From place to screen
Most notably, the Olympic Winter Games increased the use of cloud technology to broadcast events globally. Traditionally, bringing the Olympics to people’s screens required expensive international telecommunication optical circuits, as well as big news and broadcast crews, who had to be sent to the host city. But Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) did things differently. For the first time, during the Olympic Winter Games, broadcasters were able to receive live footage through the public cloud – a more agile option that costs a fraction of the cost of other transmission methods. Live Cloud is part of OBS Cloud, a joint broadcast solution of OBS and Alibaba that was initiated during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and adopted as a standard service during the Beijing 2022.
“Most organizations are forced to carry out production and distribution workflows from home and, in times of crisis, rely on cloud services to support their new remote production,” says Raquel Rosados, director of broadcast services at OBS. Compared to the 2018 Winter Olympics held in Pyongyang, South Korea, the Winter Games in Beijing saw a reduction of about 40% in on-site broadcast staff.
For the first time, broadcasters can remotely edit Olympic sports footage on the cloud, creating social media-friendly clips from live sessions in real time. Multi-camera replay systems were used for wide-angle freeze-frame slow-motion playback, giving an immersive viewing experience. OBS says it has produced over 6,000 hours of high-definition content, available to more than 20 broadcasters worldwide. Processing such a large amount of ultra-high-definition footage would have been a significant challenge for broadcasters in the past, as Cloud streamlined delivery and editing.
Being able to download high-quality footage from the cloud meant that the broadcasters saved flying teams of journalists, producers, camera operators and equipment in Beijing to cover the event. It was just as much as traveling the Covid-19 Regulations, which the International Olympic Committee has identified as the largest contributor to the event’s carbon footprint. “Transferring games’ core systems to the cloud is an important step towards making games more efficient and sustainable,” says Zhang.
Content virtual reality
For participants separated by geography or epidemiological movement restrictions, Cloud Technology ensured they were not left out. Cloud ME – a real-time communication platform – provided booths in which participants could present their full body images in other booths. Athletes competing in Beijing without the support of family members were able to use Athlete Moments, a cloud-based application for connecting loved ones from the venue.
When Chinese fans watching the Winter Olympics fell in love with mascot Bing Dwayne Dwayne and wanted to get plush or keyings, the virtual influencer Dong Dong, the 22-year-old Beijinger who lived literally, had no one to talk to. In the cloud
Created to display human-like gestures and dance moves from Alibaba’s AI technology, Dong Dong’s mission was to engage the young tech-savvy generation of Olympic spectators, answer their questions, provide entertaining facts about sports, and promote official merchandise. Zhang says, “Dong Dong can see, speak and act like a young woman with a lively personality and attractive charm. Between February 4 and February 20, its livestream was viewed by over 2 million viewers, with over 100,000 fans.
Zhang insists that virtual influencers like Dong Dong are not meant to replace real-life influencers who regularly work with brands and companies. But they also give brands the option to customize the specific type of influencer they want to interact with in their market. “Many of these virtual influencers have distinctive personalities, charisma and special interaction styles with the target audience, making them suitable for retail brands or event organizers,” he says.
A more efficient, sustainable way forward?
This peek behind the scenes of the Winter Olympics points to a high stakes ride on technology to keep big events going. “One of the main challenges is to ensure that we have a secure, resilient, robust and reliable cloud infrastructure that can handle all workloads easily and securely,” says Zhang. Organizers working on planning and scheduling, broadcasters waiting for footage, and fans shopping online, any outage or reduction in service could be a disaster. Fortunately, this was not Alibaba’s first experience, reflecting Zhang’s experience with other major events, such as Alibaba’s Global Shopping Festival, held on November 11 each year.
In recent years, other sporting events have also changed – one way or another – in the cloud. During the 2018 World Cup, 20% of the short videos of the event were created by Artificial Intelligence, using Alibaba Cloud’s intelligent video production solution to quickly generate match highlights. And in the last two years, the Covid-19 epidemic has pushed organizers of small and large events toward digital transformation and new tech-based solutions, a trend that is unlikely to end even after the epidemic is lifted.
To meet the expected demand, technology companies are working on cloud applications with modeling capabilities. One of them is Alibaba Cloud’s Venue Simulation Service (VSS). Although not used at the Beijing Winter Olympics, VSS integrates cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and computer graphics for on-site digital modeling and simulation of operations. By mimicking physical sports venues and the activities that take place within them, event organizers will no longer need to be in real venues to get a better idea of the space.
“Cloud technology can play a key role in helping event organizers plan,” Zhang says. By using cloud technology to reduce the amount of physical infrastructure required and by allowing remote work with lean teams on site, these larger events can be more inclusive, efficient and sustainable.
“We believe in the future, we will push the boundaries of technology to create an attractive mixed reality,” he says. “Digital individuals or virtual influencers will find new ways to connect with their audiences through immersive experiences or metavers-style settings. And cloud-based digital simulation of venue and operations can turn large event planning into a ‘green’ venture.
This article was created by MIT Technology Review’s Custom Content Arm Insights. It was not written by the editorial staff of MIT Technology Review.