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What it felt like to visit the most tech-centric Olympics ever

I tried out 5G wireless networks, AI translation robots, and self-driving buses in Pyeongchang.
February 23, 2018
Caresse Haaser

Drones patrolling stadiums. Robots offering visitors directions and water. VR that lets you hurtle headfirst down an ice track.

Welcome to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, where emerging technologies seem to be everywhere. South Korea is trying to use the event to highlight its leadership in wireless connectivity by building the world’s first large-scale deployment of 5G, the next generation in cellular networks, which is expected to launch globally starting in 2020.

Visitors can get hands-on with 5G at Pyeongchang’s “ICT Experience Center,” an exhibition space that showcases five information and communications technologies, from 5G to the internet of things, AI, virtual reality, and ultra-high-definition TV. Organizing the technologies this way underscores how 5G enables the other services by transmitting masses of data in real time with high-resolution quality.

5G network equipment at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Getty Images

The second floor of the center houses a 5G zone that’s a joint effort of Intel, Ericsson, and Samsung Electronics, as well as Korea Telecom and the South Korean government. I tried out the 5G connection on my Samsung Galaxy smartphone and used it to control robotic fish in a small water tank. The game wasn’t very useful, but other visitors were more impressed with the network’s speed.

“I can download files, send videos and photos, and receive them quickly and smoothly,” observed Hyuncheol Kim, a 37-year-old Seoul resident who came to Pyeongchang to watch the biathlon. “I don’t exactly know what ‘5G’ means or how this wireless technology works, but I can say the real-time nature heightens my experience of the Olympics.”

Elsewhere in the ICT Experience Center, an AI robot is ready to respond to your questions; just press the “robot translation” button on the large, tablet-like display covering its midsection. The bot, named FURO for “Future Robot,” which is the company that designed it, can translate Korean into 29 languages, including English, Chinese, Japanese, French, Russian, and German—and vice versa. It uses an AI-based application, Genie Talk, which works by interacting with a companion app that people can download to their smartphones for free.

This robot, which is shaped like one of the Olympic mascots, translates between Korean and other languages.
Advance Robot Solutions | Facebook

In my test, the bot’s English was serviceable; it had a bit of a Korean accent but mostly sounded American. Asked to identify the official Olympic mascots, FURO responded correctly, reciting the names of the white tiger and black bear that symbolize these games: “Soohorang and Bandabi are the mascots for the Olympics and Paralympics.” Hancom, the Korean software maker that developed the app in collaboration with a government-funded research institution, says the platform knows 270,000 Korean words and 65,000 English words, and it can recognize them whether they’re spoken or written. (Users can upload photos of text through their phones; the app parses them via machine translation.)

Outside the center, you can interact with 5G on Hyundai’s 45-seat autonomous bus, which transports visitors between the Olympic ice rinks, ski slopes, and athletes’ village. Though the vehicle looks like a conventional bus and has a human driver on board for safety, it uses software and sensors to navigate a five-mile looped route. Instead of a tour guide, transparent displays installed inside the bus—where windows would normally be—show key facts about each stadium when the bus passes it, all beamed over a 5G network. The multimedia monitors gave the ride a futuristic feel, but otherwise it seemed like a regular bus trip.

Olympic Park visitors could use VR headsets to feel as if they were driving a skeleton sled or snowboarding down mountains.
Samsung Global Newsroom

Though the Olympic tech demos were hit or miss, and not all relied on 5G, they should help companies bring the technology to the public within the next few years (see “These toaster-oven-size radios will help bring 5G to life”). “The Pyeongchang Olympics is an excellent way to test the affordability and reliability of a 5G network,” Seungsun Park, the manager of Korea Telecom’s 2018 Olympics business unit, told MIT Technology Review. “I expect some events at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics could even be live-streamed in virtual reality over a 5G network,” he added.

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