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Originally published April 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 13, 2009 at 9:07 AM

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Brier Dudley

Nintendo's DS Fan Network redefines game day at Safeco

This is better than bobbleheads. Starting with Tuesday's season home opener at Safeco Field, Nintendo of America will loan its new DSi handheld...

Seattle Times staff columnist

M's vs. Angels

Home opener

When: 3:40 p.m. Tuesday

Where:

Safeco Field

A Safeco Field how-to

To borrow a Nintendo DSi at Safeco Field, you'll need to provide a credit card. Nintendo will destroy the imprint of your card when you return the device. The DSi retails for $170.

The 150 loaners will be provided on a first-come, first-served basis. They'll be available from a kiosk on the main concourse near Section 142. When you enter from First Avenue South and Royal Brougham, near the big glove sculpture, the kiosk will be at the top of the stairs on the left.

If you already own a DS, the free Nintendo Fan Network software can be loaded from wireless loading spots around the main concourse. It will take a few minutes to load and it won't stay on the console after you leave the stadium. You can choose a user name that will remain through the season.

More details are available from a new Web site debuting today: www.nintendofannetwork.com.

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This is better than bobbleheads.

Starting with Tuesday's season home opener at Safeco Field, Nintendo of America will loan its new DSi handheld game systems to the first 150 people at the ballpark who ask for one.

The gadgets will be provided at no charge until June to promote a big upgrade to the Nintendo Fan Network that the company's been experimenting with since 2007 at Safeco.

There's nothing quite like it in the world, but that's what you get when Nintendo's the majority owner of your local baseball team.

Within the ballpark, you can use the dual-screen wireless DS to order food and drinks to be delivered to your seat or watch live video feeds of the game.

You can send messages across the network and compete with other DS users in Mariners trivia games.

The devices can also be used to get statistics provided by MLB.com or monitor the progress of other games, and then you can check state traffic reports before leaving.

New this season is a partnership with ESPN that's adding sports news and the ESPN Zoom puzzle game.

Also new is the network's ability to deliver closed-captioned public announcements in addition to audio radio broadcasts.

When synced to the network, a DS can be used like a portable radio, with an earphone attached and the device kept in a pocket.

"The sum of those first two years makes us feel pretty comfortable that we have the right technology, have an idea on the feature set and now we want to more actively communicate it and bring in some real brand-recognized features like ESPN," said Zach Fountain, a director in the Nintendo group that developed the system.

People involved in the project wouldn't say much about future plans, but Nintendo's hoping to eventually run similar networks at other stadiums and entertainment venues after it finishes testing the system at Safeco this season.

"We've been approached by other teams with their interest, but we are definitely focused on getting this trial right," said Fountain, whose group also installs consoles in hotel rooms and jetliners. "The insights we've garnered over the first two years and expect to get this year would not only transcend to other venues but outside of sports as well."

Perhaps Fountain can draw on his connections to get the network in concert halls. The Ravenna native was general manager of Activision's "Guitar Hero" franchise in Europe before he joined Nintendo last summer.

Partnerships likely

Neither company would confirm my speculation, but it sure sounds as if Nintendo and ESPN are working on a broader partnership that could include a sports channel appearing on the Wii console network.

When I asked if the Nintendo Fan Network will expand beyond Safeco Field and appear on the Wii, Fountain said, "That's a reasonable extension of where this could go."

A similar response came from the ESPN executive overseeing the project, John Zehr, who is senior vice president of digital media production and product development in Bristol, Conn., where the Disney-owned ESPN is based.

"We're looking at all sorts of things there," Zehr said. "Certainly our working with Nintendo is a piece of building a relationship as we do with a lot of console providers."

Rentals to resume

You could say the Nintendo Fan Network is a triple play for Seattle.

Nintendo built the system at its North American headquarters in Redmond. ESPN's data is delivered through the platform developed by its corporate cousin, Seattle-based Disney Internet Group. And for now, it's only available within Safeco Field during Mariners games (and only on a DS — it doesn't work with other Wi-Fi devices).

Mariners spokeswoman Rebecca Hale said it's "very exciting" for the team.

"We think it's a great enhancement for fans who want to have that extra value-added experience at the ballpark," she said.

Nintendo initially charged $5 per game for the service, but it dropped the fee last season.

For people who don't own a DS, the company rented the units for $10 per game.

This year it's providing the 150 free units until June. Rentals will probably return after the promotion ends, but the price is likely to be lower than $10 this year, Fountain said.

Any DS can be used

The new captioning system could be a selling point for Nintendo if it tries to bring its network to other sports facilities. Fountain said it may be easier to loan DS units to hearing-impaired visitors than it would be to add captions on a scoreboard or new display screens.

That's the approach the Mariners are taking, at least. They'll have additional units beyond the 150 loaners available to people who need the captions. "We thought that this would be a good way for us to make it available to the fans who request the accommodation and we're happy to provide that at no cost," Hale said.

Nintendo wouldn't say how many of the 100 million or so DS handhelds it's sold have been used on the network at Safeco, but Fountain said usage has steadily climbed since 2007.

The newest version, the DSi that's being loaned at the stadium, went on sale in the U.S. last week.

Usage grew exponentially during an Oakland game last September dubbed Nintendo Fan Network Day: DS users were invited to compete in a stadiumwide trivia game that continued until the seventh inning. The top 60 scoring players then received messages saying whether they won prizes.

Fountain said there should be several similar events this season but they haven't been scheduled yet.

Drawing attention

Zehr — who worked in Bellevue and Seattle from 1995 to 2003 at Starwave, Disney Internet Group's predecessor — said the Nintendo project will draw more attention to the potential of interactive stadium networks.

"The in-stadium experience, like mobile, is a place we have not always reached people," he said. "This gives us the opportunity to reach the most passionate fans."

It's light years from Zehr's early attempts to get game news during an M's game.

He recalled using an AT&T device, "trying to get scores in the Kingdome — it used to take 10 minutes to look up a score."

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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