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Brains Behind the Wall

Oct 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Jay Ankeney

Designer David Niles explains the design and development of Comcast Center’s gigantic LED display.

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To ensure the same sequence is never repeated, content is fed through a Dataton WatchOut and MediaSonic servers and a Medialon scheduler to the Barco Encore presentation system.

To ensure the same sequence is never repeated, content is fed through a Dataton WatchOut and MediaSonic servers and a Medialon scheduler to the Barco Encore presentation system.

But to shoot his cast of characters, Niles and his production team, including co-director/choreographer John Dietrich and producer Emmora Irwin, chose Panasonic's AJ-HPX3000's native 1080p one-piece P2 HD camcorder with its ability to record to 10-bit uncompressed computer RAID storage, along with backup recordings to DVCPRO HD tape. To facilitate their subsequent chroma keying, the characters were shot in front of blue- and greenscreens last fall in several studios around the New York and New Jersey area.

Life-sized human characters don't require 10-megapixel resolution for reality emulating video capture. In fact, Niles calculated that 2 million pixels would suffice for the photorealistic effect he wanted. Therefore, the 2.2-megapixel resolution of the HPX3000's CCDs provided a 1:1 pixel ratio for his human characters. After editing his material using proxies on an Apple Final Cut Pro workstation, the result was laid out on an Adobe After Effects 10-million-pixel canvas, which let him maintain the 1:1 pixel relationship from camera to screen.


Then, all of the parameters Niles created in his edit room were rendered in six 1920×1080 segments and exported to a battery of 24 active HD servers from Electrosonic and Dataton, each with RAID storage to ensure data redundancy and two sets of backups. The scheduling system itself came from Medialon, which was programmed by Alan Anderson. Each scenario is played out from six high-definition servers delivering HD pictures combined to form the wall's 10-megapixel resolution. Once they are mapped on the display, the six HD elements are presented in a smooth, seamless continual image.

Scenarios are constructed initially from conditional layers off the Dataton WatchOut servers, which are progressively composited to provide maximum display flexibility as directed by the Medialon scheduler. Then, the Electrosonic servers feed a Barco Encore presentation system so the servers function like a jukebox holding hundreds of clips of material that can be combined and played out in an ever-changing sequence. Using the artificial-intelligence paradigm, this prevents the same sequence from being repeated in an identical scenario.

Finally, a third system of Electrosonic servers is ready to present prebuilt scenarios. These servers' primary function is to fill in whenever the rest of the system needs to be down for maintenance. Lobby personnel also have access to touchscreens that can control these servers in case a specific series of images need to be presented for special occasions. For example, if the Comcast Center is hosting a visiting VIP, these on-call scenarios can be displayed on the videowall to be shown to the dignitary at a specific time.

The complex visual display on the videowall is accompanied by audio from four sets of JBL Control 5 loudspeakers behind the screen driven by Crown CTs 8200 amplifiers. Twelve audio channels from the content delivery system fill the lobby with sound, often including appropriate sound-effects panning with the images moving across the LED panels. There is also a wide bank of various JBL loudspeakers and subwoofers embedded in the atrium's ceiling and four sets of TOA SR-S4L line arrays in the front of the lobby.

Every visual scenario has its own custom-composed music accompaniment put together in the sound studio at the Niles Creative Group. The melodies are a combination of unique tunes written by Niles and his collaborator, Jim Murphy, although they are often combined with elements from several stock-music libraries.

June 6 of this year heralded the official opening of Comcast Corporation's new corporate headquarters and the revelation of its public art videowall installation to the public. Since then, through press time, the content-delivery system had delivered more than half a million different scenarios without a minute of down time, except for scheduled building maintenance requirements.

One of the most popular images on the Comcast Center's videowall is an elaborate clock that occasionally assembles itself on the screen and then displays the proper time. But due to Nile's puckish sense of humor, it never appears directly at the top or bottom of the hour.

“There is no purpose in putting the time up when Big Ben would strike the hour,” he says. “Everyone knows when that is. But the way we do it in an unpredictable fashion, it gives life to the space. And life is not always predictable.”

“It's all about content,” Niles says while monitoring the Comcast lobby and his videowall on a webcam from his office. “I can't tell you how thrilling it is to see a couple of hundred people stopping to watch the images on the wall while smiles break out on their faces. It's show biz. That's what I do.”

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