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Tech toys bring game home - to game-goers

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Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2008

Pittsburgh sports fans who get bored during commercial timeouts and other stoppages in play are getting high-tech options at Heinz Field and Mellon Arena to keep themselves entertained.

Songwhale debuted without fanfare this season at Steelers games as a short-range, digital content service that allows ticket-holders to watch player interviews, music and videos, download ringtones and wallpapers and even get electronic gift cards and concession stand coupons.

"It's another way for the fans to interact with the Steelers, through a service that's so simple to use," said Ty Morse, president of Lawrenceville-based Songwhale, as the company formally announced and further explained its product Tuesday.

Everything is free and available via cell phones, smartphones or PDAs -- before and during games at the North Shore stadium.

Songwhale is trying to interest other sports teams and concert and event promoters in its product.

The Penguins, meanwhile, are testing a similar but more live action-oriented service for Mellon Arena.

Priya Narasimhan, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, said the Yinzcam service she's developing with other researchers at Carnegie Mellon University could debut within weeks at the Uptown arena.

Anyone who has a phone with Wi-Fi network access at a game will be able to watch replays from a few minutes ago or from a prior game. They can check live scores from National Hockey League games and even choose camera angles, to focus on one section of the ice or on certain players.

"Hockey moves so fast," Narasimhan said yesterday, "and this is a way to make the game experience better for the fan."

There's more: Yinzcam is designed to allow ticket-holders to view the nearest concession stand or restroom line from their seats, so they can better time their trips.

Both services work through software applications downloaded to a phone or other device that link to limited-range, wireless networks. Tailgaters in the parking lots just outside Heinz Field, as well as fans in their seats, can access Songwhale, Morse said.

Steelers and Penguins representatives couldn't be reached for comment. National Football League spokesman Brian McCarthy declined to comment.

While he's unfamiliar with Songwhale and Yinzcam, Mark Foster of Mitsubishi Electric's Diamond Vision unit -- which builds giant video scoreboards -- said teams are using technology in new ways to meet fans' expectations and increase sponsors' access to them in non-intrusive ways.

"Teams realize that today's fans expect an experience that is much more interactive and provides more than they can get at home," said Foster, general manager at Diamond Vision's plant in Marshall.

Morse, 26, said Nike, Gatorade, Miller and other companies are Songwhale sponsors, along with Virgin Records, where he worked in promotions. The Virgin and Capitol record labels offer songs on the service to Steelers game-goers, he said.

Songwhale's availability this season was not widely known until now, but usage has been high in the three hours before games, he said, as well as at halftime and even during timeouts and TV commercial breaks.

Morse said Songwhale likely will be expanded at next season's Steelers games to include special camera angles and other features.

"We wanted to get the fans used to it this year," he said. "We know that Wi-Fi is the future. I think we will see a lot more companies doing this."

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