Watching The Olympics, Online And Everywhere

Jul 26, 2012
Originally published on July 26, 2012 5:12 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


Back in 2010, during Vancouver's Winter Olympics, the iPad did not exist. When Beijing hosted opening ceremonies in 2008, Apple's app store was less than a month old. Now, for the first time ever, millions of people are expected to watch some of the Olympics on their phones, tablets or other gadgets.

NPR's Steve Henn takes a look at what it will take to make the games fully digital.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: There are tens of thousands of people all around the world who have been working for years, piecing together all the technology necessary for me to do this...


HENN: Stream beach volley ball directly to my smartphone. Sam Blackman is one of the folks who made this tiny little miracle possible. And even though his favorite sport isn't in the Olympics this year, he's still stoked about the games.

SAM BLACKMAN: I don't think Ultimate Frisbee s an exhibition this year - it was a couple years ago, but I don't think it made the cut this year.

HENN: Sam is the co-founder and CEO of Elemental Technologies. It's a tiny little company that makes some screamingly powerful servers designed to stream video.


HENN: Wow, this is loud.

BLACKMAN: This is loud. Yeah.

HENN: And hot.

Sam's is taking me inside one of his labs. We're standing next to three little racks machines. Each one has 20 thin, blade-shaped servers designed and programmed by his company.

BLACKMAN: And these are our test systems. The amount of computational power packed into each one of these...

HENN: Can do a one and a half teraflops.

BLACKMAN: One and a half trillion operations per second preformed by the GPUs in each of these systems.

HENN: These racks are like the Mary Lou Rettons of modern computing. Pint-sized and powerful and capable of mind-boggling flops.

So how many teraflops are going on in this room?

BLACKMAN: At least 120 teraflops. The U.S. government probably would have paid $500 million for this many flops 10 years ago.

HENN: Just 10 years ago?

BLACKMAN: Just 10 years ago. Absolutely.

HENN: So at this point, you might be wondering why a little company in Portland, Oregon needs a super computer tucked into its closet - and the reason is because sometime in the next couple of weeks you and millions of people just like you might decide to try and watch an Olympic event live at your desk on your smartphone. And Elemental technologies servers help makes those video streams possible.

BLACKMAN: Many of the broadcasters, like NBC Universal, like the BBC, like Tera, like Eurosport, are actually streaming every event live all and up to 24 simultaneous live events.

HENN: Back in '80s, when everyone just watched the Olympics on television, things were much easier. But now there are dozens of different gadgets you can use to watch. They have different screen sizes, they speak different languages. And if you are going to use them to watch the Olympics, each one needs its own live stream of bits direct from the London.

BLACKMAN: There's just a panoply of boxes here. You know, we've got Blu-ray players, we've got set top boxes from Samsung, Comcast Xfinity. We have a PlayStation here we have an Xbox 360.

HENN: There are iPhones, Pads, iPods and Androids. And each can connect to the games over different kinds of networks to from creeping slow to blazing fast.

BLACKMAN: Exactly. And so what we do is actually create different streams at each of those levels. So if you're...

HENN: For each device?

BLACKMAN: For each device.

HENN: Broadcasters serving more than 70 countries have bought racks full of Elementals Technologies' gear to process all that video. Now London's bid to become the first fully digital Olympics could still flop. After all, maybe no one will want to watch swimming on a smartphone. But whatever happens, Sam says his little 75-person company is on track to process more than half the Olympic traffic.

Steve Henn, NPR News.


WERTHEIMER: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.