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Case Study: Wi-Fi Success at the Sundance Film Festival

Movie star Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival has always pushed the envelope artistically, and with technology too. The event, held every January in Park City UT, a ski town near Redford's ranch, now includes a parallel online festival of short digital films, for example.

This year, in a project that could serve as model and inspiration for WLAN systems integrators and conference planners, the festival and its technology sponsors went one step further.

Using some very up-to-the-minute Wi-Fi technology, they established a temporary hotspot network to distribute festival information and get participants "communicating digitally in new ways," as Ian Calderon, the Sundance Institute's (www.sundance.org) director of digital initiatives, puts it.

Hewlett-Packard Company (www.hp.com) provided 500 Jornada PocketPCs, which the festival distributed to VIP attendees - film makers, producers, journalists - as well as key staff.

Symbol Technologies (www.symbol.com), a Holtsville NY maker of WLAN equipment, contributed access points and CF (compact flash) Wi-Fi cards - the Wireless Networker product, which the company introduced last October.

And FluxNetwork Inc. (www.fluxnetwork.com), a Santa Cruz CA software developer specializing in "rich media" applications for wirelessly-enabled PDAs and smartphones, implemented a Wi-Fi network using the Symbol gear.

There were five hotspots: three at film venues, one at festival headquarters and one at the festival's Digital Center where hardware and software vendors like Sony and Avid show off their digital film making gear.

FluxNetwork's primary contribution was the proprietary software platform it built to support online multimedia services for what company CEO Kurt Thywissen likes to call "captive consumer environments."

Using the software, it loaded the PocketPCs with easy-to-use schedules, interactive maps, information about the films and film makers - and samples of the short films in the online festival.

Each day, participants could update their PDA content at one of the Wi-Fi hotspots - including downloading a new batch of digital shorts.

The PocketPCs replaced a phone-book-size festival catalog and reams of collateral material. It also became an on-the-go film theater.

Like other PocketPCs based on Microsoft's Windows CE operating system, the HP Jornadas have slightly larger, higher-resolution color screens than standard Palm PDAs and more processing power. So viewing clear, sharp - albeit still small - digital videos was perfectly viable.

The project was so successful that Calderon, a Sundance Institute co-founder, says the festival hopes to be able to expand the program next year to include as many as 1,500 participants all connected wirelessly.

"The goal for Sundance," says Calderon, "was to create a platform for artists and creative people, to build digital community."

Calderon envisioned participants viewing the online films on the PDAs, communicating with each other about them online, and about other festival events, and generally creating a dialog.

It's not clear how much of that actually happened at this year's event. But the PDAs and the wireless network were certainly the talk of the festival, Calderon and other participants say.

"We're really looking at a modest, crude version of what this will become," Calderon says. "I believe it will evolve into something very sophisticated." He's talking more about the way participants used the technology than the technology itself.

The goal of the sponsors was of course somewhat different - basically to show off their technology to potential paying customers. But both sides clearly won in the process, as did attendees.

"I've got to say, I was very impressed," says San Francisco Examiner and Variety magazine film critic Joe Leydon who received one of the PocketPCs. "It came in very handy throughout the festival."

Leydon updated the content of his PocketPC wirelessly every day - "religiously," he says - to make sure he had an up-to-the-minute schedule showing all the late changes to when and where films would play.

This was especially important given the packed schedules film festival reporters have to maintain, he says, juggling interviews and film showings from morning to evening.

If a publicist called him on his cell phone while he was out and about - as happened several times - to request a changed time for an interview, Leydon could consult his PocketPC to figure out a way to re-jig his schedule. With a few taps, he could find out if there was another later showing of the film he had originally planned to see during that time slot.

Finding a hotspot from which to update was not a problem, he says. The network did not cover the whole town, but access points were placed strategically where he had to be anyway - at the theaters, for example. It was simple to update while he waited to get into the auditorium. (This was exactly what organizers intended, says Thywissen.)

Leydon was most impressed with the wirelessly updated schedules and instant access to other festival information - the biographies of film makers came in handy when he was called in to last-minute and impromptu interviews, for example.

The fact that he no longer had to carry around the weighty festival catalog was also very appealing.

Leydon did look at all the digital short films - often while riding the shuttle bus between venues - and was impressed by the way new films appeared each day. But it was clearly the practical benefits that impressed most.

Best of all, says Leydon, a self-confessed technophobe, the system was easy to learn and use. Connecting to the network for updates took a couple of taps on the PocketPC's touch screen and a few minutes.

"If I can do it," he says, "believe me, anybody can do it."

FluxNetwork acted as the systems integrator on the project. "Because we have a focus on rich media," explains Thywissen, "we wanted to find a high-profile event where we could roll it out and demo those capabilities. Sundance was ideal."

The software was designed to work seamlessly in 802.11b networks. The company originally set out to build services for 3G networks, but Wi-Fi happened first. And now Thywissen believes 3G will probably never be used for delivering rich media content.

Thywissen also believes there is a business providing services similar to the one at Sundance to profit-making conferences and trade shows. Participants would use their own PDAs or rent them, or rent just the Wi-Fi cards. They might even pay for some content.

The value of the FluxNetwork software license and systems integration services at Sundance was about $100,000. Costs for a similar system for other events could be anywhere from $30,000 to $200,000, Thywissen says.

There are already signs the Sundance experiment may provide a glimpse of the future of conferences and trade shows.

Accenture and Compaq joined forces to provide a similar service for the World Economic Forum in New York at the end of January, distributing 2,000 Compaq iPaq PocketPCs. Thywissen says the service was not as well received mainly because the integrators did not pay enough attention to making it easy to use.

FluxNetwork is currently evaluating the possibility of developing a business providing turn-key services for event managers - providing Wi-Fi network, content and PDA/Wi-Fi card rental. It's also interested in working with other systems integrators, which is what it's doing in Japan.

There would of course be other costs to setting up such a service. The PocketPCs sell at retail for close to $600. The Wireless Networker Wi-Fi CF product lists for $180.

Is this a bona fide opportunity for WLAN systems integrators? We think it might be.