A Tale of Two Walls

by Jeff Gooch
in Video World
The lobby wall, fed by Coolux's Pandoras Box
The lobby wall, fed by Coolux's Pandoras Box

I’m gonna build a wall. And it’ll be the best wall you’ve ever seen. And someone else is going to pay for it. Honest. My wall is going to make everyone realize that video is king and all those other disciplines are weak. Lights, Bah. You can’t make a wall out of lights. Although I did see a spry, young group of eager kids once make a wall of Source Fours into a pixel-mapped wall-esque display and actually put pictures of Fred Foster (CEO of ETC Theatrical) up, and it wasn’t half bad. And then there’s Rammstein.

Sound? I suppose there have been many references to a “wall of sound.” But there’s no such physical thing. In fact, my wall…THIS wall…will be so great, no other wall will compare. I’m gonna build a huge video wall and use it as a sign…a display that people will flock to like moths, hungry for our information, and I’m gonna give it to them. And they’ll like it. Trust me. It’ll be huge.

Brave New World

I’ve been on a wall binge for a while now. It started back in April (actually my dream was a few years before that), but it’s just now being realized, and it scares the crap out of me. I work in a 2,200 seat proscenium theater and video has always been the misbehaving stepchild. In 2006 we purchased two (now-ancient) Sony DLP 1800’s so we could project PowerPoint on an old RP fabric. I can’t find anyone who needs these for boat anchors now, but the need for a decent display system has always persisted. We have had a number of projection systems over the years, currently a pair of antiquated but still-kicking DPI Lightning 35 HD’s (lovingly maintained I might add), but we needed something more. You can only put so much PowerPoint and ersatz I-Mag onto a single pipe-mounted screen before it starts to get old. Unfortunately, with the proliferation of smartphones, phablets and advanced smart-wear, people are used to seeing media right in their face. Add to this that we’re on a college campus — where kids stuff their heads into screens so much that we practically need to implement new traffic laws to avoid pedestrian accidents. How to fill this ever-widening gap of high expectations, increasingly expensive machinery and always-available screen time?

All I had to do was come up with a number and a timeline that was palatable to management, and viola! We have two LED walls for the theater and one massive sign-display for the lobby. And why not? They were an instant success with the marketing folks. Ads before the show? Absolutely. Make the cheap seats have a better view than the back row of main? Of course. Live entertainment has to be enhanced these days, and as an old colleague of mine likes to say, “marketing never sleeps.”

Another look at the lobby wall. Don’t forget to think about who will be providing the actual content for the shiny new display.

In the Lobby

The lobby display started out as a digital replacement for traditional “theater” signage — long, rectangular, banner-style signs that display all the upcoming shows and events. There were five of them, and we were spending something like $100 to $200 per graphic. If a show changed dates or personnel (that never happens, does it?) we were screwed, and either had to completely re-do it or come up with some sort of lame looking sticky-backed paper overlay to cover the error. Very analog indeed.

Over the course of a year, we are spending something crazy like $10K on what amounts to poster board. Now, the cost of a full-blown video wall (in whatever flavor of technology you choose) can be a bit eye-popping at first, especially to those not accustomed with the price of beautiful. You know, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it…. But compare it to a three-to-five year investment in print media, and the numbers start to make sense (the current publication notwithstanding). I’m sure there are many out there who could argue on behalf of the quality, feel, not to mention nostalgia, of traditional print, but it’s 2016 for God’s sake. You can already wear AR advertising, and don’t think for a minute that there aren’t hundreds of companies already producing content for this. It’ll be 2025 next month and there won’t be enough trees…but I digress.

I searched far and wide for the right solution up to, and including, used concert gear. If you’re creative enough, there is gear out there that can be used in a crossover situation like this, but do your homework. Power, processing and space (along with building codes) all will come into play, and you need to be able to satisfy all these before plunking down $60-100K. The fact that people were essentially going to be eyeballs-distance from the screen dictated LCD panels. Yes, LED boards are down to 2mm, 1mm, even .8mm pitch in the live production world, but the cost factor points squarely at LCD panels for the install crowd. At least for now. And before you go thinking you can just buy a bunch of low-cost LCD TV’s on Black Friday, you need something designed for 24/7 operation and lots of options. You get what you pay for. Also, there are many formulae for calculating viewing distance, but in general, pixel pitch times three (in feet, not mm) is a good starting point. It also had to be essentially flat against a wall with minimal mounting space. Oh, and it was 250 feet from any kind of processing. In the end, it was better to go with a tiled wall of 55-inch NEC sign modules in a two-by-four configuration. The beauty right now is that you can pretty much buy complete kits of any size (including this one) off the ‘Net with the right credit card.

In the Theater

For the I-Mag walls inside the theater space, a lot more homework was necessary. After all, we were after the live event crowd, and these opportunities only come along once-in-a-lifetime, right? We had an old sound system that was on a motor-driven clew, so a little engineering and some elbow grease allowed us to essentially convert the fly rig to two pipes capable of carrying the relatively light load of LED tiles. We ended up with two 12-by-six-foot screens on either side of the proscenium that can play at any height or disappear out of sight if need be on one motor. The primary source is a camera feed through a switcher for I-Mag so they are awesome for that. These are of the 5mm variety and the nearest seat is 30 feet away, so even the lamest PowerPoint looks pretty decent. Which brings me to the most important point of any screen purchase and the absolute FIRST thing you should ask when doing so.

Think About Content

What is going to be put on these shiny new panels, be they LCD or LED? Is there someone creating content for you, or are you that person? Is it solely camera (I hope you bought a good one and have a decent operator, or at the very least, on the end of a concert chain-of-command that can produce this kind of thing) or are you the endpoint of some corporate signage network? The big thing to remember here is, as soon as these things are installed, everyone will be a designer. You’ll get everything from “great!” to “Well, we always use scripted font at 6 points, so I don’t see why we can’t now.” When they see what they bought, they’ll have a say, so be ready with concrete answers.

In any case, the second most important thing you should ask is who is responsible for configuring, maintenance, and care-and-feeding of these resources? I have to vacillate between content producer and camera guy as well as calibration supervisor. I would bet that a great number of you out there do as well. Again, do your homework. Manuals are like bibles, so study them and be able to quote them verse-for-verse. RTFM, always. When problems arise (and they will), be able to solve them or, at the very least, offer an educated viewpoint for a solution. The point is, make sure you do your homework and try to anticipate what will come. Visual information is powerful, and everyone will eventually have an opinion. Speaking of which, I need to get back to calibrating my walls…my precious walls…