Inside the ultra-precise Tokyo Games timing technology

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Eleven and a half thousand athletes. A whopping 79,000 overseas civil servants, support staff and journalists amassed. A total of 339 events in 33 sports, spread across 42 venues in Japan. Three hundred and sixty-one days after the initially planned start. These are just a few of the big numbers for the delayed (somewhat confusingly) Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

But, at least when it comes to the elite athletes involved, the biggest numbers are the little ones. The really, really small. At the Olympics, countless hours of hard work by athletes boil down to milliseconds and microseconds.

While viewers may take the numbers at the bottom of the TV screen measuring each lap or length for granted, for the athletes who rely on them – and the engineers who need to ensure their accuracy – technology is everything.

“We can measure a millionth of a second,” Alain Zobrist, CEO of Omega Timing, told Digital Trends. “Margins that most disciplines do not need and will never use. In other words, what we are capable of in terms of precision is far above what is expected of us.

Quantum clocks and photofinisher

Luxury watch manufacturers like Omega pride themselves on precision and accuracy. But, for the most part, it’s the precision and correctness of the technique. Not even James Bond, currently the most famous wearer of Omega watches in the world, demands precision measured in the millionth of a second. Even Q’s best explosive pen has the decency of having a timer measured in seconds.

The Olympic Games are different. Terms like “photo finish” were literally coined to describe sporting events where the result is so close that super-precise recording devices are essential.

Omega Scan’O’Vision Myria OMEGA

Omega is not a newcomer to the Olympics. It has been present at almost every event since 1932, when state-of-the-art timekeeping involved the deployment of a watchmaker armed with 30 high-precision, yet manually operated, chronometers accurate to the nearest tenth of a second.

Today, the technology on offer – both quantitatively and qualitatively – overshadows anything imagined at the time. For this year’s Games, the clocks provided by Omega are synchronized with an electronic starting pistol as well as athletic starting blocks with sensors that measure an athlete’s force against the footrest 4,000 times per second. . The finish lines are crossed by the Scan’O’Vision Myria, proclaimed by Omega as its most sophisticated photo-finish camera in history; capable of recording up to 10,000 images per second.

electronic starter gun
Omega electronic starter gun OMEGA

Actual running times are measured using a Quantum Timer, a form of atomic clock that uses single, laser-cooled ions that are confined in an electromagnetic ion trap. The technology was first developed in 2010 by physicists at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, and was first used at the London Olympics in 2012 in the form of Quantum Timer and Quantum Aquatics Timer. These next-generation timers are driven by microcrystalline components built into the timer, which Omega says is 100 times better than previous approaches.

Measure what matters

But measuring isn’t just about who comes first, second and third in a race. Omega is responsible for spotting other phenomena as well, as if there has been a false start that could give an athlete a slight, almost imperceptible advantage over the competition.

“Our story is proof that we are improving all the time,” Zobrist told Digital Trends. “However, I would like to define ‘better’ a little more clearly, because it’s not just about trying to measure narrower time frames that we can boast in a superficial way. We also think in terms of experience, for athletes, spectators, media and even coaches. For example, it makes more sense to accurately measure false starts than to record billionths of a second. Our timing is evolving to better serve athletes, not just for fun, so I don’t think we would waste too much energy on theoretical benchmarks.

He continued, “Of course we love to experiment and often push the boundaries just to see how far we can go. But there is always something practical that drives it.

This emphasis on measuring performance as accurately and, most importantly, quickly as possible (no more waiting for the film to develop photo finishes as it did before instant video playback) means developing tailor-made solutions for different sports. .

olympic photofinish system
Omega Scan’O’Vision Star Series OMEGA

For example, gymnastics uses AI pose detection which can be used to examine how accurately an athlete hits the middle of a mat or their overall technique. Then there is the swimming image recognition technology, to count the number of movements of each athlete and measure measurements such as live speed and the exact distance between swimmers. Measuring road and track cycling? Motion detector labels placed on bikes. Beach volleyball? Image tracking cameras to measure player and ball speed. And so on: Omega being called upon to time not only the winner, but also track as many factors as possible regarding winning (and losing) performances.

” Almost all [our research and development] takes place in a small village in Switzerland not far from the brand’s headquarters in Biel / Bienne, ”said Zobrist. “However, we also have great ideas when we attend events. The Olympic Games are an incredible learning experience. We are constantly monitoring our performance and discussing how we can make something easier to use, safer, and more visually appealing. The R&D process never ends. It’s built into what we do. So we tinker in the workshop and learn on the job.

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