Plugged in from the heart of the action


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The Independent Online

Anyone who doubts the important role of the smartphone at modern sporting events would have been instantly put straight during last week's Opening Ceremony at the Olympics, as the finest athletes in the world filed into the stadium while holding their phones aloft, filming and snapping as they waved to the crowd. The crowd itself may have been more nervous about capturing those moments for posterity; the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (Locog) made a stern declaration before the Games that images, video and sound recordings could be used only for "private and domestic purposes", thus clamping down on our natural impulse to share everything across the web with friends, family and complete strangers.

But from Wimbledon fortnight to Formula One practice sessions, spectators can be seen regularly consulting their phones – whether they're sending out information, searching for information about action that's out of their line of sight, or seeking clarification about what's going on in front of them. For years it was common to see cricket fans watching the Test match with transistor radios clamped to their ears; these days you're more likely to see someone searching for updated statistics on ESPN's Cricinfo app.

Golf made a big concession to technological progress this year when the R&A permitted mobile phones to be allowed on the British Open course for the first time. The company behind the official Open app, Future Workshops, saw an opportunity to enlighten golfing spectators as well as armchair enthusiasts. As the chief executive, Matt Brooke-Smith, says, golf is a spectator sport where you traditionally lack information. "You might be following Tiger Woods around and then you'd notice a manually updated scoreboard telling you that someone's taken the lead – but you hadn't known about it for an hour!" he says. "That absence of news has almost been part of the experience for golfing spectators, but when you add mobile devices into the equation, that starts changing fairly rapidly."

The app's ability to track golfers' movements around the course is a feature that even the most old-school spectator would have found useful – not just tee times, but also real-time tracking using GPS.

"What often happens is that you're standing at a green and someone's hitting a shot towards you, but you don't know who it is," Brooke-Smith says. "So we equipped each golfer's electronic scoring device with a GPS receiver, so you could instantly see who was where. It worked brilliantly."

Brooke-Smith saw this as a proof-of-concept feature that will trail the development of an electronic programme for the event, with news, leaderboards and spectator information rolled into one. London 2012 spectators have also been eagerly seeking this kind of thing in app form, although it's been split across two official smartphone and tablet apps: "results" deliver the news, medal tables and live statistics, while "join in" is more of an interactive guide, telling you what's happening nearby, sharing your location information to let you meet up with friends and the perhaps inevitable Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare integration.

Social-media features are transforming the smartphone into an incredibly powerful two-way sporting channel. "The social-media timeline within our Open app was manually curated with stuff aggregated from Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and news feeds," Brooke-Smith says. "It was important that we picked just a few of the thousands of tweets going out there about the event."

But the complex overlap of social-media circles turns us all into potential reporters and, regardless of Locog's restrictions, this has already been demonstrated during the Olympics. The flood of social-media posts from the thousands of spectators along the route of last weekend's cycling road race saw the Olympic Broadcast Services encounter problems with getting its own data across mobile networks to the commentators, resulting in television coverage that was described as "shambolic".

An International Olympic Committee spokesman subsequently suggested that we should perhaps send only "urgent" social-media updates. But the capacity of both fixed and mobile networks to deal with the digital needs of spectators is a pressing problem. Anyone watching a live football game on the last day of the season while trying to get news on their phone from another game will be only too aware of this, as 3G capacity is stretched to breaking point.

Locog, aware of this issue, has banned the personal use of 3G MiFi mobile Wi-Fi hot spots in Olympic venues – presumably in the hope that people will hop on to the admittedly impressive network of Wi-Fi points provided by BT instead. But unless you're a BT, Tesco or O2 customer, you'll be forking out as much as £5.99 for 90 minutes of access. It's a problem that's being recognised and acted upon in the US; Verizon is deploying cutting-edge 4G mobile base stations in Detroit and Kansas City to cope with the barrage of data requirements from stadiums full of baseball fans.

However, purists mock and deride those who look to technology to enhance their live viewing experience. After all, you have only one pair of eyes, you've spent substantial sums on tickets, so why not choose to absorb yourself in the action in front of you rather than be distracted by the screen of a tablet or a mobile phone?

"More information certainly doesn't equal a better experience," Brooke-Smith says. "We found that it's easy to over-complicate things and often we found ourselves removing things from the Open app."

But this is part of a wider cultural shift. We're tweeting about television, Facebooking about film; swiping while spectating is just another demonstration of our new-found multitasking abilities.