The “Hydrogen Games” – Japan innovating for Tokyo 2020 and beyond

The world’s first ever Olympic and Paralympic Cauldrons to burn on green hydrogen, fuel-cell vehicles, 5G powered viewing experiences and robots greeting visitors and helping to retrieve javelins during competitions. When Japan stood host for the...

The world’s first ever Olympic and Paralympic Cauldrons to burn on green hydrogen, fuel-cell vehicles, 5G powered viewing experiences and robots greeting visitors and helping to retrieve javelins during competitions. When Japan stood host for the Tokyo 2020 Games this Summer, together with the IOC and IPC,  they did it with the ambition to stage “the most innovative Games in history” and to “leave a positive legacy to future generations”.

When the Olympic flame finally was lit at the National Stadium in Tokyo on June 23rd, after an unprecedented one-year postponement brought by the covid-19 pandemic, it kicked off the world’s largest sport competition and opened a grand stage for Japanese technology and future visions.

Hydrogen on the move and a hydrogen-powered athletes’ village

If the legacy of the Tokyo 1964 Games was the Shinkansen high-speed train system, the ambition of the Tokyo 2020 Games was to leave a hydrogen society as its legacy. The Tokyo 2020 Games was early dubbed the “Hydrogen Olympics” and even though the covid-19 pandemic led to some reduction in technical rollouts, hydrogen surely was the central theme during the Games.

To prepare for the Games, and as a step in supplying a hydrogen society, Japan built one of the world’s biggest hydrogen plant, FHR2, in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture. Inaugurated in March 2020, the facility uses 10,000 kilowatts of solar power to produce 900 tons of hydrogen each year. Symbolically, it was green hydrogen from FHR2 that powered the Olympic and Paralympic cauldrons. 

For the Games, Toyota supplied approximately 500 of its hydrogen FCEV (fuel cell electric vehicle) Mirai cars to transport Tokyo 2020 staff and officials and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government introduced 100 of Toyota’s FCEV Sora buses for public use in the metropolitan area. To supply hydrogen to these vehicles, 35 hydrogen stations were set up in the city area – one in the athlete’s village.

One building in the athlete’s village was fully powered by hydrogen-generated electricity (although the original plan was to fuel the entire village with hydrogen). The plan is to make the athlete’s village area a model for realizing a hydrogen society, as the village now will turned into a residential area. 

Robots supporting athletes, staff and sporting events

Another theme of the Tokyo 2020 Games was robots. In the Tokyo 2020 Robot Project, Toyota developed a suite of robots that was deployed at different scenes of the Games. “Meet and greet”-robots, that can interact with humans, didn’t get a chance to welcome spectators to Japan, but were deployed in the athlete’s village and at venues. These robots were remote-controlled by human operators but have on-board cameras that recognizes faces and facial expressions and interact with handshakes, head nods and blinking eyes. Toyota also launched its life-sized humanoid robot, T-HR3, which is controlled by VR goggles and an exoskeleton, and able to high-five athletes and hold conversations. Other robots included: the telepresence robot, T-TR1, that allowed people to virtually attend events and interact with athletes; the Field Event Support robots, supporting operations staff in collecting javelins and shot puts during track and field events; and the Toyota e-Palette autonomous vehicle, that transported athletes and coaches in the athlete’s village. Also involved in the Tokyo 2020 Robot project, Panasonic developed a “power assist suit” to assist Games’ staff to unload and move heavy objects, with the exoskeletal suit supporting the back and hip area, making items 20 percent easier to lift.

Toyota Motor Corporation

5G powered viewing experiences and “remote cheering”

Leading up to the Tokyo 2020 Games, Japanese companies had invested $45 million in 5G development. Even though the pandemic slowed down Japan’s 5G roll-out, 5G was set to be one of the key themes of the Games, also in 2021. Together with the organizing committee and Intel Corporation, Japanese ICT companies NTT and NTT Docomo deployed the very latest 5G technology to realize the ultra-realistic sport viewing communication technology: Kirari! (kirari: a momentary flash of light). According to NTT, the technology offers a visual experience that “enables viewers at a remote site to feel as if they are actually sitting in the stands at the stadium where the sporting event is taking place.”.

Thanks to this technology, sailing events spectators would be able to follow the competitions occurring offshore on a 50-meter wide-vision screen, where drones and cameras would capture the competition and transmit 12K ultra-wide composite images live utilizing the high-speed and high-capacity features of 5G under the catchphrase “instant speed”. Similar experiences were planned also for the golf competitions. Due to the spectator ban, the Kirari! technology was only demonstrated in smaller scale, including a “remote cheering” event during the marathon in Sapporo.

Another 5G technology developed for Tokyo 2020 included the 5G powered AR experience, where spectators at swimming events would have been provided with the wearable AR devices which display detailed race information during events.

Olympics/NTT Docomo

Highlighting sustainability and a circular economy

Sustainability was at the forefront of the Tokyo 2020, which highlighted Japan’s ambitions to reduce waste and realize a decarbonized society. For the first time ever, both the Olympic medals and the podiums for medal ceremonies were produced using 100% recycled materials. In the Olympic/Paralympic village athletes slept on recyclable card-board beds and the 40,000 pieces of timber used to construct the village’s plaza will later be re-used.

Although some may argue that the Tokyo 2020 Games were the most bureaucratic in history, given the strict and many covid-protocols, it did bring hopeful, sustainable and futuristic innovations. On top of it all, one could argue that Japan has had to re-innovate itself (and still is – but that’s another story) to on the one hand tackle a pandemic and on the other, host the world’s largest sport events in the middle of it all. If anything, it has shown Japan’s ambition to be a partner to count on in times of global challenges.

Hanna Brasar and Shiori Schules @OSI Tokyo