in San Diego, it was showing off yet another model, this one called the Qube.
The camera never blinks
AeroVironment likes to tout the Qube as just what a future-thinking police department needs–a flying machine that fits in the trunk of a cop car–it’s less than five pounds and just three feet long–can climb as high as 500 feet and stays airborne as long as 40 minutes.
Outfitted with high-resolution color and thermal cameras that transmit what they see to a screen on the ground, the Qube is being marketted as a moderately-priced surveillance tool ($50,000 and up) for keeping fleeing criminals in sight or being eyes in the sky for SWAT teams dealing with hostage situations or gunmen they can’t see.
A few police departments have already taken the plunge into what are officially known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)–big cities like Miami, Houston, and Seattle, but also smaller towns, such as North Little Rock, Ark., Ogden, Utah and Gadsen, Ala. Most used Homeland Security grants to buy their drones and they all had to be specially authorized by the FAA to fly them.
So far, they haven’t flown them all that much because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t yet allow drones to be used in populated areas and near airports, at an altitude above 400 feet, or even beyond the view of the operator. But that’s going to change, with the FAA estimating that by the end of the decade, at least 15,000 drones will be licensed to operate over the U.S.
I spy a pool party
So how is this going to work? What’s to keep all those unmanned aircraft from hitting planes or helicopters or crashing into buildings? And what’s going to prevent them from spying on private citizens or shooting video of pool parties?
The FAA is wrestling with all that now and, given the need to ensure both safe skies and individual privacy, the agency may have a hard time nailing down regulations by August, 2014, the deadline Congress set earlier this year with the goal of opening up public airspace to commercial drones in the fall of 2015.
The feds are already behind schedule in selecting six locations in the U.S. where they’ll test drones to see if they can do what their manufacturers say they can do and, more importantly, if they can be kept from flying out of control. Later this month, however, at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the Department of Homeland Security will start grading different drones on how well they perform when lives are at stake, say with a hostage situation, or a spill of hazardous waste or a search and rescue mission.
For a technology still largely seen as a deadly, and controversial, weapon for going after suspected terrorists, it couldn’t hurt to be able show how a drone can help find a lost kid or save an Alzheimer’s patient wandering through the woods.
Not so private eyes
Still, the idea of police departments or government agencies having access to flying cameras makes a lot of people uneasy. This summer, when a rumor started on Twitter that the EPA was using drones to spy on American farmers, it shot through the blogosphere, was repeated on TV, and then in condemning press releases issued by several congressmen–even though it wasn’t true.
As Benjamin Wittes and John Villasenor pointed out in the Washington Post earlier this year, the FAA isn’t a privacy agency. It’s loaded with aviation lawyers. Yet it will be dealing with some very dicey issues, such as how do you define invasion of privacy from public airspace and who can get access to video shot by a drone.
To quote Wittes and Villasenor:
“The potential for abuses on the part of government actors, corporations and even individuals is real — and warrants serious consideration before some set of incidents poisons public attitudes against a field that promises great benefits.”
Judging from a pair of surveys on the subject, the public is already pretty wary. Of those recently surveyed by the Associated Press, about a third said they are “extremely concerned” or “very concerned” about how drones could affect their privacy.
Another national poll, taken this summer by the Monmouth University Polling Institute, found that while 80 percent of the people surveyed like the idea of drones helping with search and rescue missions and 67 percent support using them to track runaway criminals, about 64 percent said they are “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about losing their privacy.
And they definitely don’t like the notion of police departments using them to enforce routine laws. Two out of three people surveyed said they hate the idea of drones being used to issue speeding tickets.
When robots fly
Here’s more recent research on flying robots:
- No crash courses: NASA scientists are testing two different computer programs to see if they can help drones sense and then avoid potential mid-air collisions. In theory, an unmanned aircraft would be able to read data about other flying objects and change its speed and heading if it appeared to be on a collision course.
- What goes up doesn’t have to come down: Two recent innovations could dramatically increase the flight time of both giant drones and handheld ones. Lockheed Martin has found a way to recharge its huge Stalker drones wirelessly using lasers, allowing them to stay airborne for as long as 48 hours. And Los Angeles-based Somatis Technologies is working on a process to convert wind pressure and vibrations into energy and that could triple the battery life of hand-launched drones to almost three hours.
- Get your protest souvenir photos here: Russia is stepping up its drone program and will continue to use them to monitor street protests.
- The face is familiar: The Congressional Research Service released a report last month suggesting that law enforcement agencies could, in the near future, outfit drones with facial recognition or biometric software that could “recognize and track individuals based on attributes such as height, age, gender and skin color.”
