CrowdWave: Changing NHL arena experience, for better or worse

The hockey fans that will welcome CrowdWave: Those who eagerly anticipate "the wave" starting in the upper deck during the third period and can name their favorite audience participation game on the Jumbotron between the whistles.

The hockey fans that will loathe CrowdWave: The ones who cheer on their own terms, not the scoreboard's and openly mock those A.D.D. arcade dwellers playing "Dance Dance Revolution" while trying to find a good game of Ms. Pac-Man.

No matter your personality profile, there appears to be no avoiding the fact that CrowdWave technology signals the future of the arena-going fan experience. It debuted in the NHL this season at Minnesota Wild, Washington Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets and Atlanta Thrashers games; and the Ottawa-based company is in talks with other franchises.

What is CrowdWave? Here's the company line:

CrowdWave's unique in-game system and Vision Interactive technology analyzes the direction, intensity and timing of a crowd's movement as a whole or section by section. Fans will be able to control games or answer poll questions displayed on the high-definition scoreboard by moving their arms. The interactive technology enables fans to either work in tandem or compete against each other.

Having seen it in person at the Verizon Center in D.C., here's an example of how it works: a poll question flashes on the scoreboard; fans are instructed to wave their arms to the left, center or right depending on their answer of choice; cameras record the movements and tabulate them into a popular vote.

In another game, the traditional "Zamboni race" was reinvented through CrowdWave. Fans in designated sections were instructed to cheer and wave their arms in order to "power" their Zamboni as it raced. The most boisterous section, measured by eight cameras installed inside the arena, was the winner.

Was it different? Absolutely? Was it entertaining for the fans? Yes, for the ones that bothered to participate.

Was it perfect? No, and more than a few fans indicated to us after the game that they felt it was uncomfortable and awkward.

But according to CrowdWave, they'll eventually come around, because this is just the beginning for a revolution in arena sports technology. Step one? Convincing the skeptics this stuff actually works.

Remember the old arcade video games "Space Ace" and "Dragon's Lair"? They featured a film-quality cartoon with characters that, allegedly, the player controlled with the joystick and buttons. But there was always a sense that the game was more automation that user-friendly experience.

That was also a gripe from the Capitals fans after CrowdWave debuted: How do we know this thing really works? That it isn't just the "noise-o-meter" 2.0.

"From the inception of the company and the product, we always knew that (a) there would be a level of disbelief and (b) that there would be questions about why we're doing this and what it adds to gameday," said Toma Fiezo-Gas, creative director for CrowdWave. "We try as hard as we can to show in these games that we're measuring something. I'll be honest with you: It's a bit baffling to me too. But my job is to create games that work within the confines of what we can measure.

"It's not that big of a leap from Xbox Connect. That's only in one living room; but if the technology is out there to measure one individual, then it's out there to measure more than one person."

Phil from Capitals Outsider captured this video from CrowdWave's debut in D.C.:

From Capitals Outsider:

The system allows fans to either compete or work cooperatively, and the arena can be broken up any which way you choose. So you will probably see competitions in the future where the 400 level gets to prove how much more spirit they have than the 100 level. [Capitals' Director of Game Entertainment, Michael Wurman] even mentioned that they have plans to keep score, and later in the season generate standings as to which sections perform the best in the games.

From Business First of Columbus, where the Blue Jackets debuted the technology this week:

Bent 360's website says CrowdWave uses cameras, a server and software to capture and interpret fan movement. By moving their arms, fans can cooperate or compete in video games and polls that Bent 360 customizes for teams and their corporate sponsors. The technology is so perceptive it can analyze fan movement section versus section or in different arena levels.

"We are launching with 'Dance Off,' " said Kimberly Kershaw, the CBJ's director of game presentation and production. "It's a game similar to 'Dance Dance Revolution' that everyone in the arena can play along at the same time, competing against all sections."

How it works: There's a computer installed inside the arena broadcast center, loaded with different games, and eight cameras placed around the rink. They record the movements of the fans and translates them into the games uploaded to the computer.

There are two divisions in CrowdWave: the technology side that manages the hardware, and the creative side that manages the games themselves. All the games are developed in-house by CrowdWave and tailored to a team's needs and the vibe of their gameday experience. There are stock games, but there are also games developed for, say, a specific sponsor.

One of the issues in the "polling" game we saw: No cheering. Fans were moving hands left, center and right; but they weren't making any noise.

Fiezo-Gas said that was an anomaly. In fact, they're developing a new "noise-o-meter" that will incorporate movement and sound. "We try to build a lot of climax into our games, to invite people to be excited," he said. "When people get excited, they open their mouths."

For example: CrowdWave is developing a tug-of-war game that will involve battling sections moving their arms left or right while cheering. (One of the tugs-of-war will involve Zambonis.)

There's also a faceoff game in which two sections go as wild as they can to determine which "player" on the Jumbotron wins the draw.

Fiezo-Gas said he'd like to get into a more detailed, video-game style of play; in which crowds could develop characters and standings are kept from game to game.

Much more down the road, they'd like to create a virtual reality experience for the crowd ... to the point where, say, the color of the lights at a concert would be controlled by the "mood" of the audience.

Will CrowdWave stick? Is this motion-captured measurement going to determine who wins our "1980s rock hit you'd like to hear" or "Zamboni race" Jumbotron contests, going forward? Or is this a technology that never makes the leap from curiosity to arena standard?

How appropriate that it'll be up to the fans to decide ...

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