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Winter Olympics cloud technology sets new record


From room to screen

More importantly, the Winter Olympics have increased their use of cloud technology to broadcast events around the world. Traditionally, broadcasting the Olympics to people’s screens required expensive international telecommunication optical circuits, as well as large news and broadcast crews that had to be flown into the host city. But the Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) did things differently. For the first time, during the Winter Olympics, broadcasters were able to receive live footage via a public cloud, a more agile option that costs a fraction of the price of other transmission methods. Live Cloud is part of OBS Cloud, a joint broadcast solution from OBS and Alibaba that was launched during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and adopted as a standard service during Beijing 2022.

“Most organizations have been forced to perform production and distribution workflows from home and during the crisis are relying on cloud services to support their new remote production,” says Raquel Rozados, Director of broadcasting services at OBS. Compared to the 2018 Winter Olympics held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the Beijing Winter Games saw a nearly 40% reduction in on-site broadcast staff.

For the first time, broadcasters could remotely edit Olympic sports footage on the cloud, creating social media-friendly clips from real-time live sessions. Multi-camera playback systems were used for freeze-frame slow-motion playbacks from a wide range of angles, creating an immersive viewing experience. OBS says it has produced more than 6,000 hours of high definition content, made available to more than 20 broadcasters around the world. While processing such a huge amount of ultra-high definition footage would previously have posed a significant challenge for broadcasters, the cloud has made delivery and editing much more manageable.

The ability to download high-quality footage from the cloud saved broadcasters the cost of flying crews of reporters, producers, cameramen and equipment to Beijing to cover the event. That was just as well, as covid-19 regulations made it difficult to travel, which the International Olympic Committee has named the biggest contributor to the event’s carbon footprint. “Overall, and beyond just applying cloud technologies to broadcasting, migrating core Games systems to the cloud is an important step forward in making games more efficient and sustainable,” Zhang said.

Inclusive Virtual Reality

For attendees separated by geography or pandemic movement restrictions, cloud technology has ensured they are not left behind. Cloud ME— a real-time communication platform — provided booths in which participants could project full-body images into other booths. Athletes competing in Beijing without accompanying family members were able to use Athlete Moments, a cloud-based app to connect with loved ones from the venue.

When Chinese fans watching the Winter Olympics fell in love with mascot Bing Dwen Dwen and wanted to acquire soft toys or keychains, there would have been no one better to talk to than the virtual influencer Dong Dong, a 22-year-old Beijinger who literally lived in the cloud.

Created with Alibaba’s AI technology to display human gestures and even dance moves, Dong Dong’s job was to engage with a younger generation of tech-savvy viewers, answering their questions, providing fun facts about the Games and promoting official merchandise. “Dong Dong can look, talk and act like a young girl with a lively personality and engaging charm,” Zhang explains. Between February 4 and February 20, its live streams were seen by more than two million viewerswith a fanbase of over 100,000.

Zhang points out that a virtual influencer like Dong Dong is not meant to replace real influencers who regularly work with brands and companies. But they give brands the ability to customize exactly the type of influencer they want to interact with in their market. “Many of these virtual influencers have their own personality, charisma, and particular styles of interacting with the target audience, making them a good choice for retail brands or event planners,” he says.

A more efficient and sustainable way?

This peek behind the curtain at the Winter Olympics shows the high stakes of technology in keeping big events going. “One of the main challenges is to ensure that we have a secure, resilient, robust and reliable cloud infrastructure that can run all workloads smoothly and securely,” says Zhang. With organizers working on planning and programming, broadcasters waiting for footage, and fans shopping online, any outages or service interruptions could spell disaster. Fortunately, this was not Alibaba’s first experience. Zhang points to the company’s experience with other major events, such as Alibaba’s Global Shopping Festival, which is held on November 11 every year.

In recent years, other sporting events have also moved, in one way or another, to the cloud. During the 2018 World Cup, 20% of short videos from the event were produced by artificial intelligence, using Alibaba’s Cloud intelligent video production solution to quickly generate match highlights. And over the past two years, the covid-19 pandemic has pushed event organizers large and small towards digital transformation and new technology-driven solutions, a trend that is unlikely to stop even if pandemic restrictions are lifted.

To meet the anticipated demand, technology companies have been working on cloud applications with modeling capabilities. One of them is Alibaba Cloud Location Simulation Service (VSS). Although not used at the Beijing Winter Olympics, VSS integrates cloud computing, artificial intelligence and computer graphics for digital venue modeling and operations simulation. By simulating physical sports venues and the activities that will take place there, event organizers will no longer need to be in the actual venues to get a good sense of the space.

“Cloud technology can play a key role in helping event organizers plan,” says Zhang. By leveraging cloud technology to reduce the amount of physical infrastructure needed and enable remote working with lighter on-site teams, these large events could be more inclusive, efficient and sustainable.

“We believe in the future, we will push the boundaries of technology even further to create exciting mixed reality,” he says. “Digital personas or virtual influencers will find new ways to engage with their audience through immersive experiences or metaverse-style settings. And cloud-based digital simulation of venue and operations can make planning big events a “green” business.

This article was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not authored by the editorial staff of MIT Technology Review.