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Olympics Are A High-Tech Proving Ground

4K broadcast technologies, HDR among many being utilized

This week’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang are, not surprisingly, serving as testing grounds for various consumer technologies, chief among them 4K, HDR and VR broadcasting.

It’s a natural stage, as sports coverage highlights the clear advantages of such technologies. The fast action of many of the Olympics events can demonstrate — better than most content — the benefits of 4K and HDR to the consumer. The increased 4K pixels and wide-angle cameras deliver clearer fast-action shots for the viewer of sports such as ice hockey, freestyle skiing and snowboarding.

The snow-white backdrops of the Winter Olympics offer an opportunity to demonstrate the subtle nuances of the clear color contrasts of HDR.

Unfortunately, the high-tech coverage is limited and the majority of viewers in the U.S. are not able to take advantage. First of all, the majority of the 4K HDR coverage being delivered by NBC, owned by Comcast, is not live, but delayed to allow for the extra production challenges of the format. So fans of a particular sport better stay off their phones if they don’t want to know the results before they watch.

Related: Samsung Plays Host At Pyeongchang Olympics

While Comcast is working with production crews from the Olympic Broadcasting Services and NHK Japan to produce 4K HDR coverage, they left it up to individual distribution partners to determine how much content to deliver to their customers and how to deliver it. NBC confirmed that there is no over-the-air delivery of the Olympic coverage so only ISP-based distributors could deliver that content.

In addition, only select sports are being filmed in 4K, including ice hockey, figure skating, and some speed skating, ski jumping and snowboarding events.

The opening ceremonies were in 4K, and the closing ceremonies will likely also be, though that couldn’t be confirmed.

All Comcast customers with a 4K-capable set-top box have access to the NBC network 4K feed but, obviously, need a 4K TV at minimum, and an HDR-capable panel, to enjoy the full fruits of the broadcast.

DirecTV is also delivering 4K HDR coverage and while the company limits 4K to its “Ultimate Tier” customers that requirement was waived for the Games. That being said, DirecTV customers must have a top-end Genie HD DVR set-top box to access it.

Watch: 10 Athletes to Look for in the 2018 Winter Olympics

Dish is also delivering 4K HDR to its customers but they must have a Hopper 3 STB.

Whether the 4K coverage will drive TV sales is questionable. Commented Futuresource analyst David Tett: “Traditionally, major sporting events tend to bring forward sales within a year rather than cause the market to grow, meaning consumers will choose to purchase a set earlier in the year to watch the event rather than delaying their purchase to later months, as they may have otherwise done. Futuresource research indicates the host country tends to see a boost in demand for an event such as this, but other countries tend to see a seasonality change rather than market uplift.”

However, Futuresource colleague Tristan Veale pointed out, “As a major sporting event which attracts viewers from a diverse range of demographics, Futuresource sees this as a good event to broadcast in 4K UHD. The production and distribution workflow for 4K UHD has become matured to the point where the fact that it is being broadcast in 4K should have little impact. Further, with the FIFA World Cup approaching, this is another reason for ramping up live capture of major sporting events in 4K as it will give the entire broadcast chain more experience with this.

Looking ahead, NHK Japan said it is shooting some of the Winter Olympics in 8K as a test for its coverage of the upcoming Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2020.

Other tech companies are taking advantage of the games to demonstrate next-generation technologies.

Intel and NBC are using 180-degree cameras to film 30 Olympic events to deliver what it is calling “the largest-scale virtual reality event to date.” The Intel True VR footage is available on-demand via the free NBC Sports VR app using a Samsung Gear VR headset and a Samsung smartphone or any iOS or Android smartphone using Google Cardboard or a similar headset device.

Intel also partnered with a Korean phone network carrier to deliver “immersive on-site 5G powered experiences” to attendees.

In addition, Intel had a front-and-center presence during the opening ceremonies with an aerial display of 1,200 Intel Shooting Star drones.

Intel’s Drone Display

Visa also has a presence at the games to demonstrate the flexibility of its virtual payment system. The company is giving out collectible commemorative Olympic lapel pins embedded with NFC chips to allow attendees to use contactless technology to pay for micro-tagged souvenirs and refreshments at select stands.