Baseball fans may actually learn something about the game the next time they peer down at their phones at the stadium. This off-season, Major League Baseball will test a feature of its At The Ballpark app that allows mobile devices to communicate with sensors placed throughout ballparks. Triggered by the sensors, the app will welcome fans when they enter the vicinity, surface historical tales, and potentially enhance sponsor messages and displays with ad content.
The location-based system, which employs Bluetooth Low Energy technology, was on display last week for a select few visiting Citi Field in Flushing, Queens, home to the New York Mets. The Mets will be the first MLB club to incorporate the sensors, called beacons, into their home stadium in 2014. A handful of additional teams are expected to get on deck to use the system during the next regular season. No other pilot teams have been named at this stage.
"Clubs today are already raising their hands," said Adam Ritter, senior VP-wireless at MLB Advanced Media.
The idea for now is to enrich the gameday experience as fans traipse through the park en route to watch batting practice or to grab a dog during the 7th inning stretch. At Citi Field, for instance, when fans are within close proximity to the original Mets Home Run Apple -- which now resides near the entrance of the park and once lived at Shea Stadium -- a nearby beacon will trigger the app, notifying them that a video recounting the history of the apple is available.
The opt-in At the Ballpark app serves as a loyalty program, intended to give people access to better, more customized offers as they use it. Currently they can use the app to keep track of games they've attended, explore stadium features, watch video and check-in for deals.
A key element of the BTLE technology is that it operates in the background, even when a user has clicked away from the app. So, when someone approaches the team store, it might alert him that he's been given a 20% discount whether the app is open or not.
"That seems to be the one significant opportunity," said Mr. Ritter. "How do you push contextual, relevant items to people without being intrusive?"
For team and league sponsors, the beacons might be set so they only signal phones when someone is very close, within just a few feet of a display or ad. The idea, said Mr. Ritter, is to "not spam people with offers."
And since it does not use GPS, it works anywhere indoors or out. "GPS does not work well indoors," said Mr. Ritter.
MLB's in-house development team began tinkering with BTLE even before it became readily enabled in Apple's iOS 7. "A lot of teams were excited ... and we were trying to temper that enthusiasm until we got our hands on the software," he said.
The system also will improve map functionality. Since it knows where attendees with mobile tickets are to be seated, it can direct them based on their current location in the park.
Despite the potential tracking capabilities, MLB most likely will be cautious about crossing privacy lines, he added. The beacons in theory could be used to trace where people are in the stadium, and possibly help ball clubs better understand attendee footpaths throughout the parks using aggregated data. Yet, teams probably won't use the technology for such a purpose anytime soon, Mr. Ritter suggested.
"Because this is a new technology, we're going to want to think hard about how much information we're going to aggregate," and what people will be comfortable with, he said.