The Tech Games

The Beijing Olympics got off to a bang last week, with a dazzling opening ceremony that showed an impressive technological complexity.

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By  Derek Francis Published  August 12, 2008

It’s been coming for years. We’ve been told all about China’s desire to make this year’s Beijing Olympics the best ever in the event’s history. And it managed to kick off the proceedings with an opening ceremony that many claimed was just that.

The mastermind behind the proceedings, Zhang Yimou, demands huge recognition for his efforts. The film director, who’s brought such sumptuous spectacle to the screens in epics such as Hero or House Of The Flying Daggers, created his trademark visuals for the world, directing thousands of performers through years of preparation for the big night.

At the opening ceremony for the Sydney Games in 2000, it was appropriate that 2,000 people performed in perfect unison in the stadium. In Beijing, 2,008 drummers kept an elaborate beat, counting down the clock to the official opening. Not only is it a case of one-upmanship, but the numbers are symbolic in themselves. They also executed their moves with an unbelievable show of synchronicity.

Then we were treated to a gargantuan tale of China’s long history – told by colourfully-dressed performers, bright lights and huge set pieces. But underpinning the whole occasion was an extensive use of multimedia technology, some of the likes we have never seen before.

China’s 5,000-year civilisation was laid out on a huge scroll that unrolled chapters. When Chinese gymnast Li Ning space-walked his way around the inner wall of the stadium, suspended by wire, the stadium walls came alive with images of the worldwide torch relay. More than 18,000 performers took part in the event, creating a huge logistical nightmare. How did technology help to realise such an ambitious and artistic ceremony?

According to Xinhua News, LEDs were installed across the 20,000 square-metre Bird’s Nest stadium, with storage cells present to act as a backup for electrical supplies. In the centre of the stadium, an LED screen measuring 147 metres long and 22 metres wide was laid. About 44,000 colourful LED beads were embedded with just 60 centimetres separating each one. Many of the performers also had LED beds embedded into their costumes, lighting them up to create a star-filled sky.

The Beijing Olympics was also the first for using a technical monitoring system, giving identification codes to each of the 18,000 performers. Special materials and new technologies – many derived from the space industry – contributed to a number of different applications, including making paper in the painting scrolls. The control centre featured the Shenzhou 4000 control system, typically used during space missions – perfectly illustrating the complexity of the show.

The stunning fireworks demonstration also required special management, with a digital ignition control system in place to minimise the time difference to just a few milliseconds across the 30 locations in Beijing. Over 40,000 firework explosions were coordinated in this way.

However, there also was an element of misdirection. CGI footage was used to great effect, because of worries that broadcasters would not be able to properly capture the fireworks on film. A 55-second clip of fireworks lighting up 29 footprints in the sky throughout Beijing was created months ago on a computer and edited into live footage. The trouble is, it would be difficult for a real TV helicopter to get the right angle and see all 28 footsteps if it was live. The possibility of a mistake or omission was too great, organisers decided.

The UK’s Daily Telegraph reported that broadcasters and meteorologists worked together to ensure the footage suited the look and feel of that night in Beijing – taking smog and weather forecasts into consideration. A fake camera wobble was even added to make it look like the whole thing was being filmed from the inside of a camera. In reality, only the last footprint was filmed from inside the Bird’s Nest stadium.

Now as the Olympic athletes compete in their respective events, it’s also abundantly clear how technology features in the daily grind for medals. With just milliseconds separating gold, silver and bronze winners, many are finding high-tech ways to help them achieve their goals. Swimming is just one example: American swimmers are helped in training by experimental flow measurement techniques, while Britain’s first gold medal for swimming since 1984 could be all thanks to a swimsuit that makes use of NASA technology to cut drag in the water by 5%. More than any other Olympics before it, the Beijing Olympics may come to be known as the Tech Games.

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