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Tokyo 2020’s promise to be “the most innovative” Olympics in history takes shape

Tokyo 2020 mascot Miraitowa - robot version. (Image credit: Tokyo 2020 organising committee)

  • Games pitches itself as “the most innovative in history”
  • Hirata leads Tokyo 2020’s Innovation Bureau, whose task is to manage and promote innovative projects around the Games.
  • Most eye-catching are Tokyo’s plans to use robots, aimed at showing off Japan’s technological prowess.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics is pitching itself as “the most innovative in history”. To that end, the organising committee has a 15- to 20-person Innovation Bureau charged with developing and promoting innovative projects around the Games. It’s led by Hideyo Hirata, a former engineer at Japanese technology giant Fujitsu, who was called back from the brink of retirement to fulfil the role.

Hideyo Hirata, head of innovation promotion office, Tokyo 2020. (Image credit: Tokyo 2020)

“I was just planning to travel all over the world or something after retirement,” he told SportBusiness during an interview in Tokyo in October. But Tokyo 2020 is a matter of national pride and duty for many Japanese, and Hirata was persuaded by a former superior to undertake one last job.

Hirata performs two roles at Tokyo 2020. One is very practical: as deputy executive director of technology services, he uses his systems integration engineering experience to manage the IT infrastructure that underpins the Games’ organisation and administration. The other is a marketing role: as head of the innovation promotion office, he ensures that Tokyo 2020 fulfils, and is seen to fulfil, the goal of being ‘the most innovative’ Games ever.

Innovation’s importance

Innovation is important for Tokyo 2020 for several reasons.

Japanese companies want to show the world they are still capable of the technological innovation for which they became famous in the postwar 20th century. The event’s sponsors are heavily involved in the innovation initiatives.

Japan also wants to stimulate innovation and growth in the country’s sports industry, which lags the US and Europe. “Companies are finding a new market – the sports market – because the Olympic Games are coming to Japan,” Hirata said. One example is his former company Fujitsu, which has developed an automatic judging system for use in gymnastics.

“The sports business [in Japan] is very low compared to the US. But maybe after 2020, people in Japan will have a bigger interest in doing sports and watching sports, and the sports business will increase…So the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games will create a new market in Japan.”

Hirata says the Games’ use of robotics, in particular, will have applications in Japan’s ageing society.

Rise of the robots

The plans to use multiple types of robot are the most visible of Tokyo’s innovation projects to date.Olympic TOP sponsor Toyota has developed several robots that will feature at the Games. Robot versions of the mascots Miraitowa and Someity will welcome athletes and guests at Games venues, shaking hands, waving and responding to various interactions. The T-HR3 Humanoid Robot promises ‘remote interaction with athletes’, and to enable communication between people attending the Games and those unable to be there in person. The T-TR1 robot is essentially a moving screen that will also help people unable to attend the Games get some idea of what it’s like to be there, including by allowing two-way video conversations. The latter two are aimed at fulfilling another goal of the Games – to be as inclusive as possible.

Toyota’s Field Support Robot is a small autonomous vehicle that will help staff during throwing events at the Olympic Stadium. And its Human Support Robot and Delivery Support Robots will assist wheelchair-using Games spectators.

Read this: How Tokyo 2020 smashed the domestic sponsorship record for the Olympics

Another TOP sponsor, Panasonic, is providing robotic ‘power assist suits’ that will be worn by workers at Olympic venues and make it easier to carry heavy objects.

Hirata says an important idea underlies the choice of robots for the Games. This is that ‘robots live with people’ – i.e. that robots are there to help and assist people in their lives, as opposed to being super-powered, science-fiction fantasies come to life.

“People may expect robots to be flying or walking by themselves. But that is not the concept of this robotics strategy. The concept is to have robots living with humans…Many people coming from abroad will find, in many places – in airports, hotels, restaurants, not only the venues – that robots are supporting humans.”

Underlining Japan’s leadership in robotics technology is of course central: “Many people expect Japan to be the number one robotics country in the world. We have to show this… The Japanese government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government also want this robotics showcase… So we are working together, collaborating.”

Panasonic power assist suit in action. (Image credit: Tokyo 2020 organising committee)

Other innovations

Tokyo 2020 is yet to reveal its full slate of innovations. Others announced so far include Make the Beat, a music project in which Japan- and Olympics-related sounds have been sampled to create a Tokyo 2020 ‘beat’, or music track. This is being incorporated by music groups into videos being uploaded to a Tokyo 2020 Make the Beat website. The public will be encouraged during the Games to use the beat to make their own videos for sharing on social media, with the hashtag #2020beat.

Read this: Masa Takaya on Tokyo 2020’s messages of resilience, recovery and hope

The organisers are also trumpeting a face recognition system, developed by Tokyo 2020 Gold Partner NEC, that will verify the identity of athletes, officials, staff and media as they enter venues. This will, they say, increase security and erase the problem of lost or stolen accreditations, among other benefits.

Hirata says there will be more innovation initiatives announced in the run-up to the games, including projects aimed at enhancing the experiences of TV and online viewers.

The ultimate aim of the Hirata’s innovation bureau is to wow visitors and viewers around the world, giving us a glimpse of the future and show off the capabilities of Japan Inc at the same time. Hirata says: “My dream is that many people come to Japan, are surprised and see new, innovative ideas…I want to make many people coming to Japan be surprised, that’s my dream.”

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