The show must go on

The proliferation in video formats, and an increase in file sizes are presenting challenges to integrators in both the live, corporate events and media installation fields. Steve Montgomery talks show control with the manufacturers in the field.

Nobody in our business could fail to observe the radical, if not monumental, changes in video and audio distribution, transmission and playback. The proliferation of new formats and standards is causing a massive headache, confusion and panic to integrators, system specifiers and users. One of the areas most affected is that of live shows where many and varied forms of digital and audio content have to be handled and accommodated in a single staged event; without any glitches, failures or lack of performance and where not only must ‘the show go on’ but it must go on seamlessly and professionally. The problems are highlighted by Gary Holford Media Systems Director at Creative Technology: “As an equipment and services provider Creative Technology are faced with a proliferation of technical issues on the majority of our current projects. High definition resolutions and digital formats have become standard over the last couple of years. Where a high definition image is capable of displaying 2 million pixels, we have projectors capable of 2.2 million pixels and data processors capable of at least 6.6 million pixels. Software issues probably occupy the lions share of our media systems resources, dealing with a whole range of encoding formats, compression rates, data rates, pixel resolutions, frame rates, refresh rates. The variables can be endless. Our role is to advise clients on high resolution, high quality formats which are manageable, in terms of file sizes and playback data rates. Playback of content is invariably under the control of computer hardware, whether it be an HDSDI, DVI or Analogue RGB/YUV output. We have to provide the most suitable computer hardware to deal with the content and in many cases provide software conversions to incorporate unsuitable third party content.“

In proprietary server equipment, where a video feed is encoded and stored on hard disk before retrieval and decoding back to a presentable format under complete control of the device itself, the choice of compression technology is reasonably clear cut. For general use as SD and HD servers, MPEG2 is the de facto standard, capable of providing a sufficient level of quality for the largest live presentation projectors around today but with a bit rate limited to around 80Mbps. However as higher resolution displays appear, including 2K and 4K projectors, such as Sony’s SXRD projector, higher quality source material is critical, resulting in a need for larger amounts of storage and lower compression levels. Electronic cinema has emerged as the driving force for wavelet based JPEG2000 codecs capable of fulfilling this requirement and it is this format that is emerging in the live event sector as a new base standard. Julien Gévaudan, Marketing Manager at Doremi Technologies: “JPEG2000 is the standard used in our traditional digital cinema servers and we have taken that standard into new products aimed at the live event market, with our first JPEG2000 & MPEG2 presentation player; the DSV-J2. This is capable of storing 1000 or 2000GB with visually lossless 2D and 3D playback of 4K material at up to 250Mbps and 16 channels of uncompressed audio, equivalent to 9 or 18 hours of storage.”
Another issue is the ability to handle highest resolution content, particularly as the software processing tools to manipulate and compress video is not yet generally available. Dataton manufactures WATCHOUT multi display software, Fredrik Svahnberg, Marketing Director, explains the issues they are currently addressing: “As 4K x 2K pixel footage becomes readily available we are able to present higher than HD resolutions using multiple servers, although it requires dedicated editing to produce and split images accordingly when HD sources are employed. It will take time for codecs and certainly for 4K projectors to become available in much the same way that HD codecs were introduced some time after HD was a common broadcast standard.”
At the display point, the general requirement is for high quality presentation, which means not just high definition resolution, but beyond; with multi screen, multi projector systems and all the synchronisation and edge blending that goes with it. Show control is however, not just the domain of the experienced show manager, nowadays the user is becoming more active in the control of the display.

Andreas Huber, Marketing Manager at AV Stumpfl comments: “Live automated shows are becoming more common, with products like our SC TouchControl putting the selection and presentation into the hands of the client themselves rather than under scheduled or professional operation. Linking TouchControl to Wings Platinum enables a very simple and straightforward GUI to be created for interactive control of shows, allowing fading in and out of live videos, selection of streams, sound and images during a show. Our jukebox organises playlists, edits and arranges with MS Exchange calendars.” With this technology, the distinction between show controllers and digital signage starts to blend. Andreas Huber: “Providing a mixture of mobile and wall mounted devices and IP addressable system controllers offers the best of all worlds, with maximum flexibility to control a system from multiple points. An installation in a meeting or presentation room for example can be controlled by a speaker, by the system supervisor and IT technician to offer the best configuration possible so that the room can be used for a multitude of different purposes; as a conference room or lecture hall, for multi display shows or demonstration suite. All services in the location, including air conditioning, lighting and the AV suite can be controlled in the same way.”
As show control technology becomes inherently more complex but at the same time requires a simple interface, the demands on the underlying platforms become greater, demanding higher levels of performance and response. One element in the evolution is the use of Windows Vista Operating System and DirectX for multimedia applications. Vista is seen by many as a retrograde step for mission critical systems, however Andreas Huber disagrees: “Vista and DirectX offer a significant performance gain in real time rendering that is required for advanced systems and is the only practical way to the achieve the level of response and quality we need.”

Another trend becoming apparent in major, high definition installations is the ability of systems to be fully IP controlled. This goes beyond the basic level of connecting over a network to a controllable device, reaching much further down to enable remote utilities to be run and enormous files to be transferred and synchronised with playout devices. Alex Carru, CEO at Medialon: “As video files become larger and applications more sophisticated, it is no longer sufficient just to switch and set up remote equipment, instead it is necessary to manage files across networks. For example, a full HD sequence of only a few minutes can be held on a server for realtime playback. In order to extend the playback duration or to select sequences on a timed schedule, you need to be able to download it from a disk-based storage device over a network to the server. This can be done as a normal file transfer in less than real time. Our controllers are software based and manage all the file functions required, such as moving and erasing from a central database. We have some applications where The database is part of the show control system and totally manages all aspects of a show, including video and audio playback, special effects including LED lighting, watershows, fog machines etc. Our role is to provide drivers and the user interface so that peripheral equipment including databases can be controlled in this way including components such as AMX, with whom we have a technology partnership to allow control over IP of conventional serial and relay equipment.”

This trend is also considered by Alcorn McBride in their new products. The V16 Pro show controller provides multiple synchronous output streams and includes two Ethernet ports -- one for local show control and one for WAN or Internet connection allowing the device to communicate with almost any network device. Supported protocols include UDP, HTTP (server), FTP, SNMP, SMTP (client), and NTP. Henry Corrado comments: “Single networks are now fast enough to be used to carry both data and control resulting in much more sophisticated products and techniques. Digital Binloop for example, can sit on a network and be loaded and controlled remotely to deliver up to 16 tracks of high bitrate MPEG-2 video with full synchronisation. It also responds to contact closures, RS-232 and MIDI control and with optional CobraNet outputs makes it ideal for comprehensive visitor attractions.”

What this means for the industry is that more and more of the audiovisual infrastructure is moving away from the specialist world of AV to IT. It started with flatscreens and projectors, moved on to whiteboards and internal video distribution networks and is now encroaching into the areas of highly complex network delivery and file manipulation. Alex Carru: “System integrators and AV specialists must raise their knowledge level of IP and networking if they are to survive in the industry as it goes through a radical period of evolution.”

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