- Talk to me when it makes honey: Harvard researchers have been working on a tiny–not much larger than a quarter–robotic bee for five years and now it can not only take off on its own power, but it can also pretty much fly where they want it to go.
- Two blinks to get rid of red eye: Chinese scientists have designed quadcopters that can be controlled by human thought and be told to take a photo by the blink of an eye.
Video bonus: This promo video by AeroVironment sure makes it feel like the Qube drone could have its own TV series.
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October 1, 2012
With the first presidential debate scheduled for Wednesday night, we’re about to hit the whitewater of the campaign, the time when any slip, any rock beneath the surface, can turn the boat over.
And though it doesn’t seem possible, the political advertising will shift into an even higher gear. Last week alone Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and outside political groups spent an estimated $55 million to drum their messages into the minds of voters.
But whose minds might they be? Must be the undecideds–that 2 to 8 percent of American voters who remain uncommitted and, it turns out, are largely uninformed.
It couldn’t be the rest of us, right? We’ve made up our minds, we know what we believe, right?
Change is good?
Well, maybe so. But perhaps not as much as you think. A new study of moral attitudes by a team of Swedish researchers would seem to suggest that our minds are considerably more changeable than we imagine.
Here’s how the study worked: Subjects were asked to take a survey on a number of issues for which people are likely to have strong moral positions–such as whether government surveillance of e-mail and the Internet should be allowed, to protect against terrorism. Or if helping illegal aliens avoid being sent back to their home countries was commendable or deplorable.
Once they assigned a number to each statement reflecting their level of agreement or disagreement, the participants turned to a second page of the survey attached to a clipboard. And in doing so, they unwittingly mimicked an old magic trick. The section of the first page containing the original statements lifted off the page, thanks to glue on the back of the clipboard. In its place was a collection of statements that seemed identical to the ones on the first list, but now each espoused the direct opposite position of the original. For instance, a stance deemed commendable in the first list was now described as deplorable.
On the other hand
The numerical values selected by those surveyed remained the same, but now they were in response to the other side of a moral issue. When the participants were asked to explain their responses, almost 70 percent of them didn’t realize they had performed one fine flip-flop.
Okay, let’s cut them some slack. It’s easy to miss the change in one word, even if a statement said the exact opposite of what they had responded to. But here’s where it gets interesting. More than half, about 53 percent, actually offered arguments in favor of positions that just minutes before they had indicated they opposed.
I know what you’re thinking–you’d never do that. Maybe you wouldn’t. But the best conclusion the researchers could draw was that many of us just might not be as locked into our beliefs as we like to think.
Me, my bias, and I
If you want to see how flexible your political principles can be, consider downloading a plug-in developed at the University of Michigan called The Balancer. It’s designed to track your online reading habits and then calculate your political bias.
Researcher Sean Munson created The Balancer because, as he told NBC News’ Alan Boyle, he wanted to see if “having real-time feedback about your online news reading habits affects the balance of the news that you read.”
By matching your Web activity to a list of 10,000 news sources and blogs–each with a ranking on the political spectrum–The Balancer, through a button on your browser bar, lets you know how unbalanced your choices are. Depending on where you get your info, a stick figure will be shown overloaded with either conservative-red blocks or liberal-blue ones.
The plug-in, which works only on the Google Chrome browser, also suggests websites to visit if you don’t want your stick figure to tilt too much to one side.
Says Munson, who was surprised at the degree of his own bias: “Even self-discovery is a valuable outcome, just being aware of your own behavior. If you do agree that you should be reading the other side, or at least aware of the dialogue in each camp, you can use it as a goal: Can I be more balanced this week than I was last week?”
Stalking the vote
Here’s more recent research on what shapes and sometimes changes our political beliefs:
- That does not compute A study published last month in Psychological Science in the Public Interest found that people are reluctant to correct misinformation in their memories if it fits in with their political beliefs.
- You like who?: According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, almost 40 percent of people on social networking sites say they’ve been surprised by the political leanings of some of their friends. Two-thirds say they don’t bother to respond to political posts from friends with whom they don’t agree.
- Facebook made me do it: A message on Facebook on the day of the 2010 congressional elections may have been responsible for an additional 340,000 Americans voting, concludes a study published in the journal Nature. They were most influenced, say researchers, by messages that their closest friends had clicked an “I voted” button.
- No, my parents made me do it: Research published recently in Trends in Genetics, based on the political beliefs of twins, suggests that your genetic makeup can influence your stance on issues such as abortion, unemployment and the death penalty, though children tend not to express those opinions until they leave home.
