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Development of AI, robots to aid judging, athletes heats up ahead of Tokyo Games

This undated photo shows the output screen of a laser sensor system that can map the movements of gymnasts for precise scoring. (Photo courtesy of Fujitsu Ltd.)
The volleyball block machine is used at the Ajinomoto National Training Center in Tokyo's Kita Ward on April 11, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, efforts to utilize AI and other advanced technology to help judging and strengthen athletes' abilities are heating up.

Technology that can analyze athletes' movements or act as tools for training have already been introduced on a trial basis, and experts are hoping that the 2020 Games will be the place to showcase Japan's world-class engineering prowess.

The gymnastics NHK Cup was held from May 19-20 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium. During the competition, a 3-D laser sensor gathered data on the complex movements performed by artist gymnasts such as Kenzo Shirai of Nippon Sport Science University. The device is a joint project between IT giant Fujitsu Ltd. and the International Gymnastics Association to develop a system to aid judges in gymnastic performances, and the goal is to have it ready for use by the 2020 Tokyo Games.

According to Fujitsu, the laser sensor was developed by combining technology made for automobile sensors and skeletal framework scanning for rehabilitation. Athletes are exposed to 2.3 million lasers per second, and the program uses the refractions to accurately map their movements in 360 degrees. In order for the system to work, an AI device has to memorize data for over 1,300 types of gymnastic techniques and instantly be able to name each move and judge the number of rotations.

As the number of highly difficult twisting techniques grows in artistic gymnastic events such as vault and floor exercise, the new system is not only expected to lessen the burden for judges making hard decisions and shorten the time taken to score a performance, it is also hoped to become a strong force in helping athletes to excel. If athletes can grasp the difference between their technique and the ideal movement, then they can more easily practice very difficult moves.

Meanwhile, at the Ajinomoto National Training Center in Tokyo's Kita Ward, a "block machine" is contributing to strengthening the spike technique of players on the Japanese national volleyball team. Operated by the team's coach, the robot, equipped with three sets of arms shaped like human hands reaching upward, moves back and forth to the right and left of the net, reproducing the speed and height of teams strong at blocking.

The research and development project is one started by the government during the 2010 fiscal year. Being able to physically experience a high level of play on par with strong volleyball countries has had a huge impact on the athletes' training. Professor Hiroo Iwata of the University of Tsukuba, who developed the robot, is proud of it being "the first such device in the world."

Still, this doesn't necessarily mean that the robot always meets expectations. One individual related to the project worried, "If we are no longer considered eligible for the government's development program, we won't be able to repair or improve the system."

(Japanese original by Miaki Tsuburaya and Yuta Kobayashi, Sports News Department)

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