How Intel Gets New Tech Ready for the Olympics

By Scott Kirsner |  June 29, 2021

Jonathan Lee, Director of Sports Performance Technology, Olympic Technology Group, Intel

How do you teleport two years into the future, and determine what will still seem cutting edge and cool?

That was the mandate given to Jonathan Lee and the Olympic Technology Group at Intel in 2018, as they looked toward the Summer Games in Tokyo, slated for 2020. Lee says that after a meeting with Intel’s Chief Strategy Officer, she told him, “Don’t be afraid to do something big.”

For Lee — who joined the chipmaker when it acquired the startup Basis, which made wearable fitness trackers — it was an opportunity to bring apply an entrepreneurial mindset within the 110,000 employee company.

“As a startup, you have to do something that is differentiated, and often risky,” he says. “With bigger companies, there’s a tendency to not want to mess up — to keep things as they are.” But with the Summer Olympics, “we had to build a culture that allowed folks to try big things — to try and fail, to learn from those failures, but do it quickly.”

That nimbleness became even more important when the deadline Lee’s group was working toward shifted by a year, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

We spoke with Lee, Director of Sports Performance Technology in Intel’s Olympic Technology Group, as part of InnoLead’s most recent research report, “The New Imperatives: Innovation, Agility, and Openness.”

Building with an MVP Mindset

Two things we’re working on are sports performance and broadcast enhancements. As an example, we’ve created technology around 3D athlete tracking, which uses cameras to track athletes, without sensors. We capture the information about the athlete’s speed and skeletal information. On the broadcast, you’ll see cool graphics and heat maps that indicate velocity, and when they hit their top speed. We also have a virtual world that you’ll see, which allows us to create some really compelling visualizations, like getting different camera angles. We also use the technology to coach athletes as well.

We really try to operate with an MVP [minimum viable product] mindset. Let’s start with the MVP, and once we get that, we’ll feel a lot better. We can iterate on top of that. The most important thing is to get this done on time, versus to make it perfect – and that’s difficult for some engineers to be able to do. 

You do have to be fluid. In innovation, you might have the best plans, but things might not go the way you want them to.

Let’s start with the MVP, and once we get that, we’ll feel a lot better. We can iterate on top of that. 

Exploration, Development & Delivery 

Intel is using cameras, rather than sensors worn by athletes, to track movement and speed, and create visualizations that can be used during coaching sessions — or television broadcasts.

We start developing ideas and technologies one-and-a-half years out, or more. I tell people there are three different modes we can be in: exploration mode, the development phase, or the delivery phase. Even in those exploratory phases, it’s important to time-box your activities. With the Tokyo Games, it’s now the delivery phase, so we’re going to focus, and take away things that are not priorities. It’s just like an athlete would perhaps start their training by trying some new regimens, but then they start to reduce the number of new things they’re trying, and gear up to get into better competition shape. By the time they hit the Olympics, they’re ready to perform.

I tell people there are three different modes we can be in: exploration mode, the development phase, or the delivery phase.

Collaborating with Smaller Partners

[Within Intel, technology development is] different from at a startup or smaller company. We don’t necessarily have to be the owner of everything we bring; a big part of the Olympic Technology Group is really centered around how do we partner with other companies to bring a “better together” product or activation to the Games. In that way, not only are we not reinventing the wheel, or working in areas we’re not experts in, but we’re developing those new business relationships.

Having come from a few startups, for me, there’s an empathy. Now we’re the big company. We’re reaching out to work with you, or you’ve approached us. [As a big company, there may be] a bit more process, but we try to move pretty quickly toward working together.

Delivering on the Biggest Stage

I have a guy on my team right now who won the last two gold medals in the decathlon. At one point, I had four engineers who had represented their country in international competition. So we have people who are used to thinking, “We need to deliver on the biggest stage, on this date.”