A Complete Reset

by Kevin M. Mitchell
in Corporate Theater
All Photos by Joe Kenemore
All Photos by Joe Kenemore

Design Team Reboots Corporate Event Conventions with In-the-Round Cisco Live!

The purpose of this year’s Cisco Live! event, a multi-day educational event for IT and networking professionals staged within the Mandalay Bay Arena in Las Vegas in late June, was to introduce a radically new networking product. So it makes sense that, when the event’s organizers turned to Lightswitch and Go! Experience Design, they were hoping to provide attendees with an experience that also defied expectations.

“The client was looking for a paradigm shift,” says Lightswitch founder and principal John Featherstone, who served as visual designer on the project. “It was very important that things felt different from the moment the show kicked off,” he added. “We wanted a big bang, and something completely immersive.”

Claypaky Mythos form a light jail around the round stage.

‡‡         A Bait-and-Switch Intro

The best way to create a truly memorable impact, the design team figured, was with a visual change-up. The very first moments of the event kick-off would be designed, on purpose, to elicit somewhat of a “ho-hum” response from crowd. This conventional portion of the event would include a bit of “nerd humor,” such as a countdown using binary computer language (1s and 0s) followed by simple bit-mapped generic superheroes.

“It was created to be traditional, business-as-usual — a ‘bait-and-switch notion that gets interrupted, with the room really coming alive with the lasers, medallions, moving orbs, and everything else,” says Featherstone.

“We wanted to do a complete reset — something that was nothing short of a new, revolutionized way of doing business for Cisco,” adds Julia Mitchell, who served as executive producer of the event, working with Featherstone, senior creative director Julie Schneider and set designer Johniene Papandreas, among others.

After the opening visuals, the design team got the crowd’s attention with a total system shut down. “The whole thing goes down like a blackout, like the power going down,” Mitchell describes. “Then lights start to blink, and video, lighting, and audio components — all of it — comes back to life in a completely new way.”

Upon taking the stage after that three-minute opener, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins greeted the attendees. “Wow,” he remarked. “If you weren’t awake, you are now.”

Stage Kinetik provided the hoists to move the spheres.

‡‡         An Immersive Setup

The in-the-round production design incorporated four key immersive elements: the hundreds of kinetic LED balls from Glow Motion Technologies, suspended on DMX-controlled winches. “These have been on Johniene’s and my radar for a while,” Featherstone says. The second were the Glow Motion wrist-worn medallions, working with the 360-degree setting to turn the spectators into show participants. They “really helped connect the audience to what we were doing,” he adds.

Next was the addition of 18 lasers from Strictly FX, which further connected the dots (literally and figuratively) in a highly choreographed manner. Finally, there was the “chest-rattling” audio designed by Dino Ruggiero that “really supported what we were doing visually.”

VER provided lighting and video for the event, including the LED floor for the circular stage, mirrored above by concentric rings of light. As they entered the arena, attendees could also see four double-sided LED screens, each measuring 56 by 16.5 feet, hanging from truss. (See sidebar for more details).

Although the lighting rig could create what Featherstone describes as a “light jail” effect at times, he credited the 360-degree stage design for allowing an inclusive, immersive feel. “The stage was like a stone in a pond, and the rig rippled out from there in concentric circles — the circles make everyone feel engaged.”

Video tiles were built into the stage

‡‡         An Unusual Event

If most corporate gigs are attended by an audience of sales guys who get paid to listen to the proceedings, and maybe receive an award and a pat on the back for exceeding their sales goals, Cisco Live attendees come from around the world to be on the front line of learning about a revolutionary new networking system. They pay, to get new certifications, and to learn how to put the new technologies to optimum use.

The stars of this show are the C-Level and senior Cisco executives explaining a new network. Then, on the fourth day and last day, actor Bryan Cranston was featured in a sit-down Q&A. “But the opening was the big key, and we wove a web of technology through the rest of the show,” Featherstone says.

Another factor that made this year’s Cisco Live! unique, from a design and production standpoint, was the cloak of secrecy surrounding the product to be launched at the event. Even as they entered the RFP and bidding process for the gig, the designers had no clear idea what, exactly, was being unveiled until about six weeks before showtime.

The execution also brought a few hair-raising moments, recalls Mitchell. To name just one detail, the team had all settled on “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons as the track for the opening, with everything cut and programmed to that. But “it came down to the wire as to whether we were going to get the licensing rights to it or not, and we didn’t find out we got it until a week before the show.”

