Forgive the time machine trip, but there was a time when video content was played back for theater and live performance in just two forms – videotape and laser disk. The simplicity was frustrating in its limitations. All manner of hoops were jumped through just to achieve decent image quality and multi-channel synchronization. Currently, we are overwhelmed by choice and that creates challenges of a different type. Check out Part One, featuring a table listing different types of playback devices and software according to their form and features.
For example, I recently installed a multi-channel video art piece in a private gallery. The artist’s installation manual specified a BlackMagic Design Hyperdeck Pro2 to support playback of three synchronized HD ProRes video files with 7-channels of audio. While this was a possibility, it would’ve involved many levels of signal conversion to interface to the gallery infrastructure, so an alternate was suggested. The alternate would convert the ProRes files to MPEG-2 and play them on MPEG playback devices.
Normally, down-converting to MPEG-2 from lightly compressed ProRes to MPEG would be a no-go for critical viewing applications. In this case, the content was very forgiving and the result was deemed acceptable, but the example illustrates the tightrope that systems engineers walk when planning playback strategies. In simple terms, the engineer can choose to keep it modest and risk image quality issues or take an approach that provides power and capability but significantly increases cost, complexity, and risks dependability.
The first planning step should qualify what type of display surface is being used. If it is a projected display, does the display require warping and/or soft-edge blending? If so, a media server of some type is probably required unless the projector handles the image manipulation tasks. Even if the projector can handle the warping/blending, it’s usually a better idea to have the media server handle those tasks so the projectionist only has to worry about projection alignment and uniformity and not add more complex alignment chores.
What if the display is a projector, monitor, or LED screen in standard aspect ratio? Are there times when the power of a media server is beneficial? Possibly. For example, if the content is delivered as raw assets that need to assembled, composited, or comprehensively sequenced, working on a media server platform will speed workflow and eliminate the need for last-minute video editing.
Then, there’s the case of the complex LED screen application where content is displayed on multiple screens in multiple shapes and resolutions. While it’s possible to support this type of application with a standard “clip” video player, it would take a great deal of planning and content formatting, not to mention a lot of positive karma. Much better to utilize a multi-output media server that allows the content to be split up and formatted “on-the-fly” in real time. The configurable outputs of the modern media server make it the perfect tool for getting video content onto a complex LED display intact and looking good.
In general, if the application calls for the playback of content with all the elements composited or “baked-in” and the display device is a standard screen, a simple clip player will be fine, even if multiple locations and synchronization between players is required. The better clip player hardware devices do a good job of synchronizing over network and its feasible to have as many as two dozen or more playing simultaneously in accurate synchronization. The clip player systems that are software applications generally have a much more flexible and powerful user interface that is tailor-made for live events but do not adapt well to multi-channel remote networking environments.
A final aspect to consider is the difference between media server platforms that run on proprietary hardware such as Coolux Pandora or Modulo Pi, versus systems that are available as software and intended to run on the users chosen hardware. In reality, while there are a number of capable and useful “software only” products, most of the higher-end systems will run better and more reliably on very carefully sourced hardware, most often provided by the software developer. Therefore, when using these applications, the golden rule is to pay very, very close attention to the hardware requirements specified by the manufacturer and leave time in your plan for extensive testing.
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.