- It’s my party and I’ll lie if I want to: A study at Washington State University posits that a “belief gap” has replaced the “education gap” in American politics. Positions on many issues–and how much someone knows about an issue–no longer are largely determined by how much education someone has, but rather with what party they identify.
- Funny how that happens: Late-night comedy shows, such as “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” can actually spur political discussions among friends, according to a new study at the University of Michigan.
Video bonus: In case you missed it, check out out the “Saturday Night Live” take on undecided voters.
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August 14, 2012
Chances are you think you already have enough information in your life. Why, oh why, would you want to add more layers?
Yet there’s something intriguing about the concept of augmented reality, the notion of enhancing objects in the real world with virtual sounds and images and additional info. And when Google revealed earlier this year that it was developing glasses that will be part wearable computer, part digital assistant that flashes relevant data right before your eyes, augmented reality (AR) no longer seemed such a digital parlor trick. The geek gods had spoken.
In fact, recent analysis by the London firm ABI Research concludes that the next big phase of AR–now largely played out on smartphones and tablets–will be through wearable tech. That’s when the technology will become truly functional, when your glasses are able to tell you everything you want to know about the restaurants and stores on the block where you’re walking.
Will Powell, an AR wiz recently interviewed by Slash Gear, concurs:
I think that with the desire for more content and easier simpler devices, using what we are looking at and hearing to tell our digital devices what we want to find is the way forward. Even now we have to get a tablet, phone or laptop out to look something up. Glasses would completely change this because they are potentially always on and are now adding full time to at least one of our fundamental senses.
Scenes from an exhibition
One place, however, where AR is still making its mark on small screens is the museum world. Those who run museums know that the people walking around their buildings are already spending an inordinate amount of time using their phones, whether it’s taking pictures or texting friends or taking pictures to text to friends. So it only makes sense to find ways to turn phones into storytelling tools that can bring the inanimate to life. Or shift time. Or add layers of knowledge. More museums are taking the leap and while the results can sometimes still seem a bit gimmicky, it’s a move in the right direction.
One of the the latest examples is an exhibit called “Ultimate Dinosaurs” that opened at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto earlier this summer. It uses augmented reality to add flesh to the bones of dinosaurs and lets them move around. In some cases, you can use an app on your smartphone to make beasts pop out of markers around the exhibit, including on the floor; in others you can use iPads provided by the museum to turn fossils into fleshed-out creatures. And along the walls are animated projections of dinos that also are interactive. With the help of a Kinect 3-D camera, their eyes follow your every move. A bit creepy, but what museum couldn’t use a little thrill.
Instead of reconstituting dinosaurs, the Laguna Beach Art Museum in California is using AR to bring motion to still photos. Dancers frozen in an image start to spin on your smartphone screen; a woman captured under water suddenly swims away. It’s the first phase of images escaping their frames.
The Getty Museum in Los Angeles is taking yet another approach. In an exhibit titled “Life of Art,” it enables visitors to use iPads to explore in much more detail–and even rotate–classic historical objects from its permanent collection–a 17th century lidded porcelain bowl from Asia, for instance, and an 18th century French armchair.
But maybe the most engaging twist of AR with an exhibit has been pulled off by the Science Museum in London. An iPhone app turns James May, one of the hosts of the popular BBC show “Top Gear,” into a virtual museum guide. By aiming the camera at a marker near nine of the exhibits in the Making the Modern World Gallery, you conjure up a CGI version of May, spinning tales and reeling off details about steam engines and the first home computers.
What is reality?
Here are other examples of augmented reality pushing envelopes:
- Now that’s point-and-shoot: Researchers at MIT’s Media Lab have developed an AR device they call EyeRing. It’s a tiny camera you wear on your finger and when you take a picture of an object, it transmits it to a smartphone that gives you information about what you’ve photographed.
- But does it work on bald?: Meanwhile, the folks at Disney Research have created a technology using reverse electrovibration that projects texture on to smooth surfaces.
- Really interior design: The 2013 edition of the IKEA catalog has its own AR spin. You can use a smartphone app to see inside cabinets and get design ideas not available to those satisfied only with reality.
- But wait,there’s more: The Los Angeles Times used the start of the London Olympics to join print publications dabbling in AR. It rolled out an app that enabled readers to get more material by hovering their phones over Olympics photos in the paper.
- For those who expect more from their chips than crunch: We should all be grateful that we have lived long enough to experience potato chip bags that predict the weather. This month and next, Walkers crisps will come in bags that, once you download the appropriate mobile app, share the weather report for today and tomorrow. There are no plans, as yet, for five-day forecasts.
Video bonus: Here’s a demo video showing how dinosaurs come back to life in a Toronto museum.
