Capitals look to Google Glass and Skybox to enhance fan experience at Verizon Center

NHL statistics guru Neil Greenberg talks with Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis about increasing fan experiences with the first sporting app for Google Glass developed by local software company, APX Labs. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

More than a year ago, Google introduced Glass, a wearable device that looks like a pair of lensless sunglasses and feels like the beginning of Skynet. Since then the part smartphone, part heads-up display technology has helped first responders fight fires, been used by a surgeon in San Francisco to perform a lung biopsy and been implemented by Hyundai to allow wearers to control some functions of the 2015 Genesis.

Now the Washington Capitals are looking for the smart eyewear to give fans an immersive spectator experience.

“When I heard about what the capabilities were and the kind of apps that would be developed, I said this is something we should embrace and be the first in sports,” said Ted Leonsis, chairman, majority owner and CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment.

Enter APX Labs, a Washington firm that started building “smart glasses” for the U.S. military before Google Glass was launched. The company adapted its technology to create the Skybox app, which is aimed specifically at patrons of pro sporting events.

“When you look at the fan experience, a lot of the common complaints of going to the stadium is you miss out on a lot of things you can get in your living room,” said Brian Ballard, chief executive officer of APX Labs. “And when you go to the game, people are constantly caught looking at their phone, pulling up social media, pulling up game stats and kind of get disconnected from what’s going on. So we thought this was a great opportunity to counter that and give people that same level of data and experience they get at home at the game, which is a better fan experience.”


(Neil Greenberg uses Google Glass and Skybox at a recent Capitals game.)

Google Glass and Skybox allow fans at Verizon Center to access information such as stats, in-game highlights and instant replays from their seats in the arena — all in real time — without having to look away from the game.

“We serve real-time stats as well as tie into Monumental’s internal content distribution system,” Ballard said. “If you are at home or away from Verizon Center, you have to wait until the NHL has that video queued up on their own servers before you can pull up those highlights. Inside Verizon Center, we can push that data the second it is recorded to any device [using the Skybox app] inside the arena.”

I had a chance to wear Google Glass and use the Skybox app during Tuesday’s Capitals-Senators game, and I felt like I was RoboCop. (“Excuse me, I have to go. Somewhere there is hockey happening.”) The first thing you notice is how light and unobtrusive the glasses are, especially with a small screen floating in the upper right-hand corner of your field of vision.

After preliminary instruction by the APX tech team, a couple of swipes had me viewing highlights from the San Jose Sharks game a few nights before. The heads-up display surprisingly was not disruptive — it’s just in your field of vision while you are watching the game or conducting an interview. Then, once the puck dropped, I was looking at live game stats, which included a direct feed to highlight footage captured by arena cameras in real time. There was even a highlight from the Mites on Ice scrimmage that occurred during the first intermission.

Google Glass is priced at $1,500, not including apps, but is not yet available for retail sales; interested users can sign up for the Explorer Program, a chance to be a beta tester. The Capitals may decide to include the glasses as part of a VIP package or make them available for rent, but right now the team is in the beta stage itself. The WiFi at Verizon Center also must be improved before the glasses can be used throughout the arena; I sat in the Players Club for my test run because it has its own dedicated WiFi.

Skybox is still very much in the testing phase, although it functioned as described during the demo. But Ballard hopes to make the app even more robust.

“We are working on getting more and more data, and we are talking to some other companies that have some really high-powered sports analytics software, basically the type of things that feed announcers,” he explained. “The funnier, quirkier stats, like, to use a football analogy: On a Tuesday night this guy has a certain first-down percentage when playing with his back to the wind.”

But even more cutting edge than the stats and highlights package is how this could impact the game-watching experience for the hearing impaired.

“[Monumental] asked if we can broadcast closed captioning in any language in real time right to the fans, and we thought that’s a brilliant idea,” Ballard said.

Said Leonsis: “It is important and incumbent on all ownership groups to make sure to continue to innovate and make sure the experience at the arena is better than the experience you have at home. You will never be able to replicate the sense of the community and the feel and sounds and frankly the smells, but at home you have this multiscreen environment, so I am very hopeful that an application like Google Glass will bring that into the arena.”

Neil Greenberg analyzes advanced sports statistics for the Fancy Stats blog and prefers to be called a geek rather than a nerd.
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