The stellar performances in Rio were no doubt the result of the years athletes spent preparing for the games. More than ever, that training incorporates a wide variety of gadgets that run advanced algorithms and spit out reams of data. These are far more advanced than the wearables the average consumer uses to count steps and calories. For example, U.S. cyclists wore Solos smart glasses, which offer a heads-up display that allows them to track their time, speed, elevation, heart rate, cadence and other information in real time. Over in the boxing ring, fighters got sensors of their own. Montreal-based Hykso produces chips that, when embedded in boxing gloves, measure the speed and intensity of each punch. The devices were being used by boxers representing the United States and Canada before the Rio Olympics.
Half the battle for most Olympic viewers is figuring out exactly how an event is scored. Swimming and track are easy: Who touched the wall or crossed the line first? Gymnastics, with its difficulty and (persnickety) execution scores, is more of a black box. Thus, judging each contest involves varying degrees of human involvement. The time-honored sport of taekwondo got a technical assist in scoring at the Olympics in Rio. For the first time, fighters donned headgear equipped with sensors that record every kick to the head. Those are worth three points apiece. That innovation comes after vests fitted with sensors were added during the 2012 London Games. Each body shot is worth one point. If that already sounds futuristic, just wait for the 2020 Tokyo Games. In May, the Japan Gymnastics Association and Fujitsu announced plans to develop a scoring system that uses 3-D lasers to monitor a gymnast’s technique in real time.
The deep purple circles on athletes’ backs and shoulders made headlines from Rio as many learned of cupping, or the practice of using suction to promote blood flow and relieve muscle tension. Given that cupping has its roots in ancient medical practices, there’s really nothing innovative about it. However, athletes also turned to other, more modern technology to help them recover during and after competition. Many viewers observed Ashton Eaton, who earned his second gold medal in the decathlon, wearing a rather peculiar-looking helmet between the contest’s 10 events. That was a “cooling hood” crafted by sports clothier Nike, which the company said “provides the sensorial relief of pouring a bottle of water over one’s head.” Think of it as a Magneto-inspired sun hat.
Of course, there were also innovations that you, the home-viewing audience, experienced firsthand. Getty Images and the Associated Press deployed myriad robot cameras to capture the glory of the games at every angle — from under the water to high in the sky. Getty captured some of the most stunning pictures of the swimming contests with cameras beneath the surface of the water, allowing viewers a fresh angle to see just how close the competition really was. Both Getty and the AP also used robot cameras that hang from the ceiling and are controlled remotely via a joystick. As one AP photographer described them, “Basically the latest robotics are like hanging a person from the roof to shoot photographs.” A niche segment of viewers got an even more impressive view. Samsung partnered with the Olympic Broadcasting Services to generate 85 hours of virtual-reality content for Samsung Gear VR users. That meant they could experience Simone Biles’s death-defying twists or Katie Ledecky’s record-breaking wall touch without shelling out big bucks for a plane ticket to Brazil.
Read more from The Washington Post’s Innovations section.