From Athens to Augmented Reality: How the Olympics Viewing Experience Has Evolved – and What Crazy Tech to Expect in 2018


I’m a millennial, born right at the start of 1990. Growing up, I always imagined that the 2000s would be a time of tremendous technological advances. Of course there’s your flying cars, your robot housekeepers, and your travel by personal jetpack. And I always imagined that holographic entertainment would be ubiquitous. (Can you tell I watched a lot of Star Wars and Star Trek as a kid?)

Though we’re not quite there yet with those advances, some might say my dream of holographic entertainment is not that far off. And the coming 2018 Winter Olympics might just be the first major media event to make extensive use of technological innovations, promising to deliver the most immersive, interactive, and seemingly futuristic Olympic Games yet.

The Olympics Aren’t Watched on Just TV Anymore

The spectacle that is the Olympics occurs once every two-ish years, with millions of people worldwide tuning in to watch the games – most of them on television. But as our preferred methods of consuming media and entertainment evolve on pace with technological innovations, sporting events must adapt, and the Olympics are no exception.

TV viewership of the 2016 Summer Olympics was lower than in previous years, though when other entertainment platforms were factored in, overall viewership remained comparable. Obviously, fans are still interested in watching the games, but there’s substantial demand to view media through online means other than television – on devices that are omnipresent and convenient, such as phones, tablets, and VR equipment – and with more interactivity.

This creates a technological challenge for host nations and broadcasters, but also some unique opportunities.

As our methods of consuming media and entertainment evolve on pace with tech innovation, sporting events must adapt, and the Olympics are no exception.

The Evolution of Watching the Olympics: From Ancient Stadiums to Virtual Reality

From their start in ancient Greece to their “modern” return in 1896, the Olympics could only be viewed if you were in attendance (you know…physically). And even then, the games couldn’t be watched as easily or by as many people as they are today. (Stadiums have come a long way). And it took another 68 years before the games were broadcast to a global audience.

Watching the Olympics in a Pre-Connected World

1936

Though the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany were broadcast on TV, viewers had to be fairly local – the black-and-white closed-circuit broadcast was only viewable by athletes in the Olympic village and to the public in 25 “viewing rooms” in Berlin and the nearby cities of Leipzig and Potsdam.

1956

TV viewership was similarly limited to local areas until 1956, when the Winter Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy were broadcast internationally to a handful of European countries. For the first time, the unique needs of television were considered when building the venue for the games, with stands built to minimize the effect of the sun on cameras.

1960 olympics in rome
1960 Olympics in Rome (Photo: Society of Fellows of the American Academy in Rome)

1960s

The 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California marked the U.S. debut of televising the Olympics – and inspired a concept still used in sports today. When officials could not determine if a skier missed a gate in the men’s slalom, they asked CBS if they could review the tape, leading to the concept of instant reply.

Though the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy were broadcast live across Europe, coverage in North America was a little more time-consuming and convoluted. The games were taped and edited in Rome, then transported to Paris to be copied before being flown overseas to the U.S., Canada, and Mexico for broadcast. Despite the lengthy journey, many of the events were broadcast on the same day they were filmed. (Hats off to those editors!)

In comparison, international telecasting was a breeze in 1964 thanks to the Syncom 3, the first geostationary communication satellite. Just under six hours of black-and-white coverage were beamed to the U.S. from Tokyo, Japan.

The 1968 Olympics debuting the first coverage in color from Mexico City.

Technology Brings Home the Gold in the 21st Century

2004

The internet made major waves shortly after the turn of the century, and broadcasters began to take advantage of its rising popularity by providing online video coverage of the 2004 Summer Olympics (though access to the coverage was restricted based on a viewer’s geographic location).

2008

Just four years later, at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, thousands of hours of Olympic Games coverage were made available online. This also marked the first year the Olympics were broadcast in high-definition, making great use of the new technology.

2010

In 2010, the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada used more than 285 kilometers of fiber-optics to help facilitate the broadcast to more than “3 billion viewers” – far more people than could ever attend the games in person (in fact almost half the population of Earth).

Countless vendors and technologies collaborated to keep viewers informed and engaged in an event. In contrast to the ancient games where attendees could only muse about the speed and dexterity of their favored athletes, the Vancouver venue used sensors to detect and transmit such information as an athlete came skiing down a mountain. A Cisco network allowed NBC to edit footage in real-time both on-site and at their home studio, a feat that required extraordinary amounts of bandwidth to transmit “gigabyte-sized files.” Viewers were able to watch and manipulate this content on a variety of devices – not just TVs – and to stream on those devices using Microsoft Silverlight.

2014

In 2014, NBC Universal invested in a number of technologies to improve its broadcasts. The studios underwent a makeover with more real estate devoted to screens that could display virtual graphics to explain details of specific sports and events. Data such as an athlete’s speed or a simulated course could be shown while a host demonstrated likely scenarios or the science at play. LED floors were installed to bring more energy to the broadcast and encourage the host to move around to highlight different aspects of the games.

Even with all that tech, the IOC, broadcasters like NBC, and vendors must continually adapt to the growing and changing technological demands of Olympic viewers and fans.

The 2018 Olympics – a Showcase for Emerging Media Tech

The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea promise to be a dazzling showcase of some sweet, sweet tech.

South Korea is well-known for its mastery of all things tech, and the country intends to demonstrate that in Pyeongchang later this year. South Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT, or information and communication technologies, will focus on five areas of technology during the 2018 Winter Olympics.

What should viewers expect for the 2018 Olympics?

The goal, according to the Ministry of Science and ICT, is for viewers to experience the games as if they’re actually watching in Pyeongchang. It’s a tall order, but it might not be that far-fetched.

A 5G network will provide the bandwidth and speeds needed to transmit high-quality content on demand – exactly the support needed to broadcast in ultra high-definition (UHD) and allow access to rich virtual and augmented reality environments.

Intel will use the 2018 Winter Olympics as a showcase for the capabilities of 5G and its True VR technology. True VR will allow viewers at home to manipulate camera angles and “engage in the content.” Numerous camera pods will create a 360-degree VR environment of 30 events and over 50 hours of coverage, which is then stitched together and broadcast either live or on-demand. Viewers can even “hear natural sound captured at each camera location” as they watch VR content, or feel transported to the slopes of Pyeongchang as a favorite athlete descends at breakneck speed.

Drones, of course, will be present at this year’s Olympic Games. Already widely-used in sporting events, drones continue to grow more useful and popular. They will be flying through the air to capture coverage and provide detailed measurements and analysis, in addition to creating visual spectacles and shows.

Studios will continue to make extensive use of emerging technology. NBC Sports’ Pyeongchang studio will use an LED wall to show information and data about the athletes and sports, or to maintain the atmosphere of the Winter Olympics by cycling through various landscapes.

With all this tech in place, viewers will be able to tune into the games however they see fit or find most convenient – or immersive.

While There’s No Holo-Olympics Yet…

…innovations are continuing to deliver the most immersive and “on-the-ground” feeling possible. That’s not entirely surprising, of course. With how many years pass between games, the way we consume media can change drastically, and it’s important that the Olympic Games are available to a global audience.

However you’re watching the Olympics this year – sitting on your couch with your 4K TV, under the blankets on your tablet, or in the office hiding a livestream in a window behind the TPS report you’re supposed to be filling out – the experience will likely feel almost as if you’re in Pyeongchang yourself (except hopefully warmer).

  • Rita

    Excellent article. Well researched. I am looking forward to the olympic experience this year!