High Tech Olympics: Rio 2016 as a Testbed

The Olympics are off and running, providing necessary distraction from the election. Everyone has their favorite events, but for some of us the best parts of the Olympics are the systems behind the scenes that provide information from the venues to the media army that broadcasts competitions and commentary. Olympics is a special event that allows tech companies to test and showcase new products in novel and high-impact way. Here’s an inventory of some of networking and computing systems – some of them breakthroughs – that are on display in Rio.

The Olympics Score Reporting System

This is the first Olympics in which the scoring system is based in the cloud rather than at the venues. In a way, this is a return to the way things were done before the Lake Placid Winter Games in 1980. Lake Placid used a network of minicomputers, PC-like “intelligent terminals,” and portable terminals supplied by Texas Instruments and knitted together with customized scoring software. The system, known as TI-Score, was developed across the hall from where I worked at the time, and like most software engineers at TI I followed its development closely and was tempted to help build it.

Before Lake Placid, computers were so expensive that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) only had one of them. But Lake Placid featured PC-like desktop computers at each venue connected to a redundant pair of 16-bit minicomputers at the HQ for the games. HQ provided up-to-the minute scoring information – winners and times or points – to the media and to all the other venues. All in all, it was a very rudimentary system.

Beyond Reporting: Better Olympics Judging

Today’s Olympic IT systems are miles beyond scoring. At Rio, technology is used to determine winners and losers in several different ways: fencing touches are detected and determined electronically, with a Wi-Fi sytem reporting touches to a judge who interprets them. Taekwondo determines points with a system of magnetized socks and impact sensors in body pads and helmets, also using Wi-Fi; and it has instant replay for the judges, just like basketball. Volleyball is also introducing replay review for the first time in this Olympics.

Here are some other new technologies on the event and spectator side of the Olympics:

  • Underwater lap counters for distance swimmers. These are waterproof screens at the bottom of the pool that enable distance swimmers to keep track of their laps. They’re wired into touch pads on the pool walls that register turns; used in 800m and 1500m freestyle events.
  • GPS locators on rowing and canoeing boats so spectators can track the races on a big video board.
  • Archery scoring will be done electronically with sensors built-in to the targets: “The new system identifies the exact point of the arrow in the target within an accuracy of 0.2mm.” As a bonus for spectators, there will also be real-time tracking of competitor heart rates.
  • Shooting is upgrading from an acoustic scoring system to a laser system with the same precision as archery. Guns will also be tagged with RFID so their location can be tracked between events.
  • Virtual Reality: “Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) will be broadcasting high-definition images of the opening and closing ceremony in virtual reality, as well as one event per day.” Spectators will need VR glasses to see these broadcasts, but they’ll feel like they’re in the middle of the action.
  • Spectators will be able to use contactless payments thanks to a system trialed by Visa using RFID bracelets and rings for the competitors.
  • Security will be enhanced by balloons with high-resolution cameras monitoring the venues. It’s unpleasant, but the Olympics are a target for terrorism.

So all in all, we’ll have more accurate scoring, better information about the events, and more safety and convenience for spectators. That’s all the good stuff.

Social Media

Not only will all the events be available by either TV broadcast and streaming, the major broadcasters are also working with Facebook and Instagram to make clips available to social network users:

“London were the social media games, these will be the mobile device games, with a much bigger social conversation” says Adriana Garcia, director of digital communications at the Rio 2016 organising committee. “We expect around 80 per cent of our audience to come from mobile devices.”

There’s an official app for the games, available in seven languages, downloaded nearly a million times before the games even started. This isn’t Pokémon GO, but it’s a big deal. Even more home viewers – up to 85% – will use a second screen while we watch the games on TV.

Olympics Performance Enhancement

Athletes can’t take steroids any more (unless they’re from Russia), but they’re always looking for an edge. One way to make training more effective is to use data analytics while preparing and even while competing. Sailors will be able to predict the effects that ocean currents have on their boats. Boxers use analytics to find vulnerabilities and to protect themselves from injuries. Some cyclists will get real-time feedback about where they stand in staggered-start races and adjust their strategies accordingly.

Because performance enhancement technology is not evenly distributed, there’s a concern about whether there’s a developing digital divide in sports that makes the rich countries better and faster while the poor ones are left behind:

“Sport lives from the creation of a level playing field on which different people can compete, and if it is just a question of having the right technology bought by the biggest pay cheque then it doesn’t make sense,” says Mr Baur at STG.

But as these technologies become cheaper, more athletes will be able to use them. The same issues arise with personal fitness and health care technologies, of course. The solution is not to limit their use but to make them cheaper and safer.

Bringing it Back to the Real World

The Olympics are a proving ground and a testbed for innovations that make life better for nearly everyone. This is especially true with the trickle-down of athletic performance tools such as high end sensors and analytics to consumer devices like step counters and smart bathroom scales. There’s also a trickle-up effect to the Olympics with technologies developed for businesses, such as cloud computing, are adopted for events like Rio 2016. We also see consumer-oriented systems such as VR and social media enhancing the Olympic experience.

I expect that the Visa contactless payment system may be the Olympic innovation with the largest consumer footprint after the games are over. The contactless payment ecosystem is a bit of a mess today, with so many different systems. But Visa is so widely used that the standard it promotes is likely to become the de facto standard in the US and abroad. So maybe Rio 2016 will come to be known as the Visa Olympics just as Lake Placid was the distributed computing Olympics. That’s not bad.