BYU Today

A Different View of the Games

BYU students and professors made Olympic events virtually come to life.

BYU students and professors made Olympic events virtually come to life.

A small cadre of BYU professors and students provided Olympic spectators with a glimpse into the point of view of athletes competing for the gold. Their project, dubbed the Virtual Olympics, included a series of short, computer-generated three-dimensional films shown on the giant television screens at each of the Olympic venues. These virtual-reality film clips offered an up-close view of an athlete’s perspective in more than a half-dozen Winter Olympic events.


By Todd R. Condie, ’03

The Virtual Olympics project began more than five years ago when Bill Barrett, professor of computer science, arranged funding from the Utah State Center of Excellence for Scientific Computing and Imagery to create a virtual simulation of Olympic events for the upcoming Games. “At the beginning we were wondering if it was possible,” says Barrett. “We asked, ‘Can we do this realistically enough that someone could sit in front of a screen and stare down the mountain’s slope and say it is real?’”

Since that time, the team of students associated with the project has constantly evolved. Numerous students have contributed thousands ofSp02_1194 hours to piece together the Virtual Olympics. The original computers on which the project was begun—top of the line and costing tens of thousands of dollars in their day—have become obsolete. In the end more than 24 computers processing 24 hours a day for weeks were required to generate the final animated sequences.

The crown jewel of their work is a 3-D model of the entire Wasatch Front from Spanish Fork to Ogden. Using altitude data from the US Geological Survey, the team created a geometric model of the region over which they draped aerial photos warped with their own software. One visitor to their lab was impressed that the model’s resolution was so good that he could identify the rock he liked to sit on while deer hunting. “You don’t get grass blades; you don’t get leaves; but you can find your home on it,” says Barrett.

Navigating this terrain much as one would a flight simulator video game, Kenric B. White, ’98, a graduate student in computer science, narrows in on Salt Lake City—then up the canyon to the Olympic Sports Park near Park City. The Sports Park is remarkably detailed, except for the buildings, which are monochrome geometric shapes. “WSp02_1193hen we put this together,” explains White, “SLOC hadn’t built anything yet. No one knew what the buildings were going to look like.”

When they zoom in on the Olympic Park in Park City, the luge track, ski jumps, and several of the other venues are visible as part of the overall landscape. Each of these events was created as an individual model, and from these models were created the Virtual Olympic video animations shown at the Games. Scott Hunter, a freelance animator (, worked with the BYU team to create the various athletes used in the animations. In all, Hunter and the students created simulations of bobsleigh, luge, skeleton, curling, snowboarding, speed skating, and most of the alpine ski events.

But the Virtual Olympic clips weren’t just entertainment; one of their chief purposes was to educate the viewers at each of the events. “The informed spectator is a better spectator,” says Barrett, echoing the logic of the Games’ organizers. “People show up thinking, ‘I don’t know what curling is, but I’m here.’ These simulations can help.” For example, by slowing down the animation of a ski jumper and adding explanatory text and graphics, the clip demonstrates the proper positioning, take-off, and landing required for a successful jump.

Using these same techniques, the simulations are also useful in explaining the performances of particular athletes. In a simulation of the men’s downhill event, for instance, the team is able to program the trajectory of their animated skier. By placing two skiers on the model, they can compare the paths taken by American Darren Riles and Austrian Fritz Strobl to show how differing decisions at a key turn in the race gave Strobl the gold and removed Riles from medal contention.

The benefits of this type of prSp02_1195ogram won’t go unnoticed by athletes and trainers, says Barrett. Hunter agrees. “You could take this information and show it to people that are training, and they could use it to analyze their performance.” The ability to analyze specific venues or an athlete’s performance could be a great advantage to future Olympians.

The intention of the original grant from the Center of Excellence was that the technology developed through this academic project would prove beneficial in the private sector as well. And it has. Barrett says that other pieces of their software have been incorporated into Adobe’s Photoshop and other programs.

After hearing about BYU’s work with the Virtual Olympics, Park City Entertainment approached Paris K. Eggbert, associate professor of computer science, about an upscale mountain bike simulator. They wanted to create an exercise bike that would allow riders to follow simulations of actual trails in the Park City region. “That may not sound that special here,” says Barrett, “but if you live in someplace like Chicago, this is going to be great.”

Barrett sees applications of this technology in other places as well. Holding out his pocket organizer, he speaks energetically of how handheld computers are becoming increasingly more powerful. At some point in the near future, he Sp02_1196envisions downloadable 3D models similar to the Wasatch Front model his students have created that will serve as portable, customized travel guides.

Initially, the team had planned to have their Olympic models accessible over the Internet during the Games as well. Several students spent hundreds of hours scaling down the models to about one hundredth of their original size. Unfortunately, this PC-friendly version was never formally released. It can, however, be accessed through the team’s own servers (see the URL below).

Chris C. Witt, ’03, seems to speak for the group when he says, “It was exciting to be part of something that was so large. People from all over the world saw our work.”

Barrett says, “It’s wonderful to see students grab ahold of a real-world project. The students don’t know it can’t be done, so they go ahead and do it anyway. It’s exciting to see them have such success.”

When asked about what’s next on the horizon for these students and their monumental work, Barrett shrugs. “There’s always something; there are always new mountains to climb, new mountains to create.”

Student Team Members:

Kenric B. White, ’98
Alan S. Cheney, ’01
Chris C. Witt, ’03
Paul R. Schoeni, ’03
Jim W. Brown, ’04
Andrew J. Jorgensen, ’03
Mike R. Warner, ’03