An Olympic Competition for Attention: Technology at Tokyo 2020

One striking feature of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics was the fascinating debut of exciting, emerging technology. South Korea showcased impressive technologies meant to enhance the visitor and spectator experience, from ultra-fast 5G wireless connection to watching snowboarding through VR headsets. Although not all of the new features worked perfectly, the occasion was a highly publicized opportunity for South Korea to show off its technological prowess and assert itself as an innovation powerhouse. While a lot could be said about each of South Korea’s demonstrations, let’s instead look at what another East Asian country in a similar position will do. I am talking about none other than the island nation of Japan.

The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics is coming up. And just like South Korea, Japan will want to make a show of its progress in all things technology as it takes center stage. As a matter of fact, the official Action & Legacy Plan from the Tokyo 2020 website has among its five central pillars ‘Economy and Technology’, a strong indication of the important role technology will play. Not to mention the Japanese corporations that will want to seize the spotlight, among them the likes of Toyota, Honda, Nintendo, Canon, and Panasonic. So what can we expect from the Land of the Rising Sun in 2 years time?

First off, we can expect some of the same technology found in South Korea, but more developed and robust, something attendees will be able to interact with on a much larger scale. One of the best examples of this is Intel’s commitment to showcasing its 5G network. 5G is the next generation of wireless technology; it should not only allow for faster downloads and streaming, but also an improved capability to connect to multiple devices at once. Intel hopes to use this technology at Tokyo 2020 to empower high-resolution, immersive video streams (think virtual reality) to let viewers get a first person view of the action. They also hope to utilize the improved connectivity to enable the nearly unprecedented use of smart IoT devices throughout the city, for things like smart transportation and widespread facial recognition.

That brings us to the often thorny topic of the uses of facial recognition, a technology with great promise but also a cause for privacy concerns. According to the Japan Times, the Tokyo-based company, NEC, behind the facial recognition capabilities at the games will use the technology to provide heightened security for the venues. The current plan is to use the software to expedite the entry process of athletes, officials, and other professionals involved with the games. So while there may be more cameras, they likely won’t be used on spectators. Regardless, it is definitely a technology to keep watch of as we approach 2020.

This information on facial recognition is not to say that their won’t be plenty of technologies primed for interaction. While much of the following is somewhat speculative, the technologies will likely make some appearance, as a limited concept or perhaps even in commercially available form. Expect better and more broadly available instant translation services with more languages made available from companies like Panasonic. Expect robots to be more visible, interactive, and most importantly, more useful than ever as they become entertainment and our guides. Expect more driverless cars and buses as athletes and spectators alike are shuttled from one busy part of the mega-city to another. Even expect an on-demand meteor shower provided by Japanese company ALE.

Clearly, Tokyo 2020 will prove to be quite the spectacle, as some of the world’s best athletes come together to compete for their nation, their pride, our attention, and even substantial sums. But now in Tokyo, technology is set to compete in its own way, on an even grander scale than what we have seen at Pyeongchang 2018. Technology seems to now be a de facto part of the Olympic Games, and just like athletes, it will compete for nations, pride, attention, and substantial sums. I can’t wait to see what Tokyo 2020 will bring.