How new technology has transformed the Olympics

South Africa's Oscar Pistorius competes at the 2012 Summer Olympics. AP Photo

The events may be familiar, but this year's Olympic Games have been transformed by cutting-edge technology.


Media organizations are employing new cameras to capture every moment. Judges are using technology as a safety net for close calls. But the biggest changes revolve around how spectators are experiencing the games and the changes in rules that dictate what high-tech equipment can and can’t be used—and in the case of a double-amputee runner, who can and can’t compete—in the events.

With this in mind, what fancy tech toys can we spot among fans, media and athletes?


Spectators

Smartphones and tablets
It's no surprise that fans have been obsessed with their smartphones and tablets. Those in the stands have been inseparable from their mobile devices—so much so that the International Olympic Committee has asked them to "take it easy" for the sake of bandwidth. And if spectators think they can bypass this by broadcasting their own wireless networks, the IOC's on to them. An image circulating on Reddit shows the "Olympics Wi-Fi police" outfitted with an antenna, scanning for rogue networks to shut down.

Streaming apps (and nuisances)
People watching at home are likewise glued to their mobile devices. While many are riled up over NBC's tape-delayed prime-time coverage, cable subscribers can watch the events live on their smartphones and tablets. (According to NBC’s official stats, 45 percent of streams are coming from mobile devices. In the first five days alone, NBC delivered more than 5.3 million hours of live video, surpassing the total number of hours streamed during the entire Beijing Games.) The NBC Olympics Live Extra app is streaming all sporting and medal events, totaling more than 3,500 hours of programming. (In the U.K., the BBC's Olympics app is providing up to 24 live video streams as well.) But NBC’s app has had its share of issues. Many viewers are complaining about the plethora of ads, which can freeze the stream, and low video quality. And of course, they've taken to Twitter to vent. A sampling of their frustrations with NBC:

@egculbertson: Am loathing the @NBCOlympics app right now. Bad quality, ads mid-race and poor refresh to get into the swimming finals. #nbcfail

@toddplunk: Amazing how the @NBCOlympics LIVE app never has any trouble showing you ads, but fails so often to stream the actual games. #priorities

@dhannaTmC: I've noticed something with the @nbcolympics live app. There is like 5x more ads when you go to a event featuring USA Athletes #really

A running social media experiment
During the men’s 100-meter final, were you cheering for Usain Bolt or the Tweethletes bird? Tweethletes was a social media experiment that raced the Twittersphere against the actual competitors. “The athletes used their feet, we used our tweets,” according to the website.  Powered by tweets with the #100mfinal hashtag, the Tweethletes mascot moved ahead 2.5 centimeters, the length of a typical tweet, with each new update. The website broadcast the virtual race as it happened, and it now shows a rerun of the event. In the end, Tweethletes was able to advance 11 meters (that’s 469 tweets) by the time Usain Bolt reached the finish line in 9.63 seconds, setting an Olympic record. Good effort Tweethletes, but Bolt can’t be beat .

Media

Robotic camera
Capturing every detail of the games requires futuristic gear as well. Getty Images, the official photo agency of the IOC, is employing a robotic camera with swiveling heads to bring sweeping 360-degree aerial views from up high. Since this isn’t automated, it is controlled by a photographer with a joystick controller on the ground. (Strict restrictions prohibit photographers from certain places, such as the rafters.) While TV cameras have been mounted similarly in the past, this is the first time for still cameras.

Longest cable-camera system
You've never seen rowing like this before.  A new three-cable camera system  is capturing every detail of rowing and canoeing. The camera uses a system strung between two 92-meter-tall towers that are 2,500 meters apart. As the camera follows the race, it lowers in height, reaching the lowest point halfway through, where it is suspended 8 meters above the competitors, able to zero in on every emotion. When the camera reaches the end, it will return to the start line at 70 kilometers per hour to capture the next race.

Athletes

This time around in London, the emphasis is less on controversial high-tech swim attire—which all the swimmers wore in Beijing—thanks to a crackdown on what competitors can don in the Olympic pool. But that doesn't mean we're not seeing new tech-wear and gadgets on the field.

Streamlined threads
U.S. sprinters are sporting a specially designed TurboSpeed suit designed by Nike. The high-tech suits can reportedly help runners shave 0.23 seconds off a 100-meter sprint. These outfits endured hundreds of hours in a wind tunnel over a 12-year period. Made of an 82 percent recycled polyester fabric, the design incorporates golf ball-like dimples, which can reduce aerodynamic drag. Adidas has also been hard at work to create new athletic wear, specifically hot pants, which are used by Great Britain’s cyclists. Adipower warms the wearer’s muscles to yield better performance. Adidas debuted the pants after four years of development by the sportswear company, British Cycling and Loughborough University. In taekwondo, new rules require that competitors be clad with sensor pads that register hits. The new uniforms by Daedo will increase judging accuracy and serve as a backup to prevent human scoring errors.

Carbon-fiber prosthetics
This is the first Olympics that featured a double-amputee sprinter. Competing in the individual 400-meter event and South Africa’s 4x400-meter relay squad, Oscar Pistorius is a four-time Paralympic gold medalist. Nicknamed the Blade Runner, he sported his iconic carbon-fiber blade prosthetics, which were a source of controversy at the last Olympics. The International Association of Athletics Federations had ruled that he would be ineligible for Olympic competition, but that was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. While he was eligible to compete in the Beijing Olympics, he didn't qualify, instead taking home three golds in the Paralympic Games in 2008.

Reimagined sports gear
In Olympics 2.0, the athletes aren't just wearing tech. The equipment they're using has also been improved. There are countless examples of tech advances in sporting gear, but we wanted to highlight some of the more noteworthy.  Archery, a sport that’s captured many eyeballs in London, is beginning to resemble the “Hunger Games” trilogy that catapulted the event to fame. The focus is on the recurve bow, a major deviation from the more mainstream compound bow. Instead of a system of pulleys and strings, Olympians use a bow with two arms designed to store more energy. The synthetic foam core of recurves is adapted from Navy submarines to maintain the shape of the bow's arms.

Over in the badminton world, a sport surprisingly marred by controversy in these games, the majority of players are swinging racquets by Yonex, which altered the shape of the racquet head from a long oval to one that’s squarish, increasing the hitting surface space. These rackets come in carbon, graphite and titanium frames for better speed and power.

The air pistol events have also seen an equipment face lift. Instead of using pellets, the event has switched over to lasers. Calibrated to recoil and sound like a traditional pistol, the laser guns are safer and more cost-effective, allowing the event to be held outdoors and in other public venues. The new technology also allows for electronic scoring, since judges no longer need to look at physical marks on a target.

What can we expect in the coming 2016 Olympics? Surely, new advances in sportswear, equipment, broadcasting, communication and of course rules to dictate how they’re used. But right now, the biggest tech concerns for 2016’s host city, Rio de Janeiro, have to do with infrastructure: security, highways and transit systems.

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