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Game changer: The first Olympic games in the cloud

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Game changer: The first Olympic games in the cloud


Hosted at an unprecedented time due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 Summer Olympics (branded as Tokyo 2020, held in 2021, and officially called Games of the XXXII Olympiad) will be remembered for not just the extraordinary performances of the athletes, but also for being one of the most technologically advanced Games ever hosted.

Cloud technology was used for the first time at the Olympics and, as a technologist, I’m thrilled to see cloud technologies playing an instrumental role in driving the digital transformation of the Games. The cloud infrastructure enabled innovative technology applications, so the Games could successfully overcome many of the hurdles put in place by the pandemic while creating a new foundation for how the Olympic Games—and other major sporting events—will be broadcast, organized, and engage with fans in the future. Needless to say, we are already excited about the opportunities that cloud technology will unlock in future Olympiads.

The biggest technological change since satellite transmission

By way of example of how cloud technology revolutionized Tokyo 2020, we should look at one of the most important components—the global broadcast community serving millions of viewers. The Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) produced more than 9,500 hours of content during the Games, 30% more than during Rio 2016, and with some of the content in 8K for the first time. This year in Tokyo, when no spectators were allowed on-site, the role of broadcasters became even more essential for the Games and global fans. 

By collaborating with OBS to support service delivery for rights-holding broadcasters (RHBs) for the very first time, a robust and secure cloud platform called OBS Cloud offered new models for content delivery to drive operational efficiency and greater agility. Operating entirely in the cloud and demonstrating the tremendous flexibility that the technology offers, OBS Cloud was designed to drive real transformation in the media industry and to prepare it for all the opportunities presented by the digital era.

With the pandemic preventing fans from attending the Games, it was imperative that broadcasters globally had access to high-quality content that could be distributed across multiple platforms to help share the drama and the emotion of the Games. To that end, during Tokyo 2020, up to 9,000 short-form content clips were produced by the OBS Content+ crew to help enhance RHB coverage. The clips could be accessed by the RHBs’ digital and social media teams from any location in the world to supplement their own Olympic coverage. This technology enabled broadcasters to cover the Games in a more cost-effective, secure, and flexible way, from any location in the world, ensuring a steady and consistent flow of broadcast content throughout the Games, much to the delight of millions of fans hungry for a slice of the action!

It is easy to understand why this broadcast development excited Yiannis Exarchos, the OBS chief executive officer. In his view, the partnership with Alibaba Cloud has transformed how the Olympic Games were broadcast to the widest possible audience. He reflected on it being “the biggest technological change in the broadcasting industry for more than half a century since the introduction of satellite transmission.” That’s a remarkable landmark, given that satellite transmission was introduced to Olympic broadcast coverage for the first time as far back as 1964.

Also used as part of post-production workflow, the OBS had used the Content+ platform for remote editing and standards conversion, a feature that will be extended as a service to the RHBs for future Olympics.

Protected by the cloud—ensuring staff are safe

Of course,event organizers and working staff are central to the delivery of the Games, and Tokyo 2020 provided its own challenges for them due to the extreme summer heat. To illustrate the risks that Games workers faced, more than 8,000 people in Japan were taken to hospitals suffering from heatstroke symptoms between July 19 and 25 this year, while Tokyo 2020 officially kickstarted on July 23.  

I believe technology can help respond effectively to critical situations like this. That’s why we introduced a cloud-based solution to help reduce the risk of getting heatstroke for the onsite working staff exposed to the weather. Through an intelligent in-ear device, the technology helped keep track of staffers’ body temperature and heart rate. Based on this information and the surrounding heat index (including temperature, humidity, and direct or radiant sunlight), a cloud-based system identified the level of heatstroke risk in real time. Alerts were then sent to staff exposed to a high level of risk, along with recommended precautionary measures—such as drinking more water—to reduce the chances of getting heatstroke.

The innovation that was well-received by Hidemasa Nakamura, chief of the Main Operations Centre of the Tokyo Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG). Perhaps even more importantly, it was well-received by Games workers; as it turned out, Tokyo 2020 was reported to be one of the hottest Olympic Games in history.

Ongoing engagement with fans

Regretfully, the pandemic prevented global fans from being present at the Games. But technology can always play a positive role in addressing challenges. Last year, we spent significant time working with TOCOG on a digital remote fan engagement program called “Share the Passion.” Leveraging the cloud and digital editing technology, this fantastic project encouraged sports fans globally to support their favorite teams and athletes on a more personal level, wherever the fan or the team is based. It took advantage of AI-powered technology to aggregate real-time videos uploaded by fans on social media platforms, and broadcast them in venues to deliver cheers, support, and motivation for the athletes. You can imagine the excitement that this innovative solution provided, while projecting high-energy, positive vibes among fans and athletes alike with the audience’s cheers filling the arena.

