Signal management: It's show time

AUTHOR: Inavate

Venues of all sizes are embracing technology and the need to provide content for a range of screens is putting a strain on signal management. Steve Montgomery looks at the options available.

Large venues are increasingly looking to digital displays to elevate their spaces and compete in a market segment where differentiation is invaluable.

Combine this trend with the introduction of ever-higher image resolutions and you find an environment where the complexity of signal management has increased. Routing signals in public venues like sports arenas, concert halls and theatres is no longer a simple task.

These complex environments need equally complex systems capable of routing a large number of sources to multiple displays and to provide comprehensive switching and selection. In some cases there is also a need to mix and manipulate several video streams to provide on-screen effects that raise the quality of entertainment and information delivered to the audience.

Large venues can have upward of two to three hundred screens, ranging from small wall-mounted LCD screens to giant LED matrix displays above a central arena or pitch. These are all expected to be managed as a single system with content shared between them and delivered to displays according to their locations.

As a consequence there may be several display formats and content must run equally well on all of them. Justin Knox, marketing director, RGBlink, says: “In addition to standard displays, there is growing demand for large, dense, high resolution LED displays in non-standard formats. “Very large, very fine pitch displays have become extremely common in entertainment applications. Now displays are being integrated into the installation environment – whole walls for example, where video can be displayed wall-to-wall. Video processors have never been more important than they are today and are the vital piece of equipment to deliver today’s high quality, high performance video to these next generation display environments in what are essentially creative applications.”

Depending on the LED wall manufacturer, display aspect ratio and overall size, the video processor must be capable of supporting customised resolutions for both input and output video. These and other special requirements are part of the reason why consultants and design engineers choose high-end video processors for the task, albeit at much higher cost than general use video processors or computer-based platforms.

Larger venues often have a wider range of sources and therefore need more complex switching and processing, as Felix Knight from Lightware, explains: “A major difference between venues is that the larger venue will typically have more sources that need to be incorporated into a production or event: multiple camera feeds, live streams, recorded material and so on. This increases the burden on signal routing and switching.”

Another key consideration is 4K and higher resolution content. While complicating matters, the move to higher resolution is also providing opportunities for manufacturers to prosper. Mark Stanborough, sales director, EMEA & APAC at Cabletime, says: “From our point of view, we are delivering 4K endpoints, which allow input to larger screens and videowalls and guarantee very high quality, high resolution images and first-class content. 4K is what is driving demand currently across the APAC region, whether it is for large format displays, videowalls or individual screens.”

Interoperability between equipment is essential and a device that is difficult or impossible to integrate can present a real problem.

Knight from Lightware adds: “Larger venues tend to have multiple configurations and the time taken to switch between them needs to be considered. In this way, a larger and more capable system can be justified if it reduces switching times between two configurations. Smaller venues do not tend to have such drastically different configurations, and if there are, the cost in time of repurposing the necessary hardