OSU Professor Works to Improve Information System at Olympics


CORVALLIS, Ore. – A computer science professor at Oregon State University will be participating in the Olympics in Beijing this summer – sort of.

Although Carlos Jensen won’t be throwing the javelin, competing in beach volleyball or fencing, he will be doing research to make it easier for the more than 4,500 television and radio commentators who broadcast live from the Olympics to more accurately and instantly access data about the athletes and events while on the air.

All broadcast journalists rely on an online Commentator Information System provided by the Olympic Committee that enables them to access athlete statistics, medal tallies, real-time scores or race times, and even the air temperature or wind speed being measured and transmitted by hundreds of sensors located throughout the sports venues.

The current information system was originally developed for the 1992 Olympics, Jensen said. Because the Olympics – whether the winter or summer games – take place only every two years, in different countries around the world and with different technical crews on the ground, ongoing improvements to the information system have been less than ideal.

“In terms of the user experience, this system has not really evolved much other than minor cosmetics and some work on the architecture to improve the speed,” said Jensen, whose research has revealed that although the system contains some 200 pages of information, most commentators only use four or five pages.

“Many users bring hardcopies instead of using the touch screens because they’re concerned they could get lost navigating the system and then be caught on the air without the information they need up on their computer screens.”

Jensen and his graduate students have been studying ways to help these commentators, who must make split-second decisions while broadcasting live and wading through a sea of statistics and other data.

“The commentators are under a very high degree of mental workload and stress,” Jensen said. “We’re hoping our research will lead to an information system that is more effective and less stressful to use.”

He and his students are working to develop an alternative information system that takes advantage of Web 2.0 tools, including ways to personalize the interface so it is not only easier to navigate, but also to customize to meet the individual needs of commentators.

Jensen’s ultimate goal: a new prototype system that is up and running in time for the 201- Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.

Jensen’s research has the potential to result in a marketable product. Computer terminals linked to the Commentator Information System at the Olympic stadiums rent for $7,500 each, with remote connections costing up to $20,000. Commentators from small media outlets need to travel to the host city and pay the rental fee to tap into the system. Jensen’s work might one day result in a lower-cost alternative system that could be used from anywhere in the world.

His research could also apply to other scenarios where users are working under pressure while viewing large amounts of data, such as in aircraft cockpits, at nuclear reactors, and in GPS systems.

The Olympic Games, with their international flavor, are a perfect fit for the multi-lingual Jensen, who was born in Spain, the son of a Norwegian father and a Spanish mother, but grew up in Norway, where he watched the Olympics on television.

Jensen first attended the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000 to help with technical support for the European Broadcasting Union when he was a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“The previous games had been in Atlanta, so there were a lot of people in town who had connections to the Olympics,” Jensen said. “I helped a friend fix his PC, and he asked me if I had any summer plans, and it turned into one of those amazing opportunities.”

Since then, Jensen has attended the Salt Lake Winter Olympics in 2002 and the Athens Summer Games in 2004, gathering more data for his research. His research team was able to arrange for a live feed to his OSU lab for the Winter Games in Turin in 2006.

He says working at the Olympics is somewhat akin to being with the circus. “You show up a month early, set up everything, watch the fun, and two weeks later take everything down and watch things go back to normal.”