Bright Lights, Big Signage
COW Library : Blackmagic Design : Chris Pelzar : Bright Lights, Big Signage
A Times Square board of any significance starts at a million dollars plus, so the stakes are very high, but the LED business until now has been very much a voodoo kind of business. "Add a little of this, and a little extra of that, and all of the sudden we'll come up with something really creative for you."
The back end systems they've used have been heavily based upon each individual manufacturer's black box technology. At the time that it's released, the box could be cutting edge, or even bleeding edge, but these things fade over time. Black box technologies haven't been able to keep up with the type of content that can be played on these new LED boards.
Here at Activate the Space, the more we looked at the landscape, the more we saw that this is similar to what we had been doing in post-production. We had different kinds of media, different kinds of connections, and we had to figure out how to make it work. We understood this kind of workflow, and had been dealing with it for decades.
So we started thinking about how to use some of the tools we'd already been using to solve post problems, and take advantage of the best of what's new, in order to help our clients overcome what they thought was too costly a barrier to entry.
We focused on workflow. We didn't see it as being too different than most post or broadcast facilities, but we saw that the world of digital signage had a long way to go to catch up. One of the biggest gaps we saw is that there was no SDI. There's still a ton of VGA over CAT5 systems out there, then DVI over CAT5, all the way up to HD over CAT5.
There's a limitation with DVI and HDMI over CAT5 though, of about 100 feet or so. SDI allows us to run upwards of 300 feet on one cable, which from a holistic standpoint, a workflow standpoint, an infrastructure standpoint, gave us a tremendous amount of flexibility in how we could create new installations for these boards, and move into different verticals from there.
First and foremost, we are agnostic toward equipment. We focus on workflow, then find equipment that we're really pleased with. We have come up with systems that are working flawlessly, 24/7, and have been able to add new, advanced features for service and support.
The Clear Channel Outdoor Spectacolor LED board is in the lower right, showing the CNN logo with the Corona can, bottle and limes. Down the street just left of center is a section of the American Eagle Outfitters LED board, the world's largest, also programmed by Activate the Space.
CLEAR CHANNEL OUTDOORClear Channel Outdoor is part of one of the world's largest media companies. They have hundreds of LED boards all over the world, so they want to make sure that their boards can play every media file that's given to them. Their Spectacolor LED board in Times Square can include things like advertising spots or a CNN feed. We've programmed scheduling software that automatically switches exactly at the right moment to, say, take the live feed from the New York Stock Exchange and put it up on the board. This has to happen every day, without fail, or Clear Channel doesn't get paid.
Clear Channel Outdoor Spectacolor LED Board.
Our presentation and scheduling software runs on two Mac Pros in a rack that we've set up behind the board. There's not a lot of room back there, so we've added a 16x16 BlackMagic Smart Videohub with Smart Control hardware control panel, which fits into a single rack space.
Installing the system driving that board's display.
On the converter side, we have a little of everything hanging off the router: we've got HDMI, some analog, audio, all kinds of things. We're also using the Blackmagic UpDownCross converters.
LED screens are natively progressive, but the television feeds we get are natively interlaced. When we convert 1080i to progressive, it has to look good on a screen that's 100 feet by 100 feet big, and we're very pleased with the performance we're getting.
We can also control the router remotely. If at any point the day there's a live breaking news event that they want to put up on that board, anyone from Clear Channel with an iPhone or an iPad or a computer can log in and switch the input. For every part of this, we have replaced systems that cost a lot more money, and were a lot less capable.
One of Modell's in Times Square 16-screen video walls.
MODELL'SThe system we designed for Modell's sporting goods store, also in Times Square, uses the same infrastructure — but the LED board runs 24/7 and earns millions of dollars in revenue every year, and the other is in a retail store.
Unlike the Clear Channel board -- or the Times Square displays that we created for Billabong and American Eagle, the world's largest LED display -- the work that we have done for Modell's is a secondary market for them. Nobody decides not to buy a sweatshirt because the video display is down, but it's a very high-profile location, and as far as we're concerned, the use and application for Modell's is really the same as the one for Clear Channel Outdoor. It's also in some ways more complex. (I should note that there are two Modell's Manhattan locations we've worked on. The other is at Columbus Circle.)
Modell's 20,000 square foot Times Square location has approximately 34 screens, in all different types of formats and configurations. They range from a 16-screen video wall, all the way down to single screens downstairs, as well as an outdoor LED board on the outside of the building.
