The Olympics of Technological Innovations

Rita Makhoul, Oct 12 2016

The Olympics are not just about sports. As athletes have constantly pushed the boundaries of human ability at the Games, technology has constantly moved forward too. The Olympics have a historical impact in leading technological advancements and innovations long after the Games end.

In the four years since the London Olympic Games, technology has continued to transform everyday life at an astounding pace.  At Rio 2016, we witnessed the Olympics harness some of these innovations in addition to many new innovations that made their debut. As the majority of the world had their eyes on the competitions, we kept our eyes out for all the technological advancements and innovations that were introduced this year.

Precise Time Keeping and Judging Innovations
It seems unimaginable that at one time, Olympic judges supplied their own stopwatches to keep time during races and time-centric events.  This practice often led to varying degrees of legitimacy in results. It’s not until the1932 Olympics in Los Angeles that Omega introduced its Olympics chronograph, made with a fly-back hand, which allowed judges to use an identical, precision-rated piece for timekeeping, thus increasing the accuracy and reliability of results. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Seiko who coordinated a quartz crystal timer with the shot from the starter’s pistol and employed a photo-finish mechanism to get results down to 1/100th of a second accuracy. Creating this technology for the Olympics helped Seiko later invent the quartz wristwatch in 1969 — a technological milestone for society at large.

This year marked Omega’s 28th time as the Official Timekeeper of the Olympic Games. Throughout the decades, the brand has pulled out all the stops to become ever more precise and accurate, and have come a long way from the days of the chronographs. The Rio Olympics used 480 timekeepers utilizing state-of-the-art equipment, sensors, electronic starting pistols, detection devices, touchpads in pools resulting from heavy investments into research and development.

The Omega Scan’O’Vision Myria camera is one of the innovations that were introduced this year. The camera captures 10,000 images per second in the photo finish. The brand also developed a four-cell Photocell Technology system that tracks body stance and movements for use in determining track winners, and a new Archery Targeting System that calculates the arrow’s distance from the center point with an accuracy of 0.2mm – more than the human eye can detect.

The ancient martial art, Taekwondo, has even embraced technology.  The point system technology was dependent on assessment from referees, often resulting in complaints from athletes and officials. In the 2012 London Games, they wore vests fitted with sensors. At Rio this year, the fighters also wore magnetized socks and headgear equipped with impact sensors that recorded every kick to the head. 

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Innovations in Broadcasting
The Olympics made broadcasting history in 1936 when it became the first ever televised sports event. Approximately 150,000 people in viewing rooms located in Berlin and Potsdam watched 72 hours of black and white, medium definition live broadcasts of the Berlin games.  The 1960 Olympics were the first Olympics to be broadcast live across Europe, the1964 Games was the first to reach a worldwide audience – and in color, the 2008 Olympics witnessed the first-ever High Definition Broadcast of the Games to 4.7 billion people, and at the 2012 Olympics BBC launched 24 HD television channels to broadcast every since event.

Instead of 24HD television channels, this year BBC provided the same experience via online live streaming. However, they were not the only ones providing live streaming: Google sent 15 YouTube stars to the games to capture the mood in Brazil albeit not as comprehensive as BBC’s online coverage. NBC broadcasted hundreds of hours of coverage in ultra high definition, known as 4k, which features four times the pixels of regular high definition. However, there was a 24-hour time delay considering the processing time required to produce the footage, and viewers needed a 4K-equipped TV to watch.  The BBC tested 4K behind closed doors, not making it available to the public, while Japan’s NHK recorded in Super High-Vision, that’s 8k – 16 times as many pixels as regular HD.  Since regular televisions are not able to display 8K video yet, they aired the footage at public broadcasting centers around Tokyo. Their aim is to build the technology’s profile ahead of the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

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Since the 2012 London Olympics, there has been an explosion in drone technology in TV. This year BBC partnered with Olympics Broadcasting Services to provide international broadcasters with coverage of rowing and some other sports with drone cameras to avoid distorted images and provide more ‘side-on’ cameras. Getty Images and Associated Press utilized myriad robot cameras to capture the Games at every angle imaginable. Some of the most stunning pictures captured allowed viewers a fresh angle of swimming contests where the cameras were beneath the surface of the water. Samsung also partnered with Olympics Broadcasting Services to generate around 85 hours of programming for Samsung Gear VR users from the Games in virtual reality, including the opening and closing ceremonies. 

Wearables and Gadgets for Athletes

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There is no doubt that the stellar performances by the athletes were a result of years spent preparing for the games. Wearable trackers have been around since before the 2012 London Olympics, but there have been vast improvements in tracking and analytic software making wearables and trackers an integral part of training for many Olympic athletes. The wearables are significantly more advanced than the ones available to consumers as they run advanced algorithms and spit out indescribable quantities of data. For example, the US cycling team wore Solos augmented reality glasses, which started off as a Kickstarter campaign. The glasses feature a heads-up display showing the cyclists key data during training, including heart rate, speed, time, elevation, and other information in real-time. The US Women’s volleyball team trained wearing a VERT jump monitor around their waists to calculate their jump heights and counts to help prevent injury. 

In the boxing ring, Canadian and US fighters trained with Hykso, a sensor that calculates the amount of punches being thrown, as well as the types and speeds of those punches.  It is worn inside the fighter’s wraps and uses two independent accelerometers and 3D motion tracker. Some divers trained with tiny waterproof sensors to let them know how high they jumped and how long it took them to get into their first spin.  Real-time data such as this assists athletes in all disciplines by allowing them to make critical adjustments in their performance.

Even the most advanced distance swimmers tend to lose track of their lap count. At Rio, digital lap counters were provided by Omega that sat at the bottom of each lane, near the swimmer’s turning point, automatically updating the lap count when a swimmer hit the touchpad on the wall. Swimmers of the 800m and 1500m freestyle competitions, managed to focus more on their own performance. 

Payment Technologies

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Using Near Field Communications (NFC) technology, Visa launched a bracelet and ring that visitors to Rio 2016 were able to use as contactless payment to pay for services and goods at all 4,000 point-of-sale terminals at the Olympic venues. The rings were only provided to the 45 athletes the company sponsored at the Games and do not require the use of battery or recharging. They also are water resistant to a depth of 50 meters, so that even the Visa sponsored swimmers were able to go from pool to payment by simply waving their ring near the NFC card reader. Basically, visitors and athletes at the Olympics venue were able to pay by swiping, tapping, dipping, or clicking.

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What to Expect at Tokyo 2020
The 2020 Games are already preparing for new major technological implementations. Tokyo is preparing for self-driving taxis, facial recognition stadium entry, broadcasting in Super High-Vision, a scoring system that uses 3D lasers to monitor a gymnast’s technique in real-time, and more. Far more advanced tracking devices and gadgets are being prepared for athletes, and of course, there will be new technology advancements that have not been invented. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can’t wait for 2020.

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