Why London 2012 will be remembered as the social Olympics

Forget the sporting glitterati about to descend on our capital city – it could be the thumb-twiddling Twitterati that break new records during London 2012 at the most interactive Olympic Games yet.

As well as Team GB's biggest haul of medals for 100 years, Beijing 2008 gave us a hi-def Opening Ceremony and some streaming live video online.

In the four short years since China, things have moved on and London 2012 will be teeming with tech; Super Hi-Vision, live 3D TV and live broadcasting on smartphones will all feature. Perhaps most impressively, the BBC is planning to screen every single event at London 2012, promising that its record-breaking coverage – 24 live HD streams and 2,500 hours of coverage – will be available via the BBC Sport website on PC, laptop, smart TVs, tablets and smartphones.

Facebook has also launched its own London 2012 portal.

The BBC intends to broadcast up to 24 live streams from London 2012

Despite all those tech firsts, it's the latter two devices that could make London 2012 an event where social media is as much a sport as the on-track antics. "There were no tablets at the last Olympics – it's a completely new market," says Carl Hibbert, a tech analyst at Futuresource Consulting.

"Tablets have proved a lot more engaging for video than the laptop, and during the Olympics tablet owners will be able to fire-up the BBC iPlayer at work to catch-up on the judo or weightlifting in their lunch-hour. It provides a new resource and touch-point for broadcasters."

The tablet, however, is far from a passive device – and that goes double for smartphones, which will get just as much live London 2012 love. The majority of Olympics viewing will be on a TV, of course, but with 'second screen' viewing now common, the amount of Tweeting and Facebooking during London 2012 is expected to sky rocket precisely as a consequence of the BBC's ambitious plans.

Is Zeebox the answer?

Anthony Rose, ex-Future Media Controller at the BBC and responsible for the BBC iPlayer, thinks the Beeb's coverage of London 2012 needs a social media sheen not just for its own sake, but to act as a dynamic electronic programme guide.

"The BBC will have fantastic video coverage, but I don't believe they're doing anything in social media," he says. "Imagine you're sitting in front of your television and you've got 24 channels you could access – how do you know which is the one where Team GB is winning? Or which one your friends are watching?"

Rose's tech start-up has therefore come up with Zeebox, a web platform and app for iOS and Android that was launched late in 2011. It attempts to turn live TV into a two-way, social viewing experience. Each user simply tells the app which package they've got – say, Sky+HD, Virgin Media's XL bundle, or Freeview HD – clicks on the programme they're watching, and information about popularity is shown along with Tweets about that show, news headlines and stories online, and even associated apps that can be downloaded.

"Run Zeebox on your phone or iPad and it will know, second by second, where the buzz is," says Rose. "Suddenly everyone discovers that one of the events is trending, and you will see that – you can arrange your programme guide so that whatever is the most popular is at the top. The BBC will provide some fantastic live video, and Zeebox is a way of helping you surf that to find the most interesting one for you. Your can then invite friends, start a group chat, and follow celebrities."

Fully integrated with Twitter, the celebrity angle – called Starwatch – is perhaps the most interesting. "If you follow someone on Twitter and they happen to use Zeebox then you can follow them and chat with them if they're chat settings allow, and see what they're watching, if their privacy settings allow," says Rose.

"Even if they don't use Zeebox, if they Tweet about a programme that's on TV now, our servers follow them – we follow about 1,000 UK sports starts and media celebrities and TV presenters – and show them on your virtual couch." During London 2012 it will be possible to follow the athletes and TV presenters, and see their Twitter streams.

Hibbert thinks Zeebox, and social media in general, adds a new dimension to TV – and sport in particular. "Look on Saturday evening TV – it's hard to go half and hour without appeals for hastags and Tweets, and I really think it should be pushed during the Olympics. You become an interactive person at a game," he says, adding: "Social TV is very much in its early days, but the idea about being increasingly engaged in what you're watching isn't going to go away."

The core of this approach works best for live 'event' TV, which is relatively rare away from live sport and the odd 'talent' show – especially with the popularity of hard disk recorders and time-shifting – but increased interactivity is also being used by online catch-up TV services.

For commercial companies social TV is a way of keeping us all interested beyond the live broadcast, and with so much on-demand content now available online, that's crucial from an advertising perspective. "Maybe with tablets becoming more common it means a multi-screen experience, or an additional screen providing another video feed, live updates, or more stats," suggests Hibbert.

"Maybe you're watching the 100m race and you can bring up profiles of all the runners? The creative side of this comes into play – could broadcasters have a real-time game where you tap the screen to race against the runners? It's all about achieving eyeballs and retaining interest in that piece of content after it's aired, whether it be paid-for premium content, or advertising-funded."

During May's FA Cup Final Zeebox invited users to 'be the ref' by sharing their opinions (Foul! Etc.), voting for the man of the match on Facebook, and tweeting during the match using special hashtags to win tickets to the 2013 event. A similar treatment was given to the Champions League final.

"Every four years it's promised that this will be the Olympics of something – of video on demand, or of HD – but it's never changed dramatically, with most people watching the highlights each evening on TV," says Rose. "This time London 2012 has the potential to be the first time that social media has played a decisive role."

Jamie Carter

Jamie is a freelance tech, travel and space journalist based in the UK. He’s been writing regularly for Techradar since it was launched in 2008 and also writes regularly for Forbes, The Telegraph, the South China Morning Post, Sky & Telescope and the Sky At Night magazine as well as other Future titles T3, Digital Camera World, All About Space and Space.com. He also edits two of his own websites, TravGear.com and WhenIsTheNextEclipse.com that reflect his obsession with travel gear and solar eclipse travel. He is the author of A Stargazing Program For Beginners (Springer, 2015),