Connection is irreplaceable, and Olympic Games are one of the best examples of connectivity between fans and athletes, different generations, and sports communities across borders. Holding true to this value, we created our first Cloud Pin, a cloud-based digital pin designed for broadcast and media professionals working relentlessly to cover the Games for all of us. The wearable digital device enables the contact-free exchange of information, and was designed to help media professionals working at the International Broadcasting Centre and Main Press Centre to connect with each other and exchange social media handles in a safe and interactive manner. Worn either as a badge or attached to a lanyard, it marries the convention of swapping contact details with real-time, cloud-based convenience.

Other exciting initiatives further encouraged fan and audience participation. For instance, the IOC launched The Olympic Store on Alibaba’s e-commerce platform Tmall. In addition to being a global store for fans seeking official Olympic-branded merchandise, it also acts as an information portal to help keep fans up to date with all the latest Olympic news and information. It’s a place where retail and commerce merge to further delight sports fans, while taking the Games into a new era of fan participation.

Unleashing athletes’ full potential

Other beneficiaries of cloud technology—and many would say the most important—were the athletes themselves, through a technology called 3D Athlete Tracking (3DAT).

In collaboration with Intel, 3DAT gives audiences professional insights into athletes’ performance as it happens. Without the need for motion-tracking sensors, 3DAT leverages standard video, AI, and computer vision to extract over 20 points in 3D on the athlete’s body, transforming those data into rich visualizations to enhance broadcasters’ storytelling for key events.

Looking ahead to even more exciting sporting experiences

During our first Summer Olympics, we are pleased to have taken our sponsorship role to a new level that goes beyond the traditional commercial package. As an exclusive worldwide partner for cloud services, we are honored to provide a new cloud-based foundation for how the Games were broadcast and operated in many ways. Similarly, we believe that the cloud will play an important role in reshaping the experience of how major sporting events would be broadcast, organized, and shared with fans in the future. We are proud of the role we played in helping Tokyo 2020 to reshape the sports and broadcast industry in an unprecedented way. And we are not stopping there; Tokyo 2020 was just the start of the digitalization journey of the Olympic Games.

This content was produced by Alibaba Cloud. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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The Download: a long covid app, and California’s wind plans

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The Download: a long covid app, and California’s wind plans


1 The Twitter Files weren’t the bombshell Elon Musk billed them as 
His carelessness triggered the harassment of some of Twitter’s content moderators, too. (WP $)
+ The files didn’t violate the First Amendment, either. (The Atlantic $)
+ Hate speech has exploded on the platform since he took over. (NYT $)
+ Journalists are staying on Twitter—for now. (Vox)
+ The company’s advertising revenue isn’t looking very healthy. (NYT $)

2 Russia is trying to freeze Ukrainians by destroying their electricity 
It’s the country’s vulnerable who will suffer the most. (Economist $)
+ How Ukraine could keep the lights on. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Crypto is at a crossroads
Investors, executives, and advocates are unsure what’s next. (NYT $)
+ FTX and the Alameda Research trading firm were way too close. (FT $)
+ It’s okay to opt out of the crypto revolution. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Taylor Swift fans are suing Ticketmaster
They’re furious they weren’t able to buy tickets in the botched sale last month. (The Verge)

5 The internet is having a midlife crisis
What is it for? And more importantly, who is it for? (Slate $)
+ Tim Berners-Lee wanted the internet to have an ‘oh, yeah?’ button. (Slate $)

6 We need a global deal to safeguard the natural world
COP15, held this week in Montreal, is our best bet to thrash one out. (Vox)
+ Off-grid living is more viable these days than you may think. (The Verge)

7 What ultra-dim galaxies can teach us about dark matter  
We’re going to need new telescopes to seek more of them out. (Wired $)
+ Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has some big plans for space. (Reuters)
+ A super-bright satellite could hamper our understanding of the cosmos. (Motherboard)
+ Here’s how to watch Mars disappear behind the moon. (New Scientist $)

8 An elite media newsletter wants to cover “power, money, and ego.”
It promises unparalleled access to prolific writers—and their audiences. (New Yorker $)
+ How to sign off an email sensibly. (Economist $) 

9 The metaverse has a passion for fashion 👗
Here’s what its best-dressed residents are wearing. (WSJ $)

10 We’ve been sending text messages for 30 years 💬
Yet we’re still misunderstanding each other. (The Guardian)

Quote of the day

“There is certainly a rising sense of fear, justifiable fear. And I would say almost horror.”

—Pamela Nadell, director of American University’s Jewish Studies program, tells the Washington Post she fears that antisemitism has become normalized in the US, in the light of Kanye West’s recent comments praising Hitler.

