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Seattle Mariners Moves 8 Million Pixels, Part 1

Jul 2, 2013 4:14 PM, With Bennett Liles

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It has several different modes of operation. You can see video in the center with stats and score and everything on the sides or they can switch it to show one continuous video picture all the way across.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean what is neat about the Mariners is that they use a combination of technologies to get the content out to the boards. So VisionSoft is one of the serving technologies that go through something called the Christie Spyder. And what that does is that actually creates channels and these channels break up where the media goes to the LED processors. So to make a board this large work, we have to speak to different boxes that cut up the board and each box displays a certain portion of the board. And what we do with our software for the Spyder is we join seamlessly those different channels to create this one image. The truth is the image is comprised of several different processors actually sending a signal to that board. So the Spyder combines the processors together, we create the large-format video to send to it, and then the Spyder also accepts regular 1080 content in HD and that goes directly to the Spyder. So from the perspective of making a show with the Spyder, VisionSoft and the control room, we’re able to give the team incredible flexibility. The one thing about VisionSoft is we’re sending full resolution, if we want to, uncompressed content to that board. However, we’ve had to realize that a board this large, we have to make concessions on that which we can go into later. But the truth of the matter is our technology’s able to power that and when we power it through VisionSoft to the Spyder, it is still kind of a head twister when you realize that signal’s being divided into many different signals in order to make the board work. But today that’s how it works. [Timestamp: 8:12]

And that’s a lot of huge files that have to move very quickly. Obviously, one thing you don’t want to have happen is for that big screen video out there in front of the fans during a game to suddenly start freezing up.

Absolutely. And listen, I mean I want to make it clear that doing the Mariners was not a cakewalk. You just don’t walk in there with something this challenging and go, “Oh, it’s all gonna work.” We had to learn as we faced some of the challenges, and some of the challenges came out of nowhere. For example, one of the challenges of the Mariners was that they were using other companies to do their content. The other companies would present their content but in some way it wasn’t compatible with us or it was the wrong codec. And at the resolutions we’re talking about, it’s no longer easy just to make a quick fix. You really have to think about what you’re about to do because everything has a time framework attached to it. So a board this size increases the amount of pre-preparation that needs to occur because when you’re rendering, let’s say like just a little one-minute ad or a logo, it could take five days of rendering and the most powerful computers to create that. So you need to get it right the first time, and that was some of the areas that were very challenging. [Timestamp: 9:26]

Your software platform is VisionSoft and if there is anyone not familiar with that, what exactly is VisionSoft and how does it all work?

VisionSoft is a multimedia program that actually allows you to bring together many video boards and control them by one click of a button, and with that one click you’re able to combine stats, you’re able to also bring in all kinds of different overlays. In addition to that, VisionSoft, where it’s very exciting, can run these boards, like at the Miami Heat and other places, completely in lockstep with DMX or with sync and we can then allow the arena to basically use very creative openings because everything is timed. So what is neat with VisionSoft is it’s more than just a system to run content. It’s also a problem-solving tool that does different things at different stadiums. And what we really realize is ANC also provides very controlled niche applications and we can write software to actually make these niche applications work. So for our teams they can usually do things that they just dreamt of and we can make that dream come alive. We’re also excited we’re about to release the biggest upgrade to VisionSoft in its history, and this is interesting. We are changing our interface completely. We have listened to our fans and our detractors over time and what we realized is we needed to create something that everyone could get their head around. So we looked at the most popular software packages and we’ve blended now those toolsets into ours. What’s interesting is we also wanted to make sure that it was really easy to use because our teams, with this content, and with the timeframes, are going to need all the help they can get to make putting the content into the machine super fast and at the same time give them the ultimate flexibility to do this niche creative, cool, special stuff. [Timestamp: 11:35]

Those capabilities are a lot to wrap your mind around, but once you got in there and got the screen connected and you got VisionSoft fired up, how did it go when you first tried to wring it all out?

I wish I could say it was a home run. It wasn’t. I think I gave the Mariners quite a scare at first. I was scared. When you do a project of this size, there are times when you’re a little ashen-faced and you’re going, “Good grief. I had no idea.” In this situation, there were a few things we overlooked, and we were very adamant that before we changed our interface we were going to work on our engine and we’ve taken some hits due to that. But because our new engine, which is 64-bit, which allows us to basically put more into memory—that’s the best way to describe it—so we’re able to stuff more files onto a computer and do more with a single computer. So it becomes efficient. It becomes green. What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to make it scalable so it’s smaller and it’s capable of being in different locations and all the way down to laptops and eventually pads. One of the things that we’re going to be doing shortly is going to [be] touchscreen control surfaces for the smaller projects like from high schools and colleges where they just want to light up maybe a display at a tennis game and they just want it super simple. So we’re going to keep our eye on the ball as far as the simplicity, but we also never want to take our eye off of the larger-than-life spectacle. So the new interface that we’ve worked on is going to combine the two together. We’re going to have that power, we’re going to have the ability to actually do things, if we want, by touch already basically in the design of the software, and we also have some very cool new things that help someone like the Mariners, which is we’re going to be able to put in video so that we can do the picture-in-picture and start to be much more flexible than we’ve been before. [Timestamp: 13:33]

Mark, that’s just a tremendous job to take on. Didn’t this at some point along the line, seem to some of your people like an insurmountable project to try to do all these new things on such a big scale?

One thing that we did differently at the Mariners is that we realized we needed partners. You don’t just go into a project like this and think you are an island and you can truly handle all aspects of it. So from my perspective, in July we’ll be announcing some partnerships that I’m very proud of and they also helped with the Mariners from the perspective of helping our programming team perhaps get a different angle on some of the problems. And those problems from our perspective was file size, compression, what would we end up being the final compressed image, and since we’ve always done uncompressed, does that mean we’re really compromising on that signal and that image going out to the boards. We did quite a few software iterations to come up with the best blend of compression. So what we ended up having to do to make this board really work is get a 20GB file down to something more manageable like 1 or 2GBs. And that, of course, can be done easily via compression, but then that’s also the quality. So we chose a lossless compression. We all know in the industry that lossless is really not lossless, but what in this case it meant was that the pixel positions weren’t going to be compressed but what we were going to attack was the color space. So we went from a 444 color space to a 422 color space, which then created a dramatic decrease in file size. And you know when you already display 16 million colors with a 422 with some compromise on that, you have a tremendous palette to work with. So if you actually decode it correctly, it can look very, very beautiful on the boards. And we also have to increase the horsepower of our main servers to 4.6Ghz servers, the fastest we’ve ever deployed. In fact we’ve used a whole new Ivy Bridge brand new standards that have just come out and with that we’ve now got this—what I consider the super server—and it’s ready for game utilization. And if we had not heavily invested in our 64-bit engine, then we would not be able to have done what we’ve done because from the outside perspective it was like people were looking at us going, “What is ANC really doing? We haven’t seen an advance on the actual VisionSoft.” But the engine was being completely supercharged. Now we’ve accomplished that, now we’re supercharging the interface and I am excited. [Timestamp: 16:15]

Well, based on the reaction of the fans when this thing debuted, I think they’re pretty excited, too. I saw the YouTube demo and it was very impressive. I appreciate your being here Mark to tell us about it. In part two we’ll get into a little more on VisionSoft and some future big screen super-high resolution applications that may be coming along. Mark Stross, CTO with ANC Sports.

Thank you.

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