The £1bn entertainment hub set to transform London’s West End

The £1bn entertainment hub set to transform London’s West End
After taking over a chunk of real estate in the heart of London, Outernet Global is on the cusp of revealing a display installation of staggering scale and remarkable ambition. Anna Mitchell finds out more from CTO Mike Whittaker.

When Outernet London switches on this autumn, it will kick off the gradual opening of a vast and varied complex set to transform a corner of the UK’s capital, and mark the end of a very long process. To get here, Laurence Kirschel’s property firm Consolidated Developments bought up a large part of the city’s historic Denmark Street; developed an ambitious concept that includes 360-degree 16K screens, a 2,000 capacity underground music venue and a boutique hotel; and successfully navigated design and planning of all elements. Building alone has taken more than three years.

The 2,260 sq metre LED display, currently claimed as the largest deployment of LED by pixel density ever, is housed in the cube-shaped Now Building at the heart of the district. It will be a very visual indication of the scale of the technology ambition of Outernet Global, with 400,000 people passing by and viewing the site each day.

The £1bn entertainment hub set to transform London’s West End

In January 2020, Mike Whittaker joined the project as CTO, immediately tasked with realising the ambitious technical plans. Was it daunting to be asked to deliver a vast project that, at least from a video point of view, has never been done? “It was the technical challenge and the scale that drew me to the project,” Whittaker counters.

The huge, wraparound immersive 16K displays are created from more than 2,000 sq metres of AOTO LED, run by four 64K controllers. The space is also flooded with audio from an L-Acoustics L-ISA system that enhances the feeling of immersion for spectators and visitors. Whilst the setup has chalked up some technical firsts, it’s also fairly unique, as well as very diverse, in its aims.

“We might be using the space as an art gallery effectively, the next moment there’ll be elements of out of home, we’ll have big events and they could be advertiser led or something more like a concert. Having a tech stack that works for all of that, and one that is as vanilla as possible to handle all the possibilities we might get faced with in the future, was the challenge,” explains Whittaker.

When it came to display technology, Whittaker [pictured right] says LED was the only option for the space and what they needed to achieve.

The £1bn entertainment hub set to transform London’s West End“For that scale - the largest wall is four storeys high - LED made sense,” he says. “Within the spaces we have 2.8mm [pixel pitch], and there are two exterior facing walls and they’re 5mm [pixel pitch]. Everything’s IP rated. LED just works at that scale, with the crispness, the luminance and the nits, all of that. It just creates that spectacle.”

On the audio side Outernet London partnered with L-Acoustics, installing an L-ISA immersive sound system. “It’s the audio that’s going to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, it has to be an equal partner to video,” says Whittaker. “It’s a key part of working with your senses which was in our creative brief.” And eyes and ears aren’t the only senses being targeted, aroma comes into the mix too.

Behind the scenes is what Whittaker describes as “the core”. This is the technology combination of Ventuz real-time content creation and playout, Mediagenix Whats’On scheduling system and Lucid show control.

Whittaker says Ventuz was tried and tested when it came to came to real-time content rendering in television. He was confident that all they needed to do for Outernet London was scale that up. “With Ventuz our questions were not just ’can you render real-time?’, but ‘can you also do it seamlessly?’. We don’t want to see the join as we go across a cluster, or as we go around a corner, and they were one of the few companies at that point who could do that. There’s lots of great rendering out there and game engines, but when you say ‘I’ll give you a 16K canvas, make it seamless’ you see some worried looks. Ventuz could give us a solution and very bespoke hardware to achieve what was required.”

With Ventuz as a given, attention moved on to the scheduling system which also had a crucial role to play.

“This is not a billboard,” says Whittaker. “The schedule will have a feel; looking at the content you will know what time of day it is, whether it’s rush hour, morning, the evening. It’s dynamic. We opted for MediaGenix’s Whats’On, which is used by some of the biggest broadcasters in the world. The glue that then takes the scheduling through to something that’s published on Ventuz is a show control system from Lucid.”

Real-time rendering was vital for interaction between audiences and content. “We’ll have an app and you can interact through mobile phones, but you can also interact directly with the content.” Whittaker won’t say more on that just yet other than “it’s motion capture on a slightly different scale, without a suit.”

A final area of the technology set up worth noting is master systems integrator QVest played a key role in designing the operations centre from which the whole system will be run.

The £1bn entertainment hub set to transform London’s West End

Whilst acknowledging the scale of the challenge, Whittaker seems unfazed. He has huge confidence in his team and technology partners. Crucially he has confidence in them to overcome hurdles that will inevitably arise.

“We don’t just have a transactional relationship with our partners, they’re companies that want to work with us to make this happen,” he says. “Take for example the LED. If you’ve got a fixed surface that’s one thing, but we have the world’s largest permanently installed moving rig. That’s a particular challenge where you need to be working with the people building the frames and your LED supplier. How do you cable that? How do you put images on that while they’re moving?”

And if partnerships are crucial to getting The Outernet up and running, they’ll be absolutely vital to ensuring its future success says Whittaker. “We are going to need development. This isn’t static. We won’t run the same show five times a day. We want to be, and we will be, challenged by our clients, by artists, by the events we engage with. We need to make sure that our products have roadmaps and that we’re working with our partners to influence them. This will be a success because of partnerships rather than ‘I give you money, you give me product, and then we both go our separate ways.’”

Whittaker sees part of the creation of Outernet London as building an ecosystem of partners and solutions that his team can evolve and roll out to other locations. London is not the end of the road, sites are already being looked at in the States for future Outernet projects.

The other side of challenge is content creation and Whittaker has great confidence in the in-house creative team whose role is to develop content, work with clients to develop content and work with creative agencies to explain aspects such as resolution and just how to work with a canvas of that size. Partnerships again are important. “We’re engaging with some of the best storytellers in the world,” he says. “We’ve got a partnership with the Ridley Scott Creative Group, Marco Brambilla is our artistic director, there’s something planned from [artist] Marina Abramovic.”

Whittaker expects and looks forward to being to be challenged by the ideas and demands of content creators. As well as working with Ventuz, he says they’ve forged relationships with Unreal Engine and Unity too. “All of these systems have strengths, we want to harness those and make sure the capability of these screens is endless.”

It’s easy to get distracted by those endless possibilities, but the Now Building also needs to be considered within the context of the wider development.

The £1bn entertainment hub set to transform London’s West End

Whittaker says creative heritage is woven into this part of London, pointing out the importance of Denmark Street as London’s Tin Pan Alley. The boutique hotel on the site contains the apartment where the Sex Pistols lived, complete with graffiti they left on the walls. That’s joined by multiple restaurants, bars, not to mention the 2,000 capacity music venue. Working with the BPI (British Phonographic Industry), a recording studio has been built pro bono and is dedicated to new and emerging talent. Building this whole campus from scratch allowed the team to put in place infrastructure that will also allow content to be shared across the venues and hotel via an IP network. 

The concept defies simple definition but Whittaker offers the most appropriate summary: “This is about entertainment in the broadest sense.”

The £1bn entertainment hub set to transform London’s West End

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