Q&A: Joe Jeremy On BlackBox Niscon Inc.

  1. Explain how BlackBox understands and processes the XYZ coordinates for your products.

    Joe Jeremy: The problem with 3D coordinated cueing is that the technology that would ultimately make the whole concept simple and accurate is, quite frankly, too expensive. Ultimately, every single object in motion, and any object that interacts with an object in motion on stage, would have its location identified in three-dimensional space, and the systems controlling them would know where each of these objects is. If we had budgets the size of the military, we could identify and target the interaction of all those objects.

    We don't have those budgets and likely never will, so we have to use the technology we have on hand to formulate and build a new tool. Consider any region of the unexplored, and you will find numerous examples where groundbreaking technological leaps or exploration required the building of new tools to facilitate the inventive and creative people behind the concepts.

    In the case of BlackBox (BB), the Niscon Raynok Motion Control System is providing the users — the creative teams and the technicians — with a vehicle to pinpoint where an object is in 3D space within a parallel-virtual world. Yes, it is virtual by its concept and its need. It must be parallel, so we can predict and react in realtime, and it must be virtual because we need to make mathematical calculations and use the science of computer technology and communications to coordinate the actions we wish to bring together.

    Raynok feeds BlackBox with the XYZ coordinates of any object that we have in motion. BB can then share that information with all the other disciplines that are under its watch. The creative teams and technicians can then program events along a path in this parallel world to create triggers for the various effects.

    BB does not have to make any interpretations of any kind. It simply knows where XYZ is in relation to the 0, 0, 0 points that are predefined in the setup files. This is where the virtual part comes back into play again. There is a setup stage — a drawing of the stage and objects in 3D.

    But with this, we can now create virtual objects. Consider for a moment Tinkerbell. We never really see her fly through the audience or on stage, but we are led to believe she flies because we see the lighting react and hear the sound effect shift our focus until we see her glow in a scenic object on stage. Many hours are spent coordinating that action, and if the creative team wants to make a change, then hours of cueing have gone to waste. This is why Niscon Inc. got involved — because we see a need to make the programming of various systems within various disciplines easier and, ultimately, to create a greater use of motion control.

    With our software, if Tinkerbell has been created as a virtual object feeding BB, then we could, with a few keystrokes, shift her flight path or create a whole new one in a few minutes and be ready to repeat the flight again and again. This could take away countless hours of frustration and cost, not to mention stress and fatigue. It is really just as simple as X=0, Y=0, Z=12 to place an object 12" off the floor and on the 0, 0 line of the stage L-R, Up-Down.

  2. What was the process at Niscon Inc. in terms of R&D to get BlackBox speaking your language? Who worked on it, and what exactly did they do?

    JJ: The core of Niscon Inc. is my business partner, Peter Sinkner, our system technologist, Don Allen, and me. Peter is the engineer behind the Raynok Motion Control System, and I am the business and sole theatre person within the company. I spend a good share of my time dreaming of ideas to build better ways of cueing and programming cues. Peter makes them all happen for us. When it came to being part of the BB team, I did the dreaming, and Peter made it happen.

    I brought the concept back to Peter after hearing it from Gil. Peter bought into the idea rather quickly, although it did take some convincing, as he would be the one that would ultimately bear the brunt of the workload with it. The communications are handled in standard programming manners through the use of data transfer protocols. The real magic must happen within each of the individual programs of the individual disciplines. BB is simply the conduit through which the positional information passes.

    As far as our BlackBox R&D work within Raynok, we completed it fairly quickly. What we needed to do moreso was be a part of the techno-team that would lay the groundwork to overcome the inevitable hurdles we knew we would see.

    Getting the Cast programmers to understand the world of motion control was probably more challenging than writing the interface. Wysiwyg is great with 3D space, but add motion, and it becomes a whole new entity. Objects now have dynamics and purpose rather than just acting as vehicles for virtual lights and light beams. Instead of working with fixed objects, the objects have to be free to move — free to interact and free to make contact with one another. This is why BB is not Wysiwyg. BB is all about speed.

  3. Explain the exact setup that allowed BlackBox to track flying sand bags in your booth at LDI.

    JJ: We set up a 10'×10'×14' truss structure with four winches and rigging and connected the cables to a load of sandbags. On the trusses, we hung two Vari-Lite VL2500s controlled by an MA Lighting grandMA lighting console. The grandMA was then connected to BB, and BB connected to our console. As we maneuvered the object about the booth, the positional data of the objects was fed back to our console, out to BB, and downstream to the grandMA, which finally focused the lamps.

  4. What are the genuine real-world applications and advantages to using BlackBox? Is it a protocol or software or both?

    JJ: It is hard not to use Gil's moniker when talking about the benefits. BB is really a new way of thinking. It is not about having to use a specific component or a specific manufacturer, although that will be the case for a 12-month period after the product is released so that the partners can hopefully reap some benefit. It is about playing nicely in the sandbox. It is about finding a way to communicate on a common ground about a common need and focus on a common goal.

While it is all about communications, as far as the players around BB are concerned, it is a software product. Once complete, I see the software being something that will continue to morph. As I mentioned earlier, there is a virtual component to this, and there has to be. We have to have somewhere to program or highlight the triggers associated with specific events.

Think of a Wii-like controller one day allowing an LD to take command of a lamp and create a fluid path by waving his hand in the air and the automation or audio systems following that path as well. Or backlighting actors with a special light that follows them where a followspot cannot fit. This is not about Cast or BB or Raynok, for that matter. This is about solving a problem that has existed for ages.

Consider a stage manager's console that can “see” in the dark what is going on and what is coming up. There is opportunity here that, as the machinery and the shows become more complex and potentially hazardous, they can be made safer.

I once watched a master carpenter create a beautifully curved handrail with nothing but a miter saw, sandpaper, and glue. BB is a tool, and tools are built to provide the creative with the ability to create. I am jazzed about this, not because I am part of the inner team. I am jazzed about this because of what it can bring to the industry, and that is why I wanted to be part of the BB team. Personally, I believe there will be applications outside of entertainment in the future, but those are yet to be exposed and explored.

While the BB team focuses on building a new tool, we are also witnessing a wonderful collaborative effort in the joining of previously separated worlds. That alone is something to celebrate. New products and features will come of this, as the tool itself needs new tools to support it.

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