Modell's Times Square
There is prepared content with scheduled playback from 12 Mac Minis, primarily promotional spots for the products they sell, which includes every brand of sports apparel you can imagine. There are four individual live television sources from DirecTV, as well as a high-definition pan-and-tilt camera inside Nike's "store within a store." They often feature special events, such as basketball players making appearances, and can broadcast these throughout Modell's entire location.
We needed to be able to send every output to every possible screen. It could include promotional video in a dozen different screens upstairs. It could include another video playing on the video wall, and then something completely different playing on the LED board outside in Times Square. The concept was always to have 17 to 18 feeds to choose from, to go to any combination of displays.
The idea was also to allow the people who work in the store to control a lot of this themselves, which presented some obvious issues. Retail stores are not typically stocked with a lot of technical people, and even moreso, not stocked with a staff that understands this kind of video infrastructure. And even for a technical person, understanding how to connect an input to an output can be a little challenging, much less one input to multiple outputs. Our ability to support them remotely was one of the keys to the whole thing.
We began by building middleware with presets. For instance, we understand that they want to play a Yankees game on Saturday afternoon, and show it on every screen. We basically have a pull-down menu -- go to Live TV, choose the channel, and it automatically sends that to every screen. After that, they return to Standard mode, with a combination of prepared and live programming, plus the indoor camera, and the ability to route it to any and all screens.
The Macs also run digital signage software, Sedna Presentation, to integrate things like multiple RSS feed tickers, animations and multiple graphics layers with video feeds. We can then set a schedule for any one of those 12 Mac Mini computers via Sedna to play back specific content at specific times, on specific screens, any day of the week, any year of the decade.
Modell's Times Square AV Rack
We've set up the system to be as easy as possible to use, but what happens if somebody gets lost, and can't remember where one of the menus is, or how to route an input? They call us, we log in to the Blackmagic Videohub or Sedna Presenter remotely, and walk them through it, or simply make the changes ourselves. We can do everything remotely that could be done locally. We could literally take Input One, which is a Mac Mini, and put it out to 12 screens from my iPad. Wherever we are, it happens in seconds.
We've built similar systems for flagship Columbia Sportwear stores in Chicago, Minneapolis, Portland and Seattle, and 40 locations for Billabong around the world, including Times Square, using systems like the ones we designed for Clear Channel Outdoor and Modell's. It's really a great workflow. We provide back end technical service to the customer at a price and with features that would never have been possible before.
New York City Times Square
THE FUTURE OF THE BUSINESSWe are now based in a brand new 15,000 sq. ft. production and office space on three acres -- and we started off just four years ago in a 1000 sq. ft. office.
Our goal has been to make very complex systems easy for non-technical customers to use. We also believe that not all video technology should necessarily look like Times Square. It should be a part of a specific environment, down to its ability to fit into the architect's original vision for the space we're working in.
A big part of our growth has come from our ability to adapt to changes we see, not just in the market, but changes in what's possible. We're a highly defocused company, meaning that we do design and integration, we do product sales, we do consulting, we do content. For example, we still do a lot of work with After Effects, because you have the ability to customize your project size to match, say, multiple 1080 displays side to side. It's not a "normal" video aspect ratio, but new displays and LED boards often need these unique shapes. We also provide HD shooting and post, photography, storyboarding, design and production of music and sound effects, formats conversion, and DVD and Blu-ray duplication, among other services. And we design and manufacture racks designed specifically for Mac computers. We sell monitor stacks, software, Mac Pros and Mac Minis, and Blackmagic routers and converters.
As a result, we see this as not just digital signage. We see it as an entirely new media opportunity. Some of it has been focused on advertising of course, but we are focusing more on overall branding applications. We're looking at every platform from podcasts to hotel lobbies, LED boards and public spaces.
The fact is that we're just scratching the surface of what these systems are able to do. The presentations that you can build in real time in any location is equal to, if not better than, most broadcast television capabilities. And I mean that seriously. We can schedule down to the minute of the day. We can play back any format of video. We can put content not just on a screen. We can put it across 12 screens or 20 screens or 100 screens if we need to.
Designed with reliable components including Mac computers and Blackmagic hardware.
What we need above all is for these systems not to fail. Ever. Which is why we've designed them with components including Mac computers and Blackmagic hardware. Failures mean that your clients don't get paid by their clients. Failures mean that you and your staff have to work lots of long hours on weekends. We're getting a little older now; we don't like to work that hard! In the period that we've grown up, we think there's still opportunity for a lot more growth.