Brighton & Hove Albion FC might not have raced to the top of the Championship table this season (the team currently sits in tenth position) but when it comes to off-the-pitch advances they’re certainly leading the way.
A small, government-funded team led by Dr Ian Wakeman from the University of Sussex (which has its campus within spitting distance of Brighton’s home ground) has developed an app called Digital Stadium, which aims to put an end to the black holes of mobile signal that appear when large groups of people overload the masts. The app allows Albion fans to check live scores, get travel info, see tweets and more during the club’s home games.
The no signal blues
Nestled among the South Downs, BHAFC’s American Express Community Stadium – or The Amex, as Seagulls fans have nicknamed it – is a typical modern football stadium: “It’s like a Faraday Cage – all concrete walls and steel girders,” says the app’s UX designer Jon Rimmer. Combine those structural challenges with regular attendances over 26,000 and getting a 3G connection inside can be like trying to convince Mario Balotelli to get a sensible haircut – especially at half- or full-time when everybody reaches for their phones to check the scores around the grounds.
So what’s the solution? “We have spoken to clubs that have spent hundreds of thousand of pounds on Wi-Fi and it still doesn’t provide adequate coverage,” says Rimmer. “To be effective you almost need a box under every seat and that's not going to happen, which is why we looked for an alternative.”
Image credit: Dominic Alves
A walled garden approach
Instead the team has gone for a walled garden approach. “The app connects to everyone else with the app and creates what’s called a delay tolerant network (DTN) within the stadium,” explains Rimmer. “If you want to know what the league table looks like or when the next train leaves Falmer station, a request is sent out by your phone and passed around the network until it finds someone that has a connection. They then pull down the data and it’s passed back to the phone that made the request. It all happens very quickly.”
Sharing one connection between a stadium full of phones might sound like an IT department’s worst nightmare but the connection Digital Stadium creates can only be used within the app, you can’t make a direct connection to the internet. “The University has very stringent ethical guidelines that we have to adhere to in terms of security,” says Rimmer, “it’s always been high on our priorities.”
Working around iOS's problems
On Android, creating this network is a fairly simple process. Digital Stadium uses Wi-Fi Direct to connect to other phones in the area but due to Apple’s lack of Wi-Fi Direct and stricter limitations on developers, iOS requires a little lateral thinking. “iOS has something called the Game API, which allows it to automatically make connections to other phones over Bluetooth,” explains lead developer Ciaran Fisher. “We’ve made it so your iPhone thinks the app is a game, meaning it scans the area looking for other people running the Digital Stadium ‘game’. The only downside is that Bluetooth doesn’t have quite the same range or transfer rate as Wi-Fi.”
With iOS 7 and a new iPhone expected next month, the app may well change before it’s submitted to Apple for approval. “AirDrop and iBeacons are both worth looking at, plus iOS 7 also has some new multitasking APIs which should mean the app works better in the background,” says Fisher. “iBeacons should allow us to use the relative locations of phones, which may make it possible to steer requests towards phones higher up in the stands where a signal is more likely. AirDrop looks like it will be using Wi-Fi Direct so theoretically it’s possible that iPhones could join the same network as Android phones, increasing overall performance.” Sadly, knowing how well Apple normally plays with other manufacturers, that would seem unlikely to get the nod from Cupertino.
Android first, Apple to follow
Last Saturday’s Burnley game was the first time the iOS version had ever gone to more than two phones, with about 80 trialists trying it for the first time, so it still needs a lot more testing before it’s ready to make its debut. “I think we’ve had about eight or nine different iterations of the Android version so we’re probably looking at about the same for the iOS version,” says Wakeman. “It’ll probably be about October or November time before we’re confident enough to submit anything to Apple.”
By its very nature the app works better as more people use it. The more apps there are to talk to, the more chance there is of finding one that’s managed to make a connection – so when will it be available for all? “We’re going to launch it unofficially for the game against Millwall this Saturday, and then follow that with a more official stadium-wide launch afterwards,” says Rimmer.
More football clubs – and beyond
As the football season progresses Rimmer and the Digital Stadium team will be looking into what other features they can add: “There’s nothing worse than going to the loo and missing a goal, so we’re also looking at whether we can offer video replays provided by the club. That kind of thing can be passed around using the DTN and would essentially self-destruct once everybody had left the ground and the network was down.”
But what about the other 91 teams across the top four leagues? “We’ve had discussions with the Football League and some other major clubs – it’s something we’re looking to do quite quickly,” says Rimmer. “It’d only take a couple of hours to create a stripped down version of the app for another club. That only requires a change to the branding, with just current scores and player info being drawn in. The added value comes when you make it much more club specific, although adding things like the ability to buy tickets or official merchandise from the club shop would take more work.”
It’s not just football clubs that could benefit from the Digital Stadium team’s tech. It could also solve the problem at festivals, motorsport meetings, or any major event that involves thousands of people in one place. Signal drought could soon be a thing of the past.