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Wednesday, November 24,2010

Vail Resorts digitalizes the mountain with EpicMix

By Chelsea Long


As ski season opens across Colorado, the mountains seem to be considerably smaller — not because they’ve shrunk, but because of a brand-new technology that allows users to connect to friends and family.


EpicMix, created by Vail Resorts, is an application that seamlessly tracks days on the mountain and vertical feet accumulated over the season, and awards “pins” for the accomplishments skiers and snowboarders achieve while they’re riding. It debuted at Keystone Ski Resort on opening day.

And through a mobile application, users can also use their iPhones, Androids or other smart phones to locate friends and family all over the mountain.

“We’re building the foundation for something really special,” says Mike Slone, director of interactive marketing at Vail Resorts. “We wanted people to have the same experience they’ve always had, but with something extra that preserves that day in a way we’ve never been able to do before.”

These functions are all made possible by radio frequency identification technology, or RFID, which Vail Resorts has been using since 2007. Most skiers and snowboarders have unknowingly used RFID every time their passes have been scanned without having to remove them from their jackets.

“We’ve been using RF [radio frequency] for behind-the-scenes customer service and as more of a convenience than anything social or performance-related, but that’s where the idea for EpicMix came from,” says Slone, who came up with the idea. “In the past, we’ve only had RF readers on the base, so this summer we installed them on all of our lifts. That’s the backbone of EpicMix.”

RFID readers have been installed at all five Vail Resorts mountains: Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Heavenly.

The RFID readers are constantly searching for the tags embedded in Vail Resorts’ passes, and when they recognize one, the tag is read and submitted to the database with the location and the date and time. This information is what allows the statistics to be collected for each individual skier.

These statistics are what go into earning pins for users. Pins are awards that skiers and snowboarders get when they hit a certain amount of vertical feet or days skied. There are also special pins that are unlocked, like the “Snow Turkey,” which users get for skiing on Thanksgiving Day, or the “Nightrider” for riding three different lifts in the dark.

“I’d never sat down to see what pins are available to collect until just recently,” Slone said. “If you go skiing at Keystone opening day, you get a pin. Now I know I have to go up that day.”

Users won’t have to do anything different to earn pins, as the tracking system does it automatically.

“Anyone with an RF-enabled pass will already have EpicMix,” Slone said. “You just ski and snowboard like normal. We didn’t want anyone to have to do anything different, like getting out their phone and checking in.”

That was one of the most important factors in creating EpicMix — preserving the experience skiers and snowboarders already have on the mountain.

Slone believes that the use rate will be high for EpicMix users, mostly because riders don’t actually have to do anything to use the application.

“We’re already tracking everything,” he said. “If you find out about EpicMix halfway through the season, you can go online and see all your stats there. At that time, if you want to share it publicly, you can do that.”

Vail won’t release any information unless you opt in to the system, and there is another version with more advanced privacy settings for children.

Evan Buzzell, the information technology director of Boulder FreeRide, the ski and snowboard club at CU, is excited about the possibilities created by the EpicMix technology.

“I think it’s a great idea. I’m really excited to see what we can bring to the ski and snowboard world in terms of technology,” Buzzell says.

Like many members of the club, he keeps an Excel document that details where he’s been riding, and who he’s been with each day he goes snowboarding, though now, he says he can use EpicMix.

He also believes that Boulder FreeRide will use the application in some way for the club.

“I don’t know all the details yet, but once it comes out I’m sure we’ll use it,” he says. “Social media is a huge part of our club. We’re on Facebook and Twitter, which is how we do a lot of our advertising.”

More recreational riders are also interested in using the pass. Kimberly Forrester, a junior at CU, heard about the pass through a friend.

“I’m so excited,” she says. “I’m excited to be able to find my friends on the mountain. People don’t answer their phones, and it’s such a pain to locate each other. Especially my family — we all have iPhones, and we used to be constantly calling each other trying to find everyone.”

Forrester is also interested in the statistic tracker. “I never knew how many days I skied because keeping track of it was a pain, so this will make it so much easier.”

Slone agreed. “It sounds cheesy, but one of the coolest things about working on EpicMix is actually using it as a skier.”

He considers EpicMix to be the digital evolution of the social aspect that’s always existed within skiing and snowboarding.

“You ski all day, grab a beer at the end of the day, and then share your experience with your buddies,” Slone says. “Mix is a 21st-century adaptation of ‘aprs ski,’ allowing users to share those same experiences digitally with their friends and family on Facebook and Twitter.”

“They’re digitalizing the playground,” Buzzell says. “A lot of us see the mountain as one big playground, and this is bringing it one step closer to us.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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