On February 6, 2009, on a cold night in Pittsburgh, my students and I walked over to Mellon Arena, freezing as usual. We weren’t going to watch the game, we were going there to work. This was the night that our little research project was going live, was going to be in the hands of fans other than ourselves. The Penguins had decided to pilot our research project to the public that night, with a simple announcement on their website.
“Pens, CMU Test Mobile Video Program.”
Six words that give me goosebumps to this day.
We had started our research project in the Summer of 2008. We had an outlandish idea — for the time. We wanted fans to be able to select replays from any camera angle, while they were in their seats in the arena. The Pittsburgh Penguins loved our idea, and got behind it.
Our research group had 10–15 Carnegie Mellon students with classes, homework, exams, projects, assignments, and deadlines. Engineers and designers who just happened to be passionate sports fans. For a few hours every night for 20+ Penguins home games, we would lose ourselves in our research. We would head over to Mellon Arena after school every day to walk around, test signal strength, test the quality of video, test different camera angles, and tune the Wi-Fi antennas. We kept tweaking our system and the algorithms that we used, every opportunity we got.
The market flew in the face of what we were trying to do. Formal market surveys declared that less than 10% of smartphones in the market (at the time) had Wi-Fi support. The future of Wi-Fi support on mobile devices was uncertain. Wi-Fi installations in stadiums were rare.
The Penguins believed in us. They believed in new ideas. They believed that mobile devices were the way of the future. They worked with us to install Wi-Fi at Mellon Arena, so that we could do our research and run our experiments.
My students and I would walk around the arena with multiple mobile devices stuck to clipboards, inspecting the quality of the video in the mobile app, focusing on the latency, the performance, and the scalability. Whenever I spotted an empty seat, I would plop myself down there, and explain (to the 6–7 fans around me) why I was lugging around a clipboard of phones. Those fans would ask to start using the mobile app, and I would help them install the app. Once I was done, I would get up and go find another empty seat to get more fans to use the system. This gave us a chance to hear feedback from real users on what they thought, what they liked, and what they didn’t. Those fans were our real-world market survey. They made the difference. They helped us to refine what we built and to make it worthy of their time.
As more fans started to inquire about the research project, and as our system held up solidly game after game, the Penguins decided to open the system up to the public for the first time on February 6, 2009. That was our big debut.
That Columbus vs. Pittsburgh game is still a blur to me. I just remember nerves, butterflies, adrenalin, fear, joy, lots of running around, and constantly checking up on the performance of the system. I wanted the day to be over, and I didn’t want it to be over. Time just flew.
At the end of the game, we were wiped, but happy. Very, very, very happy.
That pilot was a roaring success, beyond our wildest imagination.
Three things were responsible for this outcome.
First, the Penguins’ genuine love of new ideas and of being pioneers.
Second, honest feedback from real, repeat users.
Third, our scrappy “this is hard, this is fun” mentality.
12 years and 200 sports clients later, we are still here.
Because of our clients.
Because of our users.
And because we are still scrappy.