Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Handing out the hi-tech golds

Original Article

For the technology world, the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing have been as much a display of the latest in gadgetry as they have been a showcase for athletic excellence.

From the communications infrastructure that streamed hundreds of gigabytes of information every second, to the ultrasonically welded space-age swimsuits that sliced bodies through the water faster than ever before, technology permeated every aspect of the Games.

Companies such as Lenovo, the Chinese computer maker, and Cisco Systems, the American networking company, use the Olympics in a similar way as car manufacturers when it comes to Formula One.

As a high-stakes hotbed for innovation and experimentation, it does not get much better than this.

For Olympic athletes, technology boosts performance and reduces the physical impact of gruelling competition. For organisers, it makes running one of the world’s most challenging logistical events a little bit easier. And for billions of fans across the world, and the media companies bringing them coverage, it makes things possible that were previously inconceivable.

The most widely reported technology story of the Games was the Beijing Organising Committee’s decision to use computer graphics, rather than real footage, to depict the spectacular fireworks that flowered across the ancient capital during the opening ceremony.

But a more impressive technical story was taking place in the background of this televisual feat. NBC, the broadcast partner of the Olympics for the US, was doing something nobody had ever done before, and in the process was changing the way major events will be televised long into the future.

To understand the challenge facing a broadcaster such as NBC when covering the Olympics, think logistically. At any given moment, there are up to 40 different events taking place, each with its own visual quirks. All require camera coverage and production support. Then, each live camera feed needs to be transmitted and edited into packages, complete with commentary, live-updated scorecards and timers, background information and on-screen graphics.

And then you need to get these 40 feeds, and edit them into one seamless package that lets viewers see the most important moments of each event as they are happening. Plus, you need to upload content to the internet, beam it to mobile phones and archive it for later use.

Such an operation requires hundreds of staff, all of whom need to be housed in the host city in makeshift broadcasting studios. Or at least it did until 2008, when NBC kept almost all of its production staff in the US.

By leasing a massive data pipeline between China and the US, and streaming footage in both high- and low-quality formats, the network achieved what Craig Lau, the head of information technology at its Olympics unit, calls “the holy grail of digital video”.

The low-resolution footage raced across the Pacific in quick bursts, letting production staff choose the best shots, camera angles and events to mix together into the telecast. Once chosen, staff could request the high-quality footage to be picked up, maximising the utilisation of scarce transmission bandwidth.

“We are making broadcast history, executing the creation, management and distribution of digital video in a way that’s never been achieved before,” said Tony Bates, a senior vice president at Cisco, which provided the transmission technology.

The low-quality footage flooded the internet, where a generation weaned on video websites such as YouTube expect fast, live streaming to be prioritised over higher quality. At the same time, the Olympics were a showcase for high-definition television, the new digital standard that is gaining traction in the US, which will switch off all analogue broadcasting in 2009.

The result was that NBC broadcast more than 3,600 hours of Olympic footage, more than all its previous Olympic telecasts combined.

For Lenovo, the Chinese computer maker that acquired IBM’s personal computer business in 2004, the Olympics were both a test of its machines and a coming-out party for one of China’s most ambitious international companies.

As a worldwide partner of the Games and its official computing equipment partner, Lenovo deployed a network of almost 40,000 computers, servers, digital screens and peripherals across the 53 Olympic venues in seven Chinese cities.

“The IT system for these Olympic Games is the largest, in terms of both size and complexity, in Olympic history,” said Jean-BenoĆ®t Gauthier, the chief technology officer of the International Olympic Committee.

A team of almost 600 Lenovo engineers – an elite squad selected from more than 12,000 applicants – worked around the clock to keep the complex web of machines running at full capacity.

Similar stories of vast technical efforts surround the Olympic timing systems, which have been provided by Omega of Switzerland since 1932.

But when it comes to the sporting action, the impact of new technology was most clearly seen in the swimming tournament, where 25 world records were broken, more than in the previous two Olympic Games combined.

Although athletic excellence was central to the unprecedented achievements of the meeting, most onlookers also credited two revolutionary developments.

The new LZR Racer bodysuit developed by the swimwear maker Speedo was worn in 23 record-breaking swims. And of the 77 world records set since its release in February, 71 were broken by athletes wearing Speedo’s controversial new product.

The LZR uses high-frequency sound waves to bond the suit’s parts together, removing the need for stitches, an aerodynamic nuisance. It is made of a series of advanced composite materials that glide through water with greater efficiency, and is designed to hold the body of the swimmer in a tighter, faster pose.

Less glamorous than the skin-tight bodysuits, but equally as important, was the pool itself. The designers used physics and geometry to guide the shape of a pool that is both wider and deeper, with custom-built sluices on its edges to quickly quell the waves left by the swimmers.

The design will be replicated in other facilities around the world. Athletes and coaches said time and again that it was the fastest pool they had ever swum in.

It was in this stretch of water that the American 4x100 metre relay team smashed the event’s previous world record by 3.99 seconds, a mammoth margin in a sport often decided in tenths of a second. Six of the eight teams in the final broke the previous world record, set at the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Canada two years earlier.

When the next Olympics take place in London in 2012, records are likely to fall like dominoes thanks to a transformative piece of gadgetry. Carbon nanotubes could create a racing bicycle half the weight of the current ones; technologically advanced contact lenses could help shooters spot their targets far better than the naked eye does today. And the best part? You will be watching it all in crisp high-definition on your mobile, laptop, television or whatever the hottest new gadget of 2012 happens to be.

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