Blurred lines: Think outside the box to find the right tech for the job

Broadcast products in houses of worship and gaming engines in events are two examples of pro AV’s crossover with other markets. Tim Kridel investigates the drivers and impact.

Add one more thing to the list of how Covid-19 changed the world: It accelerated the crossover of broadcast and gaming technologies into pro AV applications.

One example is how in-person events suddenly went virtual, forcing vendors and integrators to pivot to live streams.

“Pro AV products were combined with budget-friendly broadcast products like Blackmagic switchers to create live streaming solutions for all kinds of corporate communications,” says Ben Macrow, Anna Valley account manager. “For example, the Barco E2 certainly wasn’t designed for web streaming, but its ability to manage remote inputs and send independent signals to multiple destinations made it the obvious choice for us to use as the backbone of a ‘broadcast’ show.”

As with other pandemic pivots, this mashup was awkward at first but has become a viable option now that the kinks have been ironed out.

“Combining broadcast and pro AV tech in this way to deliver virtual shows was largely driven by what technology pro AV companies had in stock and the talent available to operate it, rather than how you might do it in an ideal world,” Macrow says. “Then, because the pandemic has lasted so long, we’ve developed really good ways of working with these solutions to deliver what our clients need using equipment and processes that are familiar to them.”


Democratising high-end gear
Before the pandemic, houses of worship and education were among the other verticals using products designed for the broadcast market. That trend has also accelerated.

“At one time, it was a purely cost-driven decision,” says Andy Davies, Diversified director of media and entertainment for EMEA. “Houses of worship and education facilities simply couldn't afford 4K cameras and fancy things like vision mixers. So there was a whole range of products out there that satisfied that lower end of the market. Panasonic and JVC all made AV-type products that we've kind of aimed at that sort of market.

"Unreal Engine is now powering virtual environments in film and TV, but also being marketed as a viable way for architects to show off building designs as virtual reality rather than using CAD." - Ben Macrow, Anna Valley

“There's been some real disruptors in the market in the last five or six years. Blackmagic is probably the biggest in terms of democratising the sort of higher end equipment for the lower end of the market. There's also a number of other manufacturers that are kind of coming in on the coattails of Blackmagic and doing similar sort of things, like BirdDog and Datavideo to a lesser extent.”

It’s also worth looking at how these technologies and use cases are playing out in other parts of the world.

“In the US, houses of worship have been using broadcast technology for years to create content for big screens in megachurches and to broadcast live sermons,” says John Belcher, Anna Valley business development manager. “In this instance, the use of broadcast tech was originally motivated by the need for high-resolution images and to meet the standards of broadcast programming. Until recently, churches in the UK, by contrast, had very modest AV capabilities and are only now starting to invest in this technology to support remote audiences with web streams.

“The main factors that determine whether pro AV or broadcast technology is chosen for these installations are often the budget, the supplier and who will be operating the system rather than the end use case. If there’s sufficient budget for advanced technology and professional operators, then a broadcast system is more likely to be chosen. Similarly, while education institutions in the UK haven’t historically had the budget for broadcast technology, this could change if the US model of pay-to-view lectures catches on locally.”  


Steep learning curve
One challenge with using products from other sectors is that they’re designed with certain assumptions about personnel levels and skills.

“The thing that people often miss is that broadcast workflows are often designed around having quite a lot of people in the room,” Davies says. “That often isn't the case with education and house of worship, [which] often is volunteer based.

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“Broadcast equipment has traditionally been pretty poor when it comes to the quality of user manuals, training, support and so on that's available out of the box. They're kind of expecting a high-end engineer to be on hand.”

Davies has seen cases where organisations spent their whole budget on technology, leaving nothing for training and other support.

“We would always encourage people to think about the fact that they have to spend a little bit of money on training and professional services that sort of go with a technology purchase like that to make sure you can get the most out of it,” he says.


The influence of consumer experiences
At the other extreme is consumer products used for pro applications, such as TVs used for digital signage by clients who balk at the premium for pro displays.

“Price has certainly always been a major reason for going for a consumer TV over a professional display,” says Joan Aixa, Maverick AV Solutions European smart signage director. “But as the gap closes in price as flat panels become more accessible, this trend is decreasing.”

That change is partly a by-product of a maturing market.

“In the digital signage market, there hasn’t always been focus on quality, which has meant that performance has been sacrificed and end users sometimes think too short term,” Aixa says. “Now that digital signage has become more established and ROI has been proved over and over again, people are more prepared to look at it as a long-term investment.”

One way to play up the ROI is by focusing on value-added features that TVs don’t have, such as integrated content players and remote management capabilities.

