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Source of All Good Video Things, Part One

Despite the omnipresence of cloud-based streaming in our media consumption landscape, the fact remains that video display systems in the live show environment continue to rely on specialized components to store and play out media content. Those devices, which we’ll call sources, are usually co-located with other portions of the video display system at the show site and can take the form of media servers, “clip players” or, as is very often the case, a standard laptop computer.

Source devices range in cost from $0, if you use the free video player software that came with your PC, up to the tens of thousands of dollars for a high-end player intended for broadcast applications. They are available in more styles and configurations than can be imagined. All of this variety makes keeping track of what is available and matching the device type to the application more than a little tricky. Hence, this article!

The Basics

To provide a basic level of organization, I’ve created a table listing different types of playback devices and software according to their form and features. Note that the designations are broad generalizations and many exceptions exist—specifics will come later in the article. Software-based, i.e. applications that run on generic hardware, are listed first, followed by hardware-based systems that run on proprietary hardware.


Feature Set

Typical Application


Standard OS Software

  • Clip sequencing
  • Simple transitions
  • Some editing
  • Codec restricted
  • Limited preview

Meetings or conferences with content in standard configuration.

Specialized Clip Player Software

  • Create complex playlists
  • Thumbnail preview
  • Some layering
  • Few content restrictions
  • Multi-output
  • Runs on standard PC/Mac

Larger meetings with intensive content requirements

Software-based VJ Applications

  • Control surface interface
  • Output warping/mapping
  • Advanced Layering
  • Multi-output
  • Codec-restricted compressed content
  • Embedded content
  • Runs on standard PC/Mac

Flexible Live Performance



Software-based Media Server Applications

  • Timeline UI
  • Output warping/mapping
  • Advanced Layering
  • Multi-output
  • Input capture
  • Sophisticated I/O interface
  • Codec-restricted compressed content
  • Runs on high-end PC/Mac

Scripted Live Performance with Interactive capability.


Hardware-based Production DVR’s

  • User application runs on purpose-built hardware.
  • Complex playlists
  • Thumbnail preview
  • Support standard broadcast formats (4:2:2)
  • Gen-lock
  • Real-time record
  • High-reliability performance

Broadcast production mainly but sometimes seen in large event and time-based art/museum/theme park installations

Hardware-based Media Servers

  • Accurate pre-visualization
  • Sophisticated object tracking
  • Complex layering
  • Timeline programming
  • Live input capture
  • Warp mesh import
  • Auto-calibration
  • Blending/warping
  • Multi-resolution, multi-configuration outputs
  • Gen-lock option
  • Control surface interface

All of the above


An Abundance of Choices

Clip players play sequences of video clips. Media servers combine live rendering capability with timeline-based programming and a multi-layer environment. VJ systems allow for real-time interactive manipulation of clip sequence and video parameters. There are many choices, and one type of system does not fit every application, but there are general considerations that can help narrow down the choices.

Start with the type of display being supported. Is it a standard aspect ratio screen? If not standard, will it require pixel mapping (clip player vs. media server)? Then, consider the programming of the event. Will it require a pre-programmed clip sequence? Or, does the programming require random, interactive access to stored clips (clip player vs. media server or VJ system)?

In Part Two of this Source of All Good Video Things examination, I’ll match specific types of systems to various applications to provide a roadmap for selecting the right product for the applications.

Throughout a 40-year career in the entertainment technology business, Josh Weisberg has experienced each of the evolutionary leaps in sound, video, and lighting technology from a seat in the front row. Combining a rare level of business management and technical engineering acumen, Weisberg has a keen understanding of the mechanics of running a technology business as well as the engineering and design chops clients rely on for all types of projects. Currently working as a technology and business consultant (having stepped down from the leadership role at Scharff Weisberg and WorldStage in 2017), Weisberg utilizes his expertise in large-screen display design as well as other event technologies for clients in the event, arts, theater, and spectacle sectors.

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