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 OUTDOOR
Clear 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.
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