Lasers add an extra cool effect.

‡‡         Experienced Collaborators

When faced with such hurdles, it helps to be able to work with experienced professionals with a team-oriented focus. Featherstone, who founded Lightswitch with Norm Schwab in 1993, is now one of five principals running the company, which maintains six offices around the world — in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Orlando, San Francisco and Hong Kong.

And although this was the first project Lightswitch created with Go! Experience Design on behalf of Cisco, the teams at Lightswitch and Go! have worked with each other in the past, for clients including Nintendo and Kia. “We have had a long relationship with them, going back 15-plus years, and we really enjoy their collaborative ethos,” says Featherstone.

Cisco's swirling balls

Cisco is also a new client for Mitchell. “It was an exciting time, from the start of RFP to winning the project to executing the event,” she says, adding that, to her surprise, the final event ended up turning out pretty close to what they originally envisioned. “So often, there are changes through the process, but they really did use 90 percent of our initial idea. We only made a few changes involving the kinetic lighting and the LED aspect, which we were happy to do.”

Mitchell still sounds a little surprised by it all, as they were bidding against a large production company that had worked with Cisco for more than 10 years. “Cisco definitely took a chance on us,” she says. “It was like David going up against Goliath, but at every level, we presented an ‘outside the box’ idea, and sent video vines, and really stressed the team aspect.”

Featherstone also credits Cisco for trusting the creative team to tell the story. “It was an interesting voyage of discovery, and gave us a great opportunity to really stretch creatively,” says the designer, who traces his design roots to the theatrical stage before living on a tour bus and then getting off the road to start Lightswitch.

“There was no physical product to reveal, no band on stage, no performers involved,” Featherstone continues. “We were just literally using whatever technology we saw fit to tell Cisco’s story in a way that empowered the audience with their ‘You’re IT’ slogan, which was a clever play on what this new network system can do.”

In addition to enjoying the creative freedom, Featherstone says that the team really appreciated the sophistication of the audience. “We had the advantage of playing to the ‘home crowd.’ in the sense that we were playing to a room full of technophiles. They loved all the kinetic scenery, the video, the lighting, the audio, the Glow Motion Technology pendants, and how it was all connected. We got to speak their language.”  

Layout View on the grandMA2

Lighting and Video Support for Cisco Live!

VER’s Los Angeles office provided the lighting rig and four grandMA2 consoles for Cisco Live! 2017. One console, programmed by Dennis Connors, ran the main portion of the lighting system. A second desk, overseen by Mike Robertson, handled the kinetic winches, Glow Motion orbs and wristbands. Two other desks were used by the tech team and for backup for the lighting rig.

Along with 42 Claypaky Mythos2 fixtures, most of which were deployed by the “cage of light” encircling the center stage, the rig included 24 Ayrton MagicBlade-R fixtures, 180 Martin MAC Viper AirFX, six MAC Viper Performance fixtures, 28 Robe BMFL Blades, 36 Robe Spiiders, 24 Martin Rush Par 2 Zooms and 176 Kinetic winches with GlowMotion Technologies spheres. Las Vegas-based Rigging Technologies provided truss for the event.

VER also served as the event’s video vendor. VER’s John Westermann detailed the setup, which included the LED stage, overhead screens and two video crews managing the video presentation and broadcast trucks for the live-streamed event.

The circular stage incorporated an “LED Uniview video floor, 28 feet in diameter, with 2,121 by 2,121 pixels,” Westermann noted. VER also supplied the four double-sided 2.9mm video screens hanging above the audience. Each of the eight screens measured 56 by 16.5 feet and displayed 5,760 by 1,728 pixels of content. In all, 2,160 LED tiles were used.

Go! Experience Design and Lightswitch supplied video content, with playback support from d3 Technologies media servers. The video crew also supported presenters with content from traditional Keynote and PowerPoint programs.

For a video of this event, go to www.plsn.me/CiscoLV.  For a look at this event’s setup, go to www.plsn.me/CiscoSetup.

 

LIGHTING GEAR from VER:

  • 180 Martin MAC Viper AirFX
  • 24 Martin Rush Par 2 Zooms
  • 6 Martin MAC Viper Performances
  • 42 Claypaky Mythos
  • 36 Robe Spiiders
  • 28 Robe BMFL Blades
  • 24 Ayrton MagicBlade-R fixtures
  • 176 Kinetik winches with GlowMotion spheres

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