As the summer of sport runs into the sunset suddenly the September of phones is upon us. Two big announcements means this is a really important month (and quarter) for a technology which has become intrinsic to either attending or producing events.

4G is Go? – Wait and See

After more manoeuvring than a telehandler placing toilets (see our previous blog posts) 4G services will finally begin deploying in the UK. The first to market will be Everything Everywhere (a combination of the Orange and T-Mobile networks) which announced on Tuesday networks firing up in London, Birmingham, Cardiff and Bristol within weeks with more cities expected to follow before Christmas. Long Term Evolution (or LTE) brings a number of significant improvements over current 3G networks including download speeds of up to 20Mbps, improved algorithms for handoff between mobile cells (which should mean less dropped calls) and in some cases larger cell sizes meaning better coverage.

It all sounds great, however, there should always be a note of caution when dealing with cellular services which is probably best expressed by matching todays “3G” experience with what happens in the real world. Do you live in a world where your handset always has 3G signal, you haven’t dropped a call in months, data use is reliable, network masts never fail and when you are trying to text or call the box office during a live event with 20,000 other people on site it works first time? – The answer is carriers always sell the dream of the next generation; 4G is exactly the same. In reality what you should expect to start with is what was promised for 3G, meaning OK to good data speeds in cities and calls which rarely drop. Also lest we forget 4G, like 3G before it, is a consumer focussed technology offering which means very little in the way of speed guarantees or service up time.

Pocket-lint.com shows the new iPhone enjoying 4G speeds

Of course unfortunately for events the same problems around delivering reliable service to a remote location with high density usage will continue to be a challenge – not helped by the next big thing in cellular this month…

iPhone 5 – A monster awakes.

You can’t have missed the press, Apple’s latest iPhone 5 was announced last night. Those in the know will point out that even with this latest incarnation Apples crown has slipped slightly with handsets from Samsung and Blackberry winning in the specification war but that’s missing two crucial factors which need to be considered when dealing with anything from Cupertino. The first is the tidal surge of press and activity that follows anything iNew generating floods of new apps and ways to use the device, many of which rely on the iPhones killer selling point; the lack of learning curve. The second is the new technology which is bound up in this latest generation which includes the ability to operate with the new 4G networks, a new screen to show that high definition content even clearer (which means larger network downloads and faster streams required) and an all new software pack which further integrates social networking and always on connectivity. In addition Apple has given the iPhone one of the best features of the iPad which is its ability to work on both 2.4Ghz networks and 5Ghz which makes getting a good Wi-Fi signal, and keeping it, even easier.

That reliance on faster and always on connectivity will continue to keep demand growing for events who can deliver apps which enjoy video and interactive content at events.

Where Apple has missed a trick perhaps is the lack of contactless payment function others (such as Samsung and Blackberry) have started to deploy this latest technology which will put pressure on retailers of all sorts to start supporting the quick payment method. Apple is probably waiting for the market to settle before setting out it’s stall (and – knowing Apple – where it’s revenue stream is going to come from) but those early adopters will expect to be using their contactless payment methods this summer – we have another blog in a few weeks on this and our activity over the summer.

A great article this week in Exhibition News (Flick of the wrist, page 34) discusses how RFID continues to gain traction in the events market.

The power of being able to process transactions in a single swipe is huge. Just look at the success of systems such as Oyster cards and festivals, which deployed RFID this year, and have seen tangible (up to 20 per cent per attendee) increases in revenue. The article focused on how RFID technology has reached a stage of maturity and that systems can be used for additional functions such as; access control, catering, and social media check-ins, all of which means RFID technology is here to stay.

In addition to several RFID cashless deployments we had great success with WOMAD festival this year using a combination of barcoded wristbands and a pre-event registration website for teenage ticket holders to facilitate the quick and secure  lookup of their parent or guardians details if the teenager required assistance

RFID Wristbands

 

However when considering RFID deployments, event organisers should think about the complete solution in order to maximise the efficiency of the use of this technology. Here are our top three things to consider:

1. An integrated strategy: RFID technology has been around for a long time. Although making it “work” on site can be challenging but is achievable. However the main challenge is preparing for how the system will be used at the event for example: who can use it, where it can be used, staff training, on-site administration, etc. Key elements to think about include, how those who want to use the system on site will be able to register and use it securely ;how users will be able to link their details with their accounts; how much will be allowed per transaction? and finally, what can be done if cards or wristbands get lost and how does someone get a refund.

