Four years is a preposterously long time in the world of technology. It's difficult to recall the kind of gadgets and gizmos we were using around the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but the smartphone revolution was a mere blob on the horizon, with Android phones still in development and Apple's app store having been launched only a few weeks beforehand.
The media were laughing at the notion of Twitter becoming the "pulse of society", before helping to make it precisely that; Facebook had only just overtaken MySpace in popularity; HD was still considered by most people as an unnecessary extravagance, while 3D televisions were a space-age prospect. If we scale up our personal technological advances since 2008 to an event the size of the Olympics, it immediately becomes clear that London 2012 will be a fearsome technological prospect, as well as a sporting one.
The Olympics has often been an agent for technological change, although the only difference between some events at the Athens Games of 1896 and the corresponding ones at the previous Olympics some 1500 years earlier would have been the introduction of the humble stopwatch.
At the Paris Olympics in 1900, the men's 100m champion, USA's Francis Jarvis, was described as the "winner by one foot" from second placed fellow-countryman Walter Tewksbury, conjuring up an image of a judge crouched at the finishing line with one eye closed and two arms outstretched.
However, Stockholm in 1912 saw photo-finishes introduced – often with lengthy waits for the results – and by the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, a combined camera and chronometer called the Kirby Camera was giving faster, more accurate timings. In 1972, the official tenth-of-second results were replaced by hundredths, and today digital footage capturing more than 1000 pictures per second takes judging to extraordinary levels of precision.
It's those high-definition images that will be the biggest burden on technology infrastructure at the London Olympics. While the footage captured in Beijing totalled more than all the previous Games put together, this year's event will help to usher us fully into the HD era; it is predicted that 90 per cent of the world's data traffic will be taken up with HD video by 2014.
It is a far cry from the 1956 Games in Melbourne, where barely three hours of footage was flown to the US to be shown on a handful of independent TV channels, or even the opening ceremonies from Tokyo in 1964 that the world peered at curiously via a satellite link. "The big thing that's changed between this Games and the last Games in terms of networking is the absolute explosion of video," says Neil Crockett, MD London 2012 at Cisco Systems. "That's not just broadcast – that's also personal video filmed by spectators. And LOCOG (the London 2012 Organising Committee) are using collaborative video technology in a way that no-one would ever have thought of four years ago. It's been a major change in the world of IT."
As Crockett hints, we as an audience are increasingly shaping technology infrastructure. Crowds at Stockholm in 1912 would have been grateful for the introduction of a PA system to inform them exactly what was going on, but our demand for real-time information grew; the electronic scoreboards introduced in Montreal in 1976 satisfied us to some extent, but we are much hungrier these days.
In 1996, 189 million people accessed the first Olympic website, but by the time of the next Games, this had soared to 11.3 billion, and for London 2012 a converged network carrying data, voice and video will move unprecedented amounts of data to help keep the world informed. This won't just be generated by media outlets, but also by us, as spectators, and shared via social media.
"Everyone will bring their own device," adds Crockett. "They'll want to share their personal experiences, so we're providing both wireless and wired connectivity."
The 1,800 wireless access points provided at the London Games may help to avoid the spectacle of crowds waving their phones in the air in the search for a signal. It may not be a Games that visibly demonstrates technological change, but behind the scenes there is a huge amount of advanced technology to deal with the things that we have come to take for granted since 2008; in particular, cloud-based systems where the internet helps take the strain whenever there's an upswing in demand for data.
"The most important thing about the network infrastructure is that it works," explains Crockett. "It's not really about showing off or showboating; it's about putting together a network that will make the Games run.
"It's what we do all around the world – it just so happens that there'll be millions of people watching this time."
The Olympics is about sport, clearly. But without technology, it may as well not exist at all.
EVOLUTION OF TECHNOLOGY THROUGH THE OLYMPICS
1912 Photo finish introduced in Stockholm Games, but there was a long wait for the results
1924 Technology begins to win a place at the Paris Games with the event's first live radio broadcast
1936 Berlin Games is the first to be televised, with events broadcast throughout the Olympic Village
1960 Television crews fly tapes of the Rome Games to New York to be broadcast, changing the way the public interacted with the Olympics
1964 Tokyo Games sees the live colour pictures broadcast via satellite to the US and results are stored on computer for the first time
1984 Los Angeles Games introduces email to the wider world
1996 The first Olympic Games website is launched for the Atlanta Games and receives 189 million hits
2008 3,600 hours of broadcast coverage at the Beijing Games exceeds all the coverage from all previous games added together
2010 First all IP-based infrastructure for the Vancouver Winter Games
2012 BT delivers the most advanced IP converged network ever deployed for a summer Olympic and Paralympic Games
Cisco delivering the network infrastructure for the London 2012 Games
Aspiring to achieve the most connected Games ever
While the world's athletes prepare for the performance of a lifetime in London, one race has already begun. For the last three years, an army of strategists and technicians has been hard at work putting the network infrastructure technology in place for what aims to be the biggest and most connected event the world has ever seen. Read more.
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