Olympic Technology

The Olympics of 2021 has been like no other.  From the perspective of the Olympic Committee, the event was delayed by one year due to the pandemic.  From the perspective of the athletes, the lack of attendees in the stands surely gave their events a different feel.  For the fans, routing from afar, the ubiquitous nature of the internet gave us all a myriad of viewing options and perspectives.  I especially appreciated the commentary provided by Kevin Hart and Snoop Dogg on Peacock which brought a whole new dimension to the event.

Often overlooked in the frenzy associated with the Olympics is the role technology plays.  This year’s Olympics saw the introduction of a multi-camera replay system which allowed the action to be captured from a network of 4K cameras that allowed replay scenes to blend together to give the appearance that the replay camera was floating around the action of interest.  There was a 2D/3D image tracking system that allowed comments such as the athletes name to be tagged to the individual as they competed in their event.  Image analytics and Artificial intelligence served to keep these information tags associated with the athletes despite the number of participants and the level of activity at the event.

Vision analytics and a host of other sensor technologies were utilized to capture biometric data on the athletes at some events so the audience had some feeling for the level of stress these athletes face.  Sensor technology was also used to provide feedback to coaches and in some cases gave an additional level of information to the event judges. 

Less visible were the use of robotics and autonomous vehicles.  The use of robotics were visible on field during some track and field events.  For example, the hammers from the hammer throw event were returned from the field to the throwing platform with small robotic delivery vehicles.  It has been estimated that there were 8-10 specialized robots that assisted in event management and additional units that served as guides and information kiosks for attendees complete with holographic displays.  In addition, there were reportedly 100 autonomous vehicles that served as shuttles for the athletes that ferried them from the airport and between some event venues.  Further, despite not going into commercial service until 2027, there was even a working Maglev in use at the Olympic venue that could travel at speeds more than 374mph.

Image recognition was used at the Olympics as a security screening system that allowed athletes and staff to be quickly identified and unidentified people in secure areas could be easily highlighted for security personnel.  While not a part of the original plan, this same system also served to identify individuals who had come into contact with people who might have been infected with the COVID virus.

For some events there were virtual-reality (VR) experiences that engaged spectators as though the spectators had front row seats for these events.   These VR systems utilized 8K technology in order to provide spectators with an ultra-sharp and clear immersive experience. 

There was also an instant translation technology that could be used by attendees’ cellphones.  This was a high performance system that has been designed to go beyond acting as a translation intermediary and instead created a conversational language interface between people who spoke different languages. 

A number of the buildings on the Olympic campus were equipped with Retrofit technology that sealed the surfaces of the buildings in a way that reduces the buildings CO2 emissions while extending a building’s structural life.

While it was not ready for the Olympic event in 2021, one company had even developed a satellite based system that could create a manmade meteor shower.

As the Olympics drew to a close, it seemed as though there should be an additional round of gold medals awarded for technology’s contribution to the games.  The Academy Awards, long known for the awards associated with entertainment excellence, has seen how technology plays a major role in progressing our understanding of technology and gives awards to recognize technological achievements.  Maybe it is time the Olympic committee should also award gold medals for technological achievements in support sports or the logistics challenges that must be overcome to bring these events to the public.

The Need for Information Networks

The pandemic of 2020 has been difficult to deal with as an immediate crisis and at the same time, it is a learning experience that can be used to make ourselves grow as a society. One of the many lessons that have to be absorbed relates to the nature of information. The COVID-19 virus does not respect geographic or organizational boundaries and that means our efforts to confront the virus have to also transcend organizational boundaries. Unfortunately, historically we have designed our infrastructure systems around organizational hierarchies and made it difficult for information to flow around these hierarchies. For example, when a hospital collects data, it does so in a way that facilitates the operation of that hospital. Electronic Health Record (EHR) systems facilitate data flows between hospitals as but only in prescribed paths that are not easily adapted to meet the needs of a crisis. Information flows have be managed in a more agile fashion if the goal is to allow data to shape our response strategy.
Lacking a coherent information architecture, emergency responders, nursing homes, public safety officials, and other critical workers have been forced to take it upon themselves to manage information flows between organizational entities. While we are thankful for the efforts of these individuals/institutions, it should not have been this difficult to develop a data-drive, coordinated response strategy. We should not be in a situation where different leaders are looking at different data or interpreting the same data differently as they establish policy.
Traditionally when people discuss infrastructure they focus on the highway system, airports, and shipyards. Only recently have been begun to consider the Internet a critical part of our infrastructure – it seems certain that our response to COVID would have been even more stunted had we not embraced this expanded definition. However, this pandemic experience calls into question whether we should push further; maybe the acceptance of data connectivity as infrastructure demonstrates an insufficient appreciation for the true need. Perhaps, information exchanges should be included in our understanding of critical infrastructure. Such information exchanges go beyond linking data producers with data consumers to provide a context to the enabled exchanges. If these information exchanges had been in place prior to the pandemic, data consumers would receive data with an understanding of what that data represents. It is that contextual information that allows simple binary data to become valued information that enables the decision making we need.