Tokyo on track for smartest Olympics ever

Robotic guides, crowd control directed by artificial intelligence and immersive virtual reality are among the technologies, enabled by the internet of things, set to excite fans at Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the world was wowed by demonstrations of innovative technology, such as the bullet train. Fast forward and by the 21st century Japan had cemented its status as a technological world leader, in areas as diverse as aeronautics, robotics and consumer electronics. It’s no surprise, then, that the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games’ slogan is “Discover Tomorrow”. But how might Japan use the leading tech of 2020, notably the internet of things (IoT), to make the Olympics run smoothly?

The technological challenges

Tokyo 2020 is a huge undertaking. Around 11,000 athletes from 206 nations will be competing in 33 different sports and 7.8 million tickets are being distributed. Though 4.5 million of these have been set aside for the Japanese market, the remaining tickets will go to visitors from overseas. These visitors will strain the city’s infrastructure, particularly accommodation, transport and waste management.

Security will be a key concern, and high-tech approaches may help with crowd control and risk assessment. Venues will also need to meet access requirements for visitors with mobility restrictions, and find ways to make the user experience smooth and enjoyable.

Tokyo’s smart infrastructure

Tokyo has already implemented many smart city ideas using IoT technology. With one of the most-used public transit systems in the world, integrated innovative technological solutions are vital to make sure trains, buses and trams run safely and on schedule.

Trains on the Yamanote subway line depart every two to four minutes, carrying a dizzying 34 million passengers a week. With such high demand, periodic maintenance closures are a real problem, so an IoT-based smart maintenance system was introduced to minimise disruption. Sensors attached to train cars collect data, identify weak points, predict equipment failures, and pinpoint precisely when and where maintenance is needed.

IoT will play a key role in responding to the real-world problems presented by an event on this scale with digital technology

Tokyo is well on its way to developing a smart energy system. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami caused severe power shortages, highlighting the need for a more adaptable and resilient grid. This is where smart meters and other energy management technology come into play. The data collected through these IoT devices have already underpinned new energy-saving measures. According to the Tokyo Bureau of Environment, the scheme achieved a 27 per cent drop in CO2 emissions at the 12,000 registered facilities between 2010 and 2017.

This is all part of Tokyo’s plans to use smart technology to become a zero-emissions city. Development around the Olympics will also play a part, with the athletes’ village due to be turned into a fully hydrogen-powered smart district after the Games.

Applying IoT solutions to the Games

To meet the challenges presented by the Olympics, Tokyo’s existing smart city tech may be developed further, but we’ll probably also see a few new things using cutting-edge IoT and 5G technology.

Robots are emblematic of Japan’s status as a world leader in futuristic technology, so it’s likely they’ll be front and centre at the opening and closing ceremonies. Visitors may be greeted by one of the Haneda Robotics Lab robots, which will serve both as multilingual airport guides and as security, scanning bins for suspicious objects and alerting human guards to unattended luggage.

The International Olympic Committee has been working with Toyota to develop vehicles powered by artificial intelligence (AI) for use in the main stadiums. Some will use sensors and cameras to deliver equipment to athletes, while others will help fans with accessibility requirements.

Tokyo 2020 and IoT
IoT will play a key role in responding to the real-world problems presented by an event on this scale with digital technology

With its smart stadium concept, telecommunications company NTT is playing a key role in applying IoT technology to the Games. High-speed internet at each venue will enable everything from in-seat food orders to live stats and replays, while English–Japanese translation AI chatbots will be installed on robots at the major venues.

Though it remains to be seen whether the technology will be ready by summer 2020, virtual reality (VR) is also a major area of innovation, using a distributed camera network and the smart stadium’s super-fast 5G to enable a live feed of events. NTT’s Kirari project would use IoT tech to create an immersive VR experience of what’s happening. Rakuten has been working on similar smart stadium VR tech, to enable fans to preview seats before booking them.

Will robots be keeping visitors safe? Tokyo 2020 statistics

It’s likely that we’ll also see the largest-scale application of AI-based security measures ever at Tokyo 2020, relying on real-time updates from cameras and other internet-enabled devices dotted throughout the venues. Behind the scenes, NEC and Intel facial recognition terminals will verify the identities of the 300,000 accredited people at the Olympics.

The general public are more likely to spot drones owned by Rakuten or interact with robots which look like the Games’ mascots, both of which will also be equipped with facial recognition technology. Whether everyone will know they’re being observed in this way when waving at the cute robot remains a thorny issue.

Panasonic’s crowd-forecasting software might also provide a glimpse of the future of security at Tokyo 2020. Using camera data from police vehicles, the software would analyse crowd movements to identify suspicious behaviour and help with real-time management of crowd flow. This could be used in combination with security firm ALSOK’s emotional visualisation robots, which flag people showing high levels of anxiety or aggression.

Tokyo 2020 is sure to be a showcase not only of world-class sporting talent, but of cutting-edge technology in areas as varied as commerce, security and accessibility. IoT will play a key role in responding to the real-world problems presented by an event on this scale with digital technology, and will contribute to the most technologically exciting Olympic and Paralympic Games we’ve yet seen.

Tokyo 2020 and the race for 5G

Tokyo 2020 boxout

Underlying much of the technological innovations proposed for Tokyo 2020 is 5G. Though it’s been a buzzword for the past couple of years, this high-speed mobile internet is technology only now becoming available to consumers. Simply put, 5G is very fast mobile internet, potentially ten to twenty times faster than 4G, which enables streaming of HD and 4K video.

On a larger scale, it makes data-intensive communications possible in ways we haven’t seen before, for instance enabling ultra-HD footage to be transmitted and viewed with almost no delay. This is the kind of application NTT Docomo and Rakuten would be using for their proposed virtual reality streaming of Olympic events, potentially enabling an immersive experience of the Games for those who can’t attend in person.

And, of course, the applications don’t end with live-streaming sports. The dramatically reduced lag is incredibly useful in areas as varied as video-gaming, piloting drones and even remote surgery.

China’s Huawei is one of the most prominent companies on the global stage when it comes to the development of 5G infrastructure. However, after effectively blacklisting the company due to cybersecurity concerns in 2018, the United States will be looking to find other providers of the technology.

If Japanese companies such as NTT, Rakuten and NEC, which was involved in the smaller-scale use of 5G at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, manage to roll out 5G in any significant way for Tokyo 2020, it could have a real political impact, establishing Japan as a major player in the race for 5G.