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April 5, 2012
The 2012 Major League Baseball season kicked off in Miami last night with a 4-1 win by the St. Louis Cardinals over the hometown Marlins. But that’s a footnote. The real show was the stage–a flashy new stadium that’s as much about technology and art and whimsy as it is about playing ball.
Some are saying that Marlins Park is the first baseball stadium of a new era, one that makes a clean break from the long run of nostalgia parks, charming places of brick and steel meant to feel intimate and quirky and a slice of simpler times. Camden Yards in Baltimore was the iconic model for the many that followed. But it turns 20 years old tomorrow.
Clearly, it was time for a 21st century facelift. Besides, building a retro park in Miami would be like wearing gingham on South Beach. It’s just not right. So, as Marlins President David Samson put it, “We used Miami to do things that other cities couldn’t get away with.”
- They’ll never understand the infield fly rule: At field level behind home plate are two 450-gallon salt-water fish tanks stocked with 100 tropical fish. I know, you’re thinking this is a fish spill waiting to happen. But apparently one of the Marlins players was recruited to wail baseballs at the specially-designed tanks and not even a little crack appeared. PETA says all the noise and reverberation couldn’t be good for the fish, but the show has gone on.
- The seventh inning splash: Behind the left-field wall is a pool, which, of course, also screams Miami. But it’s really much more than a pool. It’s a pool with a bar and DJs and dancing, an outpost of the Clevelander Hotel, a South Beach hotspot. Games may end at 10, but the pool stays open until 3 in the morning.
- Miro, Miro, on the wall: You don’t often talk about color palettes while on the subject of baseball fields, but there’s a lot of blue, orange, yellow and green going on in Marlins Park. The reason? The team’s owner, Jeffrey Loria, is an art collector–in fact, that’s how he made his fortune–and those colors are an homage to abstract artist Joan Miro, his favorite.
There’s plenty of technological dazzle, too, starting with the retractable roof that takes only 15 minutes to roll closed and the massive hurricane-proof glass windows that provide a spectacular view of the Miami skyline from the upper deck. Also, every sign is digital, giving sponsors the opportunity to buy every ad in the place for a brief period and allowing concession stand specials to be promoted all over the park.
And there are cutting-edge treats for the players, too. For instance, someone who wants to see why he fared so badly his last time at bat can stroll into a room near the dugout where there are four high-definition computer monitors. He just clicks on his name and he can watch himself in high-def and try to figure out what he’s doing wrong.
As for whimsy, there’s a museum where every item inside is a bobblehead doll. Almost 600 of them, all waiting to have their heads pinged.
But the piece de resistance is the “Home Run Scultpto-Pictorama.” That’s the name of the 74-foot-high sculpture beyond center field created by multimedia artist Red Grooms. It celebrates every Marlins’ home run. And how does it do that? Let’s just say it comes to life–flamingos flap their wings, gulls circle, marlins leap, water sprays, lights flash. Maybe you should just see for yourself.
Now if they could only figure out how to bring in relief pitchers from the bullpen in cigarette boats.
The man who Veecked baseball
More than 37,000 people were at the Marlins game last night, but I’d wager that only a handful of them ever heard of Bill Veeck, Jr.
Which is a shame, because Veeck was undoubtedly the greatest innovator baseball has ever known. (Forget Billy Beane, of Moneyball fame. Sure, anyone can look like a baseball god if Brad Pitt plays you. But he wasn’t in Veeck’s league.)
I was reminded of Veeck’s influence on the game–in both profound and bizarre ways–by Paul Dickson’s new biography, Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick . Veeck was the guy who first planted ivy on the bricks in Chicago’s Wrigley Field, the guy who signed Lary Doby to integrate the American League a few weeks after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the National League, the guy who developed the first “exploding” scoreboard at Comiskey Park in Chicago, when fireworks went off whenever a White Sox player hit a home run. He pushed the ideas of interleague play and the designated hitter long before they were instituted.
Of course, Veeck also had his share of stunts that didn’t bathe him in glory. There was Disco Demolition Night in 1979, when fans were invited to bring disco albums to a game in Comiskey Park, at which they would be blown up. But the albums were too easy to convert into Frisbees. A mini-riot ensued.
But his greatest promotional gimmick of all came back in 1951, when he wheeled up to home plate a man in a cake. The man’s name was Eddie Gaedel and he was only 43 inches tall. He walked on four pitches and was replaced by a pinch runner.
Just the way Veeck planned it.
Video bonus Take a little video tour of Marlins Park, from the tropical fish tanks to the South Beachy pool to the home run sculpture where flamingos flap and marlins fly.