Tech Takes On The 2018 Winter Olympics

2018 Winter Olympics

Norway, Germany and Canada have mopped up especially well at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. But if I were handing out the gold, I’d also have “corporate nation” reps from NBCUniversal, Comcast, Sony and Intel climbing the stand for medals. To honor their tech-rific contributions to this year’s games. For enhancing the fun, intimacy and accessibility of the global meet for viewers.

Truthfully, this Olympics addict would tune in the festivities on a 14-inch, $79 supermarket-scored color TV. Olympic competitions (especially the pairs skating, sled rides and snowboarding events) have once again become my favorite form of snackable (and zero-calorie) comfort food. Who doesn’t like watching fearless, fit-as-a-fiddle bodies doing fast and flashy stunts? These are nibbles that nourish AND distract, making the cares of the world fly away. Truthfully, I sometimes watch the games with the sound turned down. Works for you too?

2018 Winter OlympicsBut this time around, our hosts have really pulled out the tech stops, deploying new and improved ways of capturing and sharing the content to make it even more vivid and accessible. So what’s the buzz? Think 4K. Virtual Reality. Enhanced Video-on-Demand with Voice Activation. Plus, radically pumped up (yet still steroid-free) mobile apps that make the mega event exceedingly hard to miss.

Which is the general idea. Yes, the traditional TV watching audience for the Olympics is shrinking – with viewership of the XXIII Olympic Winter Games down 15 percent from the 2014 Winter meet in Sochi. Still, the numbers are way up, we hear, for on-demand Olympic streams that people are watching on their smartphones, tablets and VR goggles.

4K or Bust: Track markings and ruts appear in bolder relief, sequins are shinier, participants really pop out of the crowd in the first 4K Ultra High Definition feeds of Olympics events beaming from South Korea with a whole lot of help from Sony’s broadcast technology division. (Korean tech giants Samsung and LG don’t play in those waters.)

Sony professional 4K cameras have been the razor-sharp eye-witnesses to the  Olympics opening ceremony as well as figure skating, short track speed skating, ski jumping, “Big Air” snowboard and men’s hockey meets. But what’s really knocked me for a loop is the amazing clarity of Sony 4K slow motion recorder replays, especially for those Big Air stunt board riders likewise debuting as an Olympic thing. With four times the pixel resolution of high definition, slow-mo 4K makes it lots easier to appreciate the art and intricacy of the hot doggers’ double flip and triple spinning tricks. Otherwise, a blink-and-you-missed-it thing.

2018 Winter OlympicsSetting up to watch 4K Olympic shows requires more than a new TV. You also need a latest iteration, 4K-ready cable or satellite TV receiver box – the X1 from Comcast/Xfinity, a Genie HD DVR from DirectTV or a Hopper 3 from DISH –  the set top box I’ve used in tandem with a super illuminating Epson Home Cinema 4000 video projector (a steal at $1,800) to throw a “yuge” 108-inch 4K PyeongChang  party on my movie-screened wall.

You may have heard that 4K Olympic feeds are also packing the HDR coding process which cranks up “high dynamic range” color and contrast. But with all that white-everywhere snow and ice and a tastefully pastel color scheme dominating the Olympics village and athletes clothing, this viewer hasn’t really sensed the sort of wider color gamut, blazing hot spots and extra shadowy detail which supercharge 4K with HDR Blu-ray video discs and Netflix/Amazon streams.

The good news – because this tech is so new and the universe of receiving boxes small, Olympics 4K channel host Xfinity didn’t bother to pitch this separate high-class TV feed to advertisers. So the events have been shown uninterrupted, in commercial-free form, with well-informed hype-free narration.

Maybe not so good for some – the 4K Olympic presentations have been running on a one-day-delayed basis. And only Xfinity Cable customers can “play ‘em again Sam”, via video on demand. (My DISH Hopper 3 has let me record the events in 4K for posterity.)

Virtually There: Were you badly disappointed by the oft blurry, sometimes stuttering virtual reality renderings of 2016 Summer Olympics action, delivered back then by a special smartphone app and watchable with said phone inside a Google Cardboard or Samsung Gear VR viewer?

2918 Winter GamesYou should try, try again. VR Shooters and content aggregators have learned a LOT in the last two years. Images from today’s best wrap around lensed (180 degree or 360 degree) video cameras are much sharper and less prone to ghosting artifacts. (Maybe NBC Sports VR lead sponsor Intel has had something to do with that.)

Also, there’s far more immersive VR scenery to take in all around you on the steep slopes of PyeongChang than there was at the Olympic pools and volley ball beaches of Rio.

The 2018 NBC Olympic VR app is far more polished, too, with a much richer array of highlight reels and full-length events. Options are sorted by category and easily selected by either remote control or just by focusing your eyes (in the VR viewer) on a specific sport icon. So cool!

I’m really liking how you can also do an eye-ball-shift in the VR viewer to switch the selected camera perspective – say from a corner arena floor view of figure skating action to an overhead mid-court perspective to the “cheers and tears” table where skaters wait for scores to come in.

Some VR navigation by voice is even possible through a newly upgraded Oculus VR app that loaded itself (surprise!) onto my favorite VR testing Samsung Galaxy Note 8.

Hopefully, all this very cool VR Olympics content won’t just vanish from the app, after the event is over. Better to keep us panting for Tokyo 2020 where, not incidentally, we’re likely to see content beaming in 8K Super Hi-vision. In fact, Sony and Japanese national broadcaster NHK have been testing that next-gen telly tech at PyeongChang, too.

Other Gold Medal Winners: As owner of both the NBC channel group that captures and serves up the Olympics and the nation’s largest (Xfinity) cable TV/internet system, Comcast has also been working its world class assets in other powerful ways.

Olympic Games fans (and the visually impaired) gotta love how the Xfinity X1 voice-activated control system has been tuned to respond to more than 1500 different possible Olympics-related commands, from “medal count” to “restart this program” to “find me clips with Mikaela Shiffrin.” Vividly descriptive voice narration of events has also been piled on bigger, for those who need it.

2018 Winter OlympicsFiner tuning is evident, too, on the Xfinity Olympics landing page of the X1 menu. A massive, round the clock project, it’s the gateway to more than 50 customized Olympic Virtual Channels, packing unique video playlists (highlights, spills and thrills, trending athletes) for your instant gratification.

And P.S. – all that content is likewise newly available to cable subscribers who load the polished Xfinity Stream app on their smartphones and tablets. For the first time, Stream is duplicating Xfinity’s full HD cable box experience, including a staggering 2,400 hours of Olympics content available live and on demand.

So much to see! Too much to grasp? Sleep when it’s over.