2. A banking partner: Holding funds, transferring money, setting up direct debit functions is not something to be undertaken lightly and needs a partner with experience who knows how to think ‘banking’ (it’s a very different mind-set!) However the funds are managed it will need to be done by properly approved bodies with the relevant financial certification.

3. A reliable site network: The amount of technology behind a cashless RFID system on site should not be under called. It is essential that a system is deployed which factors in the reliability required with the appropriate redundancy at its core to ensure loss of power or a damaged cable does not stop the entire service.

With these items considered RFID systems area ready to light up the events industry and bring with them an enhanced attendee experience and increased revenue.

‘Cloud computing’ is one of the buzziest of buzz words. For many businesses it can bring benefits and for those working in the events industry it is particularly useful, facilitating simpler and more efficient ways of working for teams which are often at different locations and constantly moving from site to site.

In essence all cloud computing means is accessing data and programs from a central, secure internet location rather than from a traditional office computing environment. What makes cloud computing more interesting is that the services are generally provided with great cross-platform (PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, Android, etc) support and a flexible pricing model (often free for the basic service). The concept is not new – many email services have operated in this way for years – but the move to storing all documents and applications online is more of a leap for users. So what are the benefits and potential issues:

Easy Sharing – Automatically share the latest versions of documents with whoever you decide. This could be internal teams or approved partners including suppliers and customers. This saves you from emailing out lots of updates which then get out of sync as others chip in. Some applications allow mutliple people to edit the content at once, providing a chat window to discuss changes as they happen. Services such as Dropbox, Box and SugarSync are popular and many also automatically keep a revision history.

Ubiquitous Access – A bonus of using a system based on the internet is your access point, be it your phone, tablet, laptop or friends PC can, assuming you have the appropriate credentials, access information. So if you find yourself completing a site visit with your phone in your pocket you can upload your photos and notes to a central system straight away instead of having to wait until you get home.

Scalable Software – Beyond documents and image sharing, software and applications can also be operated from the cloud. Event management tools, project management, expenses tracking, word processing and contract management are just some of the areas which have cloud hosted solutions. Accessing these systems from home, smartphones or tablet devices then becomes much simpler because devices only have to access information from one online location. Microsoft 360 for example is a full version of the Office suite and storage which immediately gives you the latest Office platform without having to remember to update whilst allowing you to access from whatever device you want.

Keeping it safe – Keeping information off site on a cloud server does have security implications which need to be considered. Highly private information should still be kept locally, but there is a trade off between security and accessability, especially when many people already store most of their information with a mail host online. When looking at cloud hosting you should consider the security they impliment and ensure it meets your requirements. Key aspects are ensuring that all information is transmitted encrypted (generally HTTPS) and most importantly ensuring people use strong passwords. It must be remembered that cloud systems are accessible by anyone on the internet so weak passwords (names, dictionary words, etc.) get cracked easily – it is essential the strong password rules are followed – non-dictionary words, upper & lower case, alpha and numeric characters and where the system allows special characters (!?*& etc.). Also the longer the better for passwords as some systems use the password to create the encryption key.

Connectivity – We all get used to having connectivity all the time and get frustrated when we lose connectivity but using cloud systems takes this to a new level as without connectivity most cloud systems cease to function at all. Also cloud systems will typically put more load on an internet connection as all activity is being synchronised across the network for all of the users. So fast and reliable connectivity is essential is you want to use cloud services.

Cloud computing continues to grow at a fast rate and has a role to play in many businesses and with the right planning it can lead to a far more productive team.

(l-r) WOMAD Festival Director Chris Smith discusses mobile coverage with O2’s Richard Owens, Etherlive’s Chris Green and Paul Pike from IVS

It’s been such a busy November that it’s only now that I have a had a chance to reflect on the Autumn Gathering. The day was split into two sessions with the morning focused on corporate events and conferences, and the afternoon structured around outdoor events and festivals. Below are some very brief notes covering a few of the topics discussed.

Connectivity & IT Support in Hotels & Venues

For conferences and product launches the IT needs are now typically a lot more than ‘a bit of Wi-Fi’. Quality Wi-Fi with appropriate capacity, dedicated streaming bandwidth, hook-ups for varying accreditation type systems and on-site technical support to deal with VPNs, bandwidth management and media support are all key aspects.