The big story

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California’s coming offshore wind boom faces big engineering hurdles

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California’s coming offshore wind boom faces big engineering hurdles


Research groups estimate that the costs could fall from around $200 per megawatt-hour to between $58 and $120 by 2030. That would leave floating offshore wind more expensive than solar and onshore wind, but it could still serve an important role in an overall energy portfolio. 

The technology is improving as well. Turbines themselves continue to get taller, generating more electricity and revenue from any given site. Some research groups and companies are also developing new types of floating platforms and delivery mechanisms that could make it easier to work within the constraints of ports and bridges. 

The Denmark-based company Stiesdal has developed a modular, floating platform with a keel that doesn’t drop into place until it’s in the deep ocean, enabling it to be towed out from relatively shallow ports. 

Meanwhile, San Francisco startup Aikido Technologies is developing a way of shipping turbines horizontally and then upending them in the deep ocean, enabling the structures to duck under bridges en route. The company believes its designs provide enough clearance for developers to access any US port. Some 80% of these ports have height limits owing to bridges or airport restrictions.

A number of federal, state, and local organizations are conducting evaluations of California and other US ports, assessing which ones might be best positioned to serve floating wind projects and what upgrades could be required to make it possible.

Government policies in the US, the European Union, China, and elsewhere are also providing incentives to develop offshore wind turbines, domestic manufacturing, and supporting infrastructure. That includes the Inflation Reduction Act that Biden signed into law this summer.

Finally, as for California’s permitting challenges, Hochschild notes that the same 2021 law requiring the state’s energy commision to set offshore wind goals also requires it to undertake the long-term planning necessary to meet them. That includes mapping out a strategy for streamlining the approval process.

For all the promise of floating wind, there’s little question that ensuring it’s cost-competitive and achieving the targets envisioned will require making massive investments in infrastructure, manufacturing, and more, and building big projects at a pace that the state hasn’t shown itself capable of in the recent past.

If it can pull it off, however, California could become a leading player in a critical new clean energy sector, harnessing its vast coastal resources to meet its ambitious climate goals.

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How Twitter’s “Teacher Li” became the central hub of China protest information

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How Twitter’s “Teacher Li” became the central hub of China protest information


It’s hard to describe the feeling that came after. It’s like everyone is coming to you and all kinds of information from all over the world is converging toward you and [people are] telling you: Hey, what’s happening here; hey, what’s happening there; do you know, this is what’s happening in Guangzhou; I’m in Wuhan, Wuhan is doing this; I’m in Beijing, and I’m following the big group and walking together. Suddenly all the real-time information is being submitted to me, and I don’t know how to describe that feeling. But there was also no time to think about it. 

My heart was beating very fast, and my hands and my brain were constantly switching between several software programs—because you know, you can’t save a video with Twitter’s web version. So I was constantly switching software, editing the video, exporting it, and then posting it on Twitter. [Editor’s note: Li adds subtitles, blocks out account information, and compiles shorter videos into one.] By the end, there was no time to edit the videos anymore. If someone shot and sent over a 12-second WeChat video, I would just use it as is. That’s it. 

I got the largest amount of [private messages] around 6:00 p.m. on Sunday night. At that time, there were many people on the street in five major cities in China: Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Wuhan, and Guangzhou. So I basically was receiving a dozen private messages every second. In the end, I couldn’t even screen the information anymore. I saw it, I clicked on it, and if it was worth posting, I posted it.

People all over the country are telling me about their real-time situations. In order for more people not to be in danger, they went to the [protest] sites themselves and sent me what was going on there. Like, some followers were riding bikes near the presidential palace in Nanjing, taking pictures, and telling me about the situation in the city. And then they asked me to inform everyone to be cautious. I think that’s a really moving thing.

It’s like I have gradually become an anchor sitting in a TV studio, getting endless information from reporters on the scene all over the country. For example, on Monday in Hangzhou, there were five or six people updating me on the latest news simultaneously. But there was a break because all of them were fleeing when the police cleared the venue. 

On the importance of staying objective 

There are a lot of tweets that embellish the truth. From their point of view, they think it’s the right thing to do. They think you have to maximize the outrage so that there can be a revolt. But for me, I think we need reliable information. We need to know what’s really going on, and that’s the most important thing. If we were doing it for the emotion, then in the end I really would have been part of the “foreign influence,” right? 

But if there is a news account outside China that can record what’s happening objectively, in real time, and accurately, then people inside the Great Firewall won’t have doubts anymore. At this moment, in this quite extreme situation of a continuous news blackout, to be able to have an account that can keep posting news from all over the country at a speed of almost one tweet every few seconds is actually a morale boost for everyone. 

Chinese people grow up with patriotism, so they become shy or don’t dare to say something directly or oppose something directly. That’s why the crowd was singing the national anthem and waving the red flag, the national flag [during protests]. You have to understand that the Chinese people are patriotic. Even when they are demanding things [from the government], they do it with that sentiment. 

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