Interview: Intel's Aicha Evans shares details on why the Olympics is the perfect 5G testbed

Off the back of their newly-announced partnership with Japanese mobile carrier NTT DOCOMO, Intel took a moment at this year’s Mobile World Congress to speak to the press and share some stories from their recent involvement in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and details about their plans for the upcoming Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2020.

Why partner with the Olympics?

According to Intel’s senior vice president and chief strategy officer Aicha S. Evans, “when you study the history of the Olympics, a lot of technologies like instant-replay and color TV went really broad-scale commercial after the Olympics. It’s a great showcase.”

“From a test-bed [perspective], [it is] between a lab and a small city versus a big commercial deployment, it’s very good, it’s very contained”

“We decided to not only continue 5G there, but take on a top-sponsorship.”

Admitting there’s a marketing element to it, she insists that “what that sponsorship really - in our case -  gets you is the ability, and the approvals and the availability of the venues and the athletes, OBS.”

“You basically get implanted inside the games, not just the competition.” she says.

It wasn’t without challenges

From the moment they signed their partnership, they had seven months until “game time.” What’s more, she says it quickly became clear that the unique opportunities presented by the Olympic Games also came with their own challenges.

According to Aicha, “this was not an environment we were used to. Everything you want to do, you have to negotiate with the IOC.”

“Then there’s the local organising committee - the PyeongChang Organizing Committee,” she quickly adds.

Still, she says, the most difficult part was logistics.

”Just making sure everything worked and moving people around and making sure that was done while respecting the rules.”

“That was tough.”

5G Deployment

Aicha says that the team at Intel “learned a ton” but “from a 5G standpoint, there were no surprises in the sense that it worked.”

“It was windy, it was cold, the traffic of people and the logistics were not always what was expected but - really - there were no technical surprises.”

“Remember, we were there on infrastructure, and that’s really one of our biggest challenges.”

She says “the network and infrastructure is huge to us. This is the gateway to the distributed compute. But this is not something that consumers see. They only see it when it’s broken.”

Virtual Reality

According to Aicha, “the technology is not fully there yet but you can see - when we get this stuff working fully - what the possibilities are.”

She says that they had to work with rights-holders and other companies that Intel don't usually get involved with do in order to make this aspect of their presence at the Olympic games come together.

“We had 30 events, 15 live, 15 on-demand,” she summarized, a feat that required a fully-fledged production team on the ground moving things.

Looking forward to Tokyo, Aicha says that the VR experience has to be ‘more polished’ in 2020. When pressed for details, she clarifies that “the live experience should be way better.”

In addition, “when we’re doing on-demand and streaming into venues, the streaming should be better.”

She says that discussions on how to prepare for and achieve this with OBS are already underway.

“For some of these technologies, we’re going to have to practice, because the Olympics are so big. We have to practice. Do we practice at the training facilities, or Youth Games or Paralympics?” she explains.

Basically - nothing has been decided yet but, given Intel’s intent to refine the technology and logistics involved, don’t be surprised if they involve themselves again in the world of live sports before 2020 arrives.

The Drones

At this year’s Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, Intel broke records for their drone light-show that was pre-recorded and shown during the event’s opening ceremony.

Making use of 1280, the light-show proved a hit among spectators and earned the company a nod from Guinness Book of World Records for “the most unmanned aerial vehicles airborne simultaneously.”

The display amounted to more than double the previous record of 500 drones, also set by Intel, flown during a 2016 demonstration in Germany.

“That was a huge deal,” Evans summarises.

No word on whether they plan to try and top that record in 2020. However, given the reception to this year’s display, some kind of follow-up isn’t entirely unexpected.

Tokyo

Aicha says that they’ll have more than double the time to prepare next time around but that, as with PyeongChang, Tokyo will come with its own unique challenges.

“Summer Olympics are four to five times bigger than Winter Olympics. So first of all, we’ve got more people to deal with and what have you.”

In addition, “Tokyo is a more challenging location. You’re not in the middle of an open space where you just create an Olympic Village. You’re integrating into a city - one of the megalopolises of the world and there is no single olympic village and what have you.”

“Third of all, I think from a spectator (perspective), there will be more expectations of sophistication and polish.”

With PyeongChang, Aicha says they “had a lot of things that, logistically, were ‘bandagey’ - we can’t afford that [in Tokyo]".

“Last but not least, by that time, 5G will be commercial. So we’ll have more people, more companies, more devices. This year was fairly simple, there was us, the infrastructure network people and then basically Samsung-Qualcomm kind of thing but it could be broader depending on what devices are available.”

Summarizing Intel’s broader play in the space, she says that “5G is too big to be one company. 5G is about an ecosystem collaboration and we expect everybody to have [a place].”

“As long as we’re united on the standards, on the trials and the interoperability and the release cadence, the more the merrier.”

For a longer look at everything that happened at this year's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, click here.

Disclosure - Our coverage of MWC 2018 was sponsored by Intel who covered the cost of our flights and accommodation.

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