Technology the big winner at Winter Olympics

Beijing's efforts to make the Winter Olympics a smart sports experience include robot chefs cooking meals for athletes, cabins offering journalists high-tech power naps, and more.


Staff members at the National Stadium in Beijing are attracted by a robot powered by artificial intelligence that cleans and disinfects Olympic venues. Photo provided to CHINA DAILY

February 16, 2022

BEIJING – Digitalization showcased as new standards set for the future

An icy river in Beijing was the setting for a special Olympic torch relay as an amphibious robot shaped like a curling stone held a metallic red-and-silver torch.

The robot slid along the ice before plunging into an unfrozen area of the waterway, with the flame burning well underwater as it was passed to another robot.

The second torch was swiftly lit, completing the first-ever robotic underwater Olympic torch relay. The entire process took about eight minutes, with the second robot successfully emerging from the water to pass the torch to a human bearer. The first robot and torch were later recovered from the river.

The futuristic torch ceremony, which took place earlier this month, is just one example of the use of cutting-edge technologies at the ongoing Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

The Chinese capital, the first city in the world to host the summer and winter editions of the Games, has come up with innovative high-tech standards for Beijing 2022, delivering China’s promise to hold a “simple, safe and splendid” event.

The city has gone to great lengths to make the Winter Olympics a smart sports experience.

These efforts include a breathtaking display of artistry mixed with technology at the opening ceremony, robot chefs cooking meals for athletes, cabins offering journalists high-tech power naps, and self-driving cars and smart navigation supported by augmented reality and artificial intelligence, or AI.

Thomas Bach, International Olympic Committee president, said on Feb 6 that the Beijing Winter Olympics have made history by achieving an unprecedented level of digitalization and have set new technology standards for the future.

He made the comments while interacting virtually with journalists at a news center in Beijing through holographic communication technologies developed by Chinese tech company Alibaba.

According to the IOC website, the virtual interaction, supported by a range of sophisticated technology, was projected onto a remote high-definition screen, generating a true-to-life hologram effect. All details were reconstructed in high definition, including detailed facial expressions and the texture of clothing.

Bach said Chinese companies are playing a crucial role in transforming the Olympic Games and leading them into the digital age.

A wide variety of technological applications is on show at the Games as Chinese companies, including heavyweights and startups, constantly experiment with novel ideas and new technologies.

For example, the space giant China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp was responsible for developing the special torches used in the underwater Olympic relay.

The company said that compared with underwater torches overseas that use solid fuel and whose flames cause pollution, those for Beijing 2022 use gaseous fuel that is smokeless and causes no pollution. Numerous design obstacles were overcome to achieve this.

Tian Qiyan, associate research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shenyang Institute of Automation in Liaoning province, who oversaw the project, said the robot relay was also supported by the latest high-precision underwater hovering and positioning technologies.

“Ensuring precise docking between the two robots in icy water, and igniting the second torch’s flame under the water, were the biggest difficulties for the handover-comparable to those for the docking of spacecraft,” Tian said.

Intelligent vehicles

Earlier this month, a self-driving car carried the Olympic torch for the first time in the Games’ history, showcasing China’s ambitions and ability to produce such vehicles.

Developed by information technology giant Baidu, the car carried the torch for about 800 meters on Feb 2 at Shougang Industrial Park in Beijing, which is hosting several Games events.

Wei Dong, vice-president of Baidu’s intelligent driving business group, said, “We prefer to call it a robot because we will increasingly engage with more moving robots in our daily lives.”

At the industrial park, China Unicom, the official telecommunications service provider for Beijing 2022, has built a 5G-enabled intelligent vehicle networking system covering 1 million square meters.

Liu Qi, a senior technical expert at China Unicom’s Smart City Research Institute, said this system supports four types of unmanned vehicles. For example, it can guide an unmanned ferry or delivery vehicle in complex environments where there is a mix of people and vehicles.

Thanks to the integration of 5G technologies and the Beidou Satellite Navigation System, the unmanned vehicles can achieve continuous, high-precision positioning to within 10 centimeters, Liu added.

This is the first systematic use of Level 4 intelligent vehicle networking in an Olympic setting, according to China Unicom. Level 4 autonomy means that a vehicle can operate in most conditions without a human driver.

China Unicom has also equipped all competition venues and stadiums with the 5G network, which enables ultrahigh-definition video transmission, along with virtual reality and augmented reality live broadcasts. The company said it will fully use the opportunity of the Games to increase its international influence.