A concern raised by several attendees was the often inconsistent quality of connectivity in venues and their knowledge of how it works. This is an area we have been partnering with several venues on to deliver enhanced connectivity and the level of technical support that a conference or launch now needs. We have several case studies showing the cost of installing higher bandwidth and more robust infrastructure is rapidly recouped through increased revenue, this is particularly important for London venues hosting events in 2012. We are actively working with several groups to drive a better approach to conference & venue Wi-Fi, it is a more complex area though than it may look requiring extensive knowledge of how to deliver high density environments with the right equipment.

Information Security

Data security was a hot topic for corporate conferences, especially when people realised how insecure the often used short, simple passphrase approach is on Wi-Fi networks. The good news is that it’s an easy one to fix with a more complex passphrase or ideally a system which uses individual user names and passwords and enhanced encryption. Avoiding the use of the event or company name as the SSID/network name (or hiding it altogether) was also discussed as a way of avoiding unwanted attention.

It should now be the norm that networks are segregated into organiser, attendee, etc. and approaches such as client isolation are used to avoid unintentional sharing of information between connected users. A simple plain English guide to aspects such as the use of Https (secure websites), VPNs, encryption & authentication, solving typical problems with email when on a different network etc, was deemed a useful addition to the organisers toolkit and something that we are looking at producing.

Social Media

Social media split the room in two – those running internal conferences who were often frustrated that their IT department refused to sanction use of social media and those running product launches who used social media to the max. Lots was covered in this area, some of the key points were:

  • Social media like any channel requires a strategy
  • It takes time (1 hour per day was muted by several), you get out what you put in
  • Needs structure and tools (hash tags, TweetReach, Yazmo Live, Socialoomph, Thinkwall and hootsuite all came up)
  • Use live twitter feeds to ask questions to panel members and break down any barriers. Control and nurture back channels.
  • Schedule general content releases prior to the event so you can concentrate on the here and now tweets and comms during the live period. Have a calendar of teasers to pull people into the event.
  • Use of video is coming to the forefront and a general agreement that even low cost footage taken on a smart phone can achieve good results if it manages to capture a moment or a different angle.
  • It requires a working infrastructure at the event to be successful!

Smartphone Apps

This session started with a discussion on the hype around apps and comments that this was coming to an end with people now having to really question why they need an app and understand what the purpose is, with agreement that often a poor app can be more damaging than no app at all!

From there the discussion moved into ‘native apps’ versus ‘web apps’, like with many things there is no straight forward answer but there are some key differentiators:

  • Native apps can be designed to work without connectivity, with web apps this is nearly impossible
  • Web apps can be made cross-platform more easily and cost effectively
  • Web apps are on the whole easier to maintain
  • Native apps are more feature rich and can utilise more smartphone functionality (and hence look more slick)

Alongside this there were common operational aspects:

  • If you promote an app then the infrastructure needs to be able to support it
  • Content needs to be managed before and during the event. And afterwards if you want to maintain usage.
  • If the app is provided by someone else it will still be associated with your event so the quality is important

Mobile Phone Service

We’ve all been at events and got frustrated that the mobile phone service has collapsed under the sheer weight of users so not surprisingly this was a hotly discussed topic. Richard Owens from O2 did a great job in sharing examples of the scale of the challenges and explaining what O2 have been doing to try and address the problem. One great example came from the Royal Wedding where they actively moved capacity along the route of the Royal carriage to deal with the spike in photo uploads. Learnings from this are now being incorporated into a more automated approach across the O2 network.

For permanent venues additional capacity is a realistic option via adding more base stations around the venue, again an area O2 have already worked with several venues on. For temporary event sites the challenge is more complex due to the cost and complexity of temporary cell towers, however, options such as Wi-Fi offload and femtocells are becoming more practical.

The underlying message was one of the need for a partnership approach between events and mobile operators to deal with the issue as many events felt the bad experience of attendees did reflect to some degree on the event, and if nothing else made it difficult for organisers to run the event effectively.

Festival Comms & Public Wi-Fi

The change in expectations for festival comms over the last few years has been huge such that VoIP, internet, CCTV and Wi-Fi are the norm. The questions have moved onto how to deliver higher capacity connectivity and integrate services across a large site delivering coordinated gate scanning, real-time noise monitoring and PDQ ‘chip and pin’.