“Digital signage displays are specifically designed with commercial-grade components that enable constant use 24/7/365, from specialised cooling fans and ventilation systems that keep the panels working at optimum temperatures,” Aixa says. “When overused, the LCD panels in consumer TVs will overheat, causing image retention and colour shift, meaning over time screens will age differently and the screens will all look different.”

A pro display also can provide a better viewing experience and for more people.

“Consumer TV screens are optimised for [viewing] a few feet away on a sofa, with particular lighting conditions and landscape orientation,” Aixa says. “To maximise the efficiency of digital signage (more viewers), displays need to have the largest viewing distances and angles available while still offering complete versatility under the constraint of commercial lighting settings. [This requires] contrast ratios and display brightness that TVs just aren’t able to keep up with.”

Apple TVs and Rokus are another type of consumer product pulled into the pro space. Initially one reason was familiarity: A lot of faculty and other end users had them at home, and those experiences as consumers influenced their expectations about what’s possible and preferable in the conference room or classroom. In some cases, they would bring their player to work or school. In others, they’re specified for digital signage applications.

"Broadcast workflows are often designed around having quite a lot of people in the room. That often isn't the case with education and house of worship, [which] often is volunteer based.” - Andy Davies, Diversified

“We’ve seen this over and over again: end users picking products designed for the consumer markets for their digital signage,” Aixa says. “The major reason? Familiarity. People expect to have the same user experience across products.

“Until recently, digital signage hasn’t been able to offer the same user-focused content development that popular consumer products are known and loved for. This is a massive deterrence, for sure. If users think that something doesn’t have a certain aesthetic and emotional design, they’ll pick something else, regardless of technological advances.”

Some vendors recognised this appeal and developed products to capitalise on it.

“Setting up digital signage used to be a pain for businesses: applications used to be difficult, complicated and costly,” Aixa says. “Consequently, users were more likely to choose the cost-effective and unified experiences they have come to expect from products. Now with intuitive platforms like Airtame and Signagelive, this is completely reversed. They deliver an inviting and straightforward introductory experience for users that feels close to the consumer experience.”

When consumer products are pulled into the pro market, it suggests that pro vendors need to develop products that are less expensive, more intuitive or whatever else is attracting end users. The trick is do all that without cutting too many corners or too much margin.

“Moving forward, I think that pro vendors need to adapt a clear strategy when developing digital signage solutions,” Aixa says. “Create a comprehensive UX, user-orientated training, build a strong cloud platform that has easy API integration and continual innovation through updates.”


Game on
Gaming technology also is being pulled into pro AV.

“As game engines have got closer to photo realism, then other markets have become interested in using them for all kinds of different applications,” says Anna Valley’s Macrow. “A prime example is how Unreal Engine is now powering virtual environments in film and TV, but also being marketed as a viable way for architects to show off building designs as virtual reality rather than using CAD.”


In that respect, pro AV benefits by leveraging development work funded by other, larger industries.

“The gaming industry is massive, even becoming larger than the movie industry,” says Thierry Heldenbergh, AED Display managing director. “That's why they put a lot of resources in developing that and in making it really photorealistic.”

This photorealism came in handy when the pandemic struck.

“With the start of the Covid pandemic, there was a big request for more corporate storytelling and maybe some smaller product launches,” Heldenbergh says. “We used Notch, a real-time rendering engine. It's very flexible because for events, usually they have less time. So they come in and say, ‘We want the background to be more bluish, or we want a different style of floor.’ 

“With Notch, this is really easy to create and render. In Unreal, everything needs to be re-rendered completely, which takes an awful lot of time. The downside [of Notch] is that it's not that photorealistic. We can also combine both: a complete environment built in Unreal and more interactive objects like graphics rendered just with Notch.”

Epic Games, the company behind Unreal, also shows how vendors sometimes let their products be pulled into other verticals to identify additional opportunities.

“Epic Games have a really interesting licensing model which pretty much lets most users and developers use it for free with no royalties,” Macrow says. “It’s an approach we’ve seen before with technology companies like Facebook: make a loss for a number of years until your technology is crucial and then figure out how to monetise it once you’ve got a big market segment. They also have a scheme called Epic MegaGrants where they have committed US$100 million [€89 million] to support the development of new ways to use the Unreal Engine.

“So Epic Games as a company is asking the world to tell them where their technology can be used – getting their customers, prospective customers and even industries they’ve never even considered as markets to tell them how to develop their product – and incentivising them to do so by offering to fund it.”

Top image credit: Dmitry Zimin/

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