At the opening ceremony on Feb 4, the potential of many technologies, including 5G, AI and the internet of things, won many admirers by blending perfectly with art to deliver a realistic, dynamic and immersive experience for Chinese and overseas visitors.

Chang Yu, director of the opening and closing ceremonies department for the Beijing 2022 organizing committee, said, “We decided about two years ago that instead of huge crowds, we were going to rely more on modern digital technologies and their ‘chemistry’ with performers.”

The National Stadium, also known as the Bird’s Nest, has undergone an intelligent transformation to host the opening and closing ceremonies. Digital technology is used to operate equipment and for energy management and environmental quality control, providing favorable conditions for the ceremonies.

Chang said, “Inside the Bird’s Nest, we’ve set up digital workstations and rendering workshops for instant visual effect generation, completely upgrading the venue from a traditional structure to a smart stadium.”

Instead of using traditional projection, the entire floor of the stadium is fully equipped with high-definition light-emitting diode, or LED, technology.

The huge LED screen boasts more than 10,000 sq m of display panels, each equipped to make the ceremonies as clear and detailed as possible, according to Chinese display manufacturer BOE, whose technologies are used in the panels.

The company also made the giant LED snowflake in the center of the stadium, which comprises 96 smaller counterparts. The snowflake houses more than 550,000 small LED light bulbs, as the designer wanted it to be a symbol to unite athletes, BOE added.

Visual appeal

At the opening ceremony, performers’ movements were captured in real time by the screens on the stadium floor.

During the “peace dove” part of the ceremony, no matter where the child performers ran, the snow at their feet followed, creating a strong visual appeal. Chang said this was not a pre-designed effect, but the use of “real-time capture, rendering and playback” technology.

Technologies such as AI and 5G have also been widely employed to construct venues. AI giant Megvii used GPS and vision fusion technologies to build a detailed high-precision 3D map of the Bird’s Nest and several other Olympic venues.

Such smart augmented reality navigation can provide an immersive virtual-real fusion effect with accurate positioning and no delays, Megvii said, adding that the technology is not affected by buildings, ice and snow, for example.

Baidu used virtual reality technology for a 3D model of the Shougang ski jump platform, a landmark winter sports venue in Beijing. The model gives spectators an up-close view of athletes’ performances.

AI is also providing more technical support for the Winter Olympics. AI-powered robots clean and disinfect venues, AI sign language “anchors” allow people with impaired hearing to enjoy the excitement of the Games, and robot chefs cook a wide variety of tasty meals.

Some athletes have been surprised to find food delivered to their rooms by robots developed by Chinese tech company Segway-Ninebot. After orders are placed, these devices take elevators and navigate their way from restaurants to competitors’ rooms. They also patrol competition venues as security guards.

Segway-Ninebot said the robots use technology that allows them to operate in precise locations in different environments, as well as algorithms to achieve smooth movement.

High-tech cabins at the Beijing media center also give journalists the chance to catch up on some sleep. The 20 cabins were developed by China’s Keeson Technology Corp, and with a simple scan of their phone media representatives can use them for power naps for up to an hour.

The spacious cabins are equipped with the same type of beds provided for the athletes. Users adjust the position of the beds, which have a massage setting, by using a remote control or their phone.

This month, United States luge athlete Summer Britcher said on a social media platform that the beds’ “zero gravity” mode can produce the “phenomenal” feeling of being in outer space.

A reliable system for broadcasting Olympic events is also key to ensuring that more people enjoy the top-level competition, given that many spectators, especially foreigners, have been unable to attend the Games due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dong Quanwu, director of the research and development department at Beijing International Cloud Broadcasting Technology Co, said traditional broadcasting methods are mostly asset-heavy and require expensive trucks and a large number of production directors.

Many tasks can be accomplished much more easily by using 5G and cloud technologies. A powerful, cloud-based rebroadcasting system means much of the editing work can be done remotely by people in other locations-for example, without the need for a broadcasting vehicle or numerous workers at the scene, Dong said.

On-site reporters now use a small camera or smartphone equipped with a stabilizer to livestream a sports event, thanks to 5G and cloud technologies, Dong added.

Zhang Xiaoyang, a technical manager for the Beijing 2022 organizing committee, said the pandemic has posed many challenges for the Games, but has also produced new opportunities to develop technologies.

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