Live Event Technology and the London Olympics

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Type: Article, Report or Whitepaper

Topics: Live Events

Date: June 2012

By Dan Daley, Special to InfoComm International®

Want to get an idea of what clients and event planners will be asking for next fall? Look no further than the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Be advised: Within days, you may be getting a call from someone looking for something similar.

“No matter how incredible a live effect might be, someone sees it and, at some point, wants it for their event,” sighs Jim Engelmann, director of sales for the Creative Show Services Division of AV systems integrator AVI-SPL. “The Olympics tend to reset the bar every four years in terms of live events special effects.”

Overstatement you say? Engelmann points to the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a good example of heightened expectations. Remember the rolling video red carpet that undulated (electronically) under hundreds of dancers and actors. Engelmann says it’s often requested, but, to his knowledge, never replicated.

This year’s Olympics won’t be any different, and they’ll up the game (pun intended) in terms of scale. With events scheduled at between 90 and 100 venues, including 34 competition venues across the U.K. and as many as 50 ancillary sites, such as training facilities and ticketing booths, the London Olympics will be witnessed live and on television and/or streamed online by at least a billion people — and some of them are going to get ideas.

The biggest problem with trying to emulate Olympic-scale spectacular effects, says Engelmann, is cost, which in the case of the Olympics is borne in part by the host country’s government. Countries want to make a statement of national prowess, even if it means putting the country on the road to financial ruin (the cost of the 2004 Athens Olympics is often cited as a contributing factor to Greece’s ongoing financial problems). Not to mention the Olympics happen only every four years — and for many countries, only once on their soil — meaning there’s no economy of scale. It’s not like Beijing planners could recoup some of the cost of their live events be doing them same things over and over.

Referring to more “real-world” events, rather than the Olympics, Engelman explains, “The live events special effects you see most often might have begun as one-off propositions, but for whatever reason, enough people wanted them that companies were able to build versions that could be used again and again. They could be taken on the road, thus creating some scale that lowered costs and encouraged wider use.”

No one has yet managed to commoditize Beijing’s rolling red carpet, but another one-time wonder of the AV world — Sony’s JumboTron — originally debuted at a similar one-time event, the Expo ’85 World’s Fair in Tsukuba, Japan. Since then, the JumboTron and its progeny have gone on to become staples of virtually every sports venue on earth, and a regular component of the live touring event circuit. And it was technological adaptation — replacing expensive, cumbersome and inherently frail CRT-based illumination systems with more cost-effective and robust LED one — that helped the super-large screen proliferate.

What You Don’t See

Aside from the spectacular effects, what will it take to put on the London Olympics? Increasingly, Olympic events push the envelope on new technologies.

Englemann says the Olympics increasingly use fiber-optic cabling to transport audio and video around and between venues, and to the massive global broadcasting infrastructure that lines up behind the host broadcaster Olympics Broadcast Services (OBS), which feeds audio and video of the games to the various global rightsholders on site. In London, fully discrete 5.1 surround audio will be transported through an extensive MADI and embedded audio system between the OBS, local control rooms, OBS vans and global broadcast clients including NBC, BBC and CBC.

Moreover, while the OBS’ internal signal routing has been fully digital since the Beijing Olympics in 2008, this year the infrastructure will be extended to all remote field sites and broadcasting trucks, which will be fitted with digital audio consoles and integrated digital routers.

“As little as three years ago, we would have still been using five-wire copper cabling for most of the signal transport,” Englemann says. “In that time, we’ve switched largely to fiber for live events because it’s faster, more cost-effective and better-suited for use with networks.”

Indeed, the London Olympics will be heavily networked. Cisco Systems has even launched a dedicated website about the project that explains some of the challenges and solutions in creating a converged-services network that spans multiple venues ranging from typical sports venues, such as arenas and stadiums, to central-city parks. As the site explains, “Delivering converged services not only requires the integration of IT and communications but also a services-oriented architecture approach to both IT and networks. The best approach was to create several Core PoPs (Points of Presence) connecting the Olympic Park sites to the local PoP and other sites such as Broxbourne, Eton, Hadleigh Park and other more dispersed U.K. venues into their nearest PoP. In essence this creates a network-centric architecture designed to form the base from which any number of services can then be added.”

In all, the network infrastructure, which supports the BT Network, will ultimately connect people in 205 countries, 6,000 employees, 21,800 athletes and team officials, 22,000 media personnel and 70,000 volunteers. And that's over and above the 10 million people connecting to or the 4 billion people watching around the world. The Cisco network infrastructure is capable of transmitting more than 80 gigabits per second — the equivalent of downloading the entire contents of Wikipedia every 5 seconds. Cisco is currently in discussion with BT Openzone regarding the deployment of HD (High Density) Wireless for spectators visiting Olympic Park and also looking into options for monitoring and managing wireless spectrum in and around the games.

Sound and Picture

Audio at the London Olympic venues will likely benefit from another AV technology trend: distributed sound systems, which have proved particularly useful in increasing intelligibility in highly reverberant environments, such as gymnastics and swimming venues. These systems also tend to be zoned and automated, allowing them to be quickly reconfigured for various types of events.

“You’ll have a number of different sports played in the same indoor venues and each one has particular issues like noise levels,” explains Mark Graham, an associate and sound systems designer at Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon and Williams (WJHW), which designed the sound-reinforcement system at Olympic Stadium in Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Games. In 1997, the stadium was converted to Turner Field, home of the Major League Baseball Atlanta Braves. “Automation systems allow for each sport to have its own starting point in terms of EQ and so on, and mix engineers can adjust it from there, depending on the size of the crowd, for each event each day.”

On the video side, while the large-screen display has become a regular part of the AV arsenal in sports venues, they tend to have a different application when it comes to the Olympics. Rather than functioning as the entertainment centers that large screens are for MLB, NBA and NFL stadiums and arenas, the displays used at Olympic venues usually show far more prosaic content, such as results, performance numbers and competitor information.

Ben Aesoph, Daktronics’ regional sales manager for the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, says that Daktronics screens typically display race timing results fed to them from computers operated by Swiss Timing, whose predecessor companies, watchmakers Omega and Longines, began providing timing services for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, or by Seiko, which was the timing data provider for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah. Aesoph says the signal chain for that data is, by nature, as simple and straightforward as possible: Data from Swiss Timing’s cameras and other timing equipment is fed directly to the displays, stopping only at judges’ position for them to approve it.

There are other nuances, as well. The aquatic venues have touchpads on the edge of the pools that swimmers have to touch to register their arrival; these are integrated into the timing data systems whose information ultimately winds up on the displays around the venue. In addition, that same data is sent as a separate feed to the broadcasters of the event so the data that viewers see at home matches what’s delivered by judges and television commentators.

Daktronics provided more than 70 scoreboards for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, from small, indoor, reflective displays to large, outdoor incandescent displays using low-energy lamp/reflector/lens technologies. However, when large displays are used for entertainment applications, such as for the opening and closing ceremonies, they tend to be among the biggest possible with the most cutting-edge technologies of the time, such as the displays in the Atlanta Olympic Stadium, site of the opening and closing ceremonies and track and field events, which were then reconfigured for baseball when the Braves moved in for their 1997 season. (They’ve since been replaced by a new LED video display.)

The Olympics have unique AV requirements, some more or less spectacular than you might find at an NFL game or a newly minted MLB park. In either event, they establish new levels of expectation for event clients. It’s good thing they only happen every four years.

Has your AV company been involved in the 2012 London Olympics? If so, drop us a note and describe your role. You may be featured in a future InfoComm round-up of the AV systems and services that contribute to the Olympic spectacle.