NBA Finals showcasing technology as well as basketball skills

ATM, Windows XP standing test of time even as NBA embraces 3D technology, tablet computers and more

The NBA Finals is a true technology showcase, though not without a little "throwback" tossed in.

The moment I arrived at last night's Game 4 of the Finals at Boston Garden I was immediately impressed that the NBA - from its BlackBerry-filled trailer -- was able to spit out my media badge based on my having attended the 2008 finals in which the Boston Celtics and LA Lakers also played. Tech trade show registration groups could learn a thing or two from that.

Next I walked down a darkish alley outside the arena that led to the media entrance and was greeted by two guys sitting behind a table who were coordinating radio frequencies to avoid broadcasters and others from interfering with each other and all the mobile device-equipped fans, media and others.

Boston Celtics' Jay Wessel and NBA CIO Michael Gliedman
After a spin through the media room - a bustling curtained-off room full of mostly male reporters tapping away on laptops and netbooks yet also overflowing with printed out stats and game notes -- I then met with NBA CIO Michael Gliedman (right) and Celtics IT chief Jay Wessel (left), who updated me on the latest technology being used by the league to keep fans, teams and the media plugged in.

About 15 members of Gliedman's 85-person IT team were also on hand at the game, setting up infrastructure and ensuring signals between the arena and league data center are working. They work hand-in-hand with the local Garden crew, bringing in plenty of their own voice, data and video gear but also carving out VLANs and so forth on the local network.

The most visible tech operation at the arena during games is the two rows of various computers residing courtside in between the teams' benches. The desktop systems are hardwired via a mainly 100Mbps Cisco Ethernet network to an HP server behind the stands (it's nice to see a case of HP and Cisco playing nicely, which isn't always the situation these days as they go after each other's traditional territories).

The most noticeable difference between this year and 2008 is that the computers are now loudly labeled HP rather than Lenovo, which was replaced by HP in 2008 as the NBA's main PC partner (though the NBA still works with Lenova in Asia).

These systems are used largely for stats collecting, with statisticians gathering data on up to 500 events (shots, assists, rebounds, etc) per game, using a mix of touchscreen and keyboard entry. With more advanced video capture technologies being implemented all the time, Gliedman expects courtside statisticians could eventually be freed up to track even trickier stats, such as contested shots and other measures of defense.

Gliedman, who has been with the league for 11 years, lauded HP's touchscreen technology, including its TouchSmart PC, which the NBA has used to help fans locate seats and amenities as well as call up other information at games, such as the All-Star game. (An HP spokeswoman adds that the company has also done a limited pilot program with the NBA for a TouchSmart application on used in suites at the Detroit Pistons arena with touch-enabled access to videos, statistics, and in-game information and even food/merchandise ordering.)

Naturally enough, there weren't any Apple iPads along the courtside computer row given that HP has a tablet of its own dubbed the Slate in the works.  However, Wessel was packing a new iPad of his own, which he said he's been using to take notes and look up quick stats.

I was surprised to learn that a number of the HP machines were running Windows XP, as did the Lenovo machines in 2008. "It's solid, I'm not ready to use Windows 7 yet in such a critical role," said Wessel, who acknowledged being a lot more relaxed than he was 2 years ago during The Finals.

XP, which Microsoft and others have been pushing customers to move away from, wasn't the only throwback technology in use at The Finals. Wessel turned my head when he mentioned that the league is using ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) technology to transport video and other traffic between the arena and the league's tech center in New Jersey. "ATM's great for carving out channels for video and other types of traffic," he says.

Video and stat loggers exploit a digital media management system to pin stats to video in every conceivable way so that teams and others can look up specific clips, such as a certain 3-pointer taken 3 minutes into a game. "We come up with a whole set of metadata that can be used in lot of ways," including by video game developers, Gliedman says.

Over the past 2 years the league has consolidated a patchwork of T-1 lines, radio circuits and other wide-area technology and put in place a high-speed arena network boasting two-way 155Mbps OC-3 links to get video quickly out of arenas and to the league tech center and various media outlets. "Relatively cheap bandwidth keeps growing," Wessel says. "We've really seen that since our last Finals appearance."

Wessel says the network never sleeps, with high-definition video transferred immediately during games and then more video from multiple camera angles that's been stored on local video servers sent overnight for the morning sports newscasts. In fact, he says the explosion in high-def content will require even more bandwidth before long. Amazingly, it wasn't long ago that FedExed tapes were used to transport a lot of NBA video, he says.

The NBA is also more heavily using Cisco Telepresence technology to enable fans to interact with players remotely and to simplify interviews with players, especially during early playoff rounds when broadcasters tend to interview players from teams not playing in the televised game.

The NBA also has some advanced technologies in the works through its partnership with HP, which includes HP Labs. Gliedman says he's excited about HP technology dubbed Pluribus that links off-the-shelf projectors into a  relatively inexpensive system that can be used to project images at an arena, especially around curves and other tricky shapes. The NBA and HP are also working on advances in 3D technology, something likely to get a workout during the NBA summer league.

Overall, Gliedman says, the key with technology use by the NBA is to improve the fan experience at games -- without causing a distraction -- as well as serve other fans via the media and more direct digital applications.

"It's clear that with increased mobile use and our international presence things aren't going to slow down," he says.

A view of the Boston Celtics court from high above TD Garden
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