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Olympic tech 2012: Gadgets and gizmos of the games

Four years is a long time when you’re talking about the progression of technology, and with the London games set to kick off today, we thought we’d round up some of the cool new innovations that have surfaced since Beijing 2008.

Quantum timing

The last time the Olympic Games came to London back in 1948, Omega revolutionized accurate timekeeping with the first photo-finish camera. Dubbed the Magic Eye, the device was accurate to a thousandth of a second — a vast improvement over previous years in which events were still hand-timed.  

Fast forward to the present, and timekeeping has once again become more accurate than ever before. Race times in the London 2012 games will be accurate to one microsecond (0.00001) thanks to Omega’s new quantum timers. That’s — quite literally — faster than the blink of an eye, which takes roughly 350,000 microseconds. The coolest part is that Omega’s timer can track the times of sixteen different competitors simultaneously.

Pressure-sensitive starting blocks

Ever since the 1976 games in Montreal, false starts have been detected by measuring when a sprinter’s starting blocks move back 5 millimeters. If this movement was triggered any sooner than a tenth of a second after the gun was fired, a false start would be declared. Humans generally can’t react to sound any faster than a 0.1 second, so anything faster than that isn’t allowed. Rather than relying on movement, the starting blocks in London will detect false starts by using sensors to measure pressure exerted on them by runners.

The starting guns have also been improved. Since the sound of a traditional starting gun reaches each sprinter at a slightly different time depending on their distance from it, a better system was needed. This year, the “gun” is entirely electronic. When it goes off, the sound is broadcast through speakers located behind each runner, which ensures that each athlete will hear the “shot” at precisely the same moment.

Taekwondo sensor pads

In 2008, British taekwondo competitor Sarah Stevenson was nearly ousted from the competition after a quarterfinal match in which the judges failed to award her two points for a head-kick she landed in the final seconds of the bout. The British team representative protested, and the decision went to review. After a closer look at the video footage, the judges reversed their decision and declared Stevenson the winner, allowing her to progress to the semifinals. 

Although she didn’t go on to win the gold, the close call still drew attention to the potential for human error when judging such competitions. Starting this year, all competitors will wear special clothing and pads fitted with sensors made by Spanish company Daedo. These sensors will register a point-scoring hit when contact is made, and will serve as a backup for judges and hopefully reduce the potential for scoring errors.

Drag-reducing tracksuits

In addition to better blocks and guns, some Olympic sprinters will also get special dimpled tracksuits designed to reduce aerodynamic drag. Drawing inspiration from the golf ball, Nike’s new Pro Turbospeed suit has proven in wind-tunnel tests that it can potentially reduce times by 0.023 second. Considering how close times can be in the 100-meter dash, this could mean the difference between taking home gold, or not even making the podium.

Robotic photography

Photographers at Reuters have stepped up their game with a host of remote-controlled robotic cameras they’ll use to shoot the Games from a variety of new perspectives this year. Placed in locations that traditional photographers generally can’t reach, the cameras will be controlled with a joystick, and will allow controllers to tilt or rotate them along three different axes. The robotic control system also simplifies the capture of panoramic and time-lapse shots. 

Synchronized shooting

Fans of synchronized swimming will be glad to hear that a new dual-lens camera will be used to shoot the event like never before. Previously, broadcasters couldn’t sync shots from above and below the water line due to the difference in the  way that light refracts in water and air. The need for heavy image processing also made such shots problematic for live broadcast, but the new Twinscam from Japanese broadcasting company NHK has come up with a solution. The camera combines images from its two lenses — one above, and one below the water — to create a single shot. The result is an unbroken, undistorted view of the swimmers.