Public Wi-Fi access attracted a wide range of comment ranging from ‘festivals should be technology free’ to ‘how to monetise Wi-Fi’. Every event is different and it follows that approaches to public Wi-Fi will vary but it’s worth noting that the underlying thread is not really about public internet usage (although it is popular and has it’s uses for aspects such as travel, weather and news), it’s about the channel which is created between the event and the attendee providing an opportunity to deliver an extended festival experience. This may take the form of information updates, promotion of different events on site, access to exclusive content and the opportunity to enable social communities on site. It also provides a platform to deliver new services such as cashless payment, interactive apps and sponsor promotions.

As always the Gathering gave us a great opportunity to engage in discussion with those in the industry to really see what’s of interest and what the pain points are. The Gathering is a great focus point and hopefully leads to ongoing discussions to ensure the technology available meets the needs of organisers, promoters, production teams, suppliers and attendees.

This week sees our 4th consecutive year exhibiting at the Showman’s Show. The show, at Newbury Showground on Wednesday 19th and Thursday 20th October, in a way marks a transition from the 2011 outdoor event season to the start of the 2012 season, although these days we see a variety of outdoor events year-round.

Etherlive ready for it's 4th Showmans Show

Etherlive prepares for its 4th Showmans Show

2012 in the UK is of course a bit of a one off with the Olympics and Paralympics occurring right at the peak of the outdoor event season. We are providing a number of services for Olympic related activity, such as all the IT, communications and broadcast provision for the London Media Centre, but we have been very careful to ensure this has no impact on our existing customers and their events.

What is important though is booking and planning for 2012, especially in London and other locations that will see Olympic activity. Provision of connectivity such as fibre and broadband services will see longer lead times due to sheer demand (we are ordering many services already so that they are provisioned very early next year). Transportation is another area which is impacted with requirements on suppliers to submit transport plans for London well in advance of events if they occur during the broad Olympic period. These aspects and others are all good topics for discussion at Showman’s if you are planning an event in 2012.

This year we are on Stand 71 of the indoor hall where we will be demonstrating a new generation of mobile VoIP handsets – allowing the freedom of a mobile phone with the cost advantages of VoIP. These units also couple up with an alarm and monitoring system providing a new level of integrated service for event organisers.

We will also be launching our latest innovation; Event Band, a suite of tools using RFID technology facilitating payment systems, loyalty services, accreditation and crew management. This technology will sit alongside the latest generation wireless chip & pin PDQs providing reliable payment methods for bars, merchants, exhibitors and ticketing.

The latest networked noise monitoring support offered by Etherlive will be on display, along with a demonstration of next generation satellite broadband, offering internet anywhere from the new KA band with higher internet speeds.

Alongside all the new products we will also have our core network, communications and CCTV technologies on display, solutions that have been used time and time again across a wide range of events connecting thousands of users. Outside we will also have one of our communications tower lights offering CCTV, Wi-Fi and public address as well as an economical lighting system. This can be found on the Aceplant stand (169) at the end of Avenue G.

Recently we announced that Etherlive has joined ESSA (Event Supplier and Services Association), alongside ongoing membership of the AIF (Association of Independent Festivals) and the ASAO (Association of Show and Agricultural Organisations). As well as actively participating in these organisations we also offer special services to fellow members.

We will have plenty of staff on hand to discuss event requirements and provide cost effective solutions to a broad range of connectivity, communications and other event IT needs.

 

Last week I had the opportunity to meet the Cambridge University Eco Racing (CUER) team thanks to Mark Green (no relation!) of Intel, one of their main sponsors. The event was held to officially launch their campaign for the 2011 World Solar Challenge. I found the team an uplifting example of what can be achieved with true enthusiasm and dedication for what they are attempting to do.

For those who have not come across the World Solar Challenge before, it is a race from Darwin to Adelaide in Australia, a distance of 3,000km across the outback, held every two years, where the vehicle has to be powered entirely by solar energy. If that wasn’t hard enough the race has to be completed in less than 50 hours! A battery is allowed but it is only allowed to store up to 5kW hours of energy, less than 10% of the theoretical energy requirement for the trip. There are also limits on the amount of solar cells which can be used.

CUER first competed in the 2009 event, managing 14th place out of 26 entries – an excellent first attempt, especially when you consider the team is made up of undergraduates and doesn’t have multi-million pound funding like many of these challenges and world record attempts you see in the press. For 2011 they have set their sight on a much higher position and to achieve this they have to overcome a number of hurdles. Firstly, as is typical with student activities, nearly all of the original 2009 team have graduated and moved on, so in many ways they are having to start afresh. Funding is also a big challenge, to the extent that they cannot afford to replace their 2009 entry “Endeavour” so instead they are having to modify it based on information from 2009 and subsequent testing and computer modelling (for which Intel provides a high power cluster environment).

“Endeavour MKII” however is an ingenious piece of work, with many tweaks and changes including significantly reducing the drag factor, changing the battery technology (which caused major problems in 2009), implementing a new car management information and control system, as well as improving overall safety and stability (a key point when you are in a small, light vehicle being passed by an Australian outback road-train!). With all of these changes they are confident the vehicle is up to challenging the more established teams and bringing in a much higher placing.

The core technology can only go so far though; strategy and approach is also key – do you use regenerative breaking which adds weight or work on the principle that you won’t be breaking very often? What do you do when you hit cloud cover – speed through as quickly as possible risking excessive battery drain or hold a steady pace? Even at the end of the racing day (each day must be finished by 5pm) there are precious sun rays that have to be maximised by tilting the car towards the sun.

CUER isn’t just about a race though, they have also created an outreach program for schools with a hands on exercise in building a working model solar racer to help educate pupils about solar energy and environmental travel. It considers the importance of a useful site to educate them about solar energy. The launch event also saw the conclusion of a schools competition run by CUER to design a car of the future, a competition that generated some very thoughtful entries from over 200 entrants. The shortlisted entrants were all invited along to the event to see the car, tour the labs where the team are working on it and take part in a hands-on educational session.

What’s great about CUER is that it fullfils a number of things; it’s a fun and exciting challenge, it helps inspire younger pupils via the outreach programme and it delivers some real advances in terms of technology and design that you can realistically see being used in future vehicle design. Hat’s off to a great team and good luck in October!

You can follow CUER on Twitter and Facebook and look out for the launch of Endeavour MkII around July before it starts its journey to Australia in August.

Endeavour Mk1 soon to receive its makeover to become Endeavour MkII

Etherlive is very pleased to announce it has been nominated as a finalist in the Association of Event Organisers Excellence Awards. Our submission focused on our continued delivery of innovative technology for the events industry, which this year includes femtocells, a crew accreditation system and cordless VoIP in addition to our normal services. The awards, which are held annually, highlight the best suppliers within the events industry so we find ourselves in the same category as 360 Creative Event Services, Melville Middle East and asp, which is praise itself. Winners will be announced on the 1st July.

AEO

Mobile phones. Can’t live without them, can’t…well…er…you certainly can’t run an event without them. Mobile phone coverage continues to be a pain point for many customers. It’s normally the same story; everything is fine in the run up to the event but once the attendees arrive, making a call, using mobile internet or even sending an SMS becomes unreliable.

Telecoms operators may install temporary masts at larger events (for varying commercial arrangements) however in many cases these are only linked back to the local town, which may already be near capacity and therefore only compound the problem. Generally the mobile network in the area simply isn’t designed to handle a ‘density spike’ such as a large gathering of handsets all communicating more than is ‘normal’. For smaller and more remote events the situation is even worse, where often there is no coverage at all.

Shouting at the phone may not help

Shouting at the phone doesn't actually help, it just makes you feel better

Providing high density mobile coverage is a complex area, but  a femtocell can help keep key staff connected via their mobile no matter what else is going on with the normal mobile network. Femtocell technology is essentially a miniature cell phone mast for a pre-approved list of people. The unit can be linked to the internet services on site and route a number of concurrent calls for the authorised handsets as if they were on the normal mobile phone network. With a range of 150m radius it’s the perfect unit to have at a production enclosure, box office or artist/VIP area.

The pre-approved handsets can be added in a matter of seconds, whilst the unit itself is outdoor ruggedised so can be installed on the same infrastructure which carries other services such as site Wi-Fi, like for example our communications tower light.  So what’s the catch? It’s only Vodafone handsets which will work with the unit today. Although not ideal it does at least provide a way of continuing to use the service, regardless of everyone around watching their bars disappear. For non-Vodafone handsets temporary Vodafone SIMs can be provided.

The femtocell has been added to our 2011 services along with some other additional voice communication products such as a specialised wireless handset which integrates with existing VoIP services,  all designed to keep an event operations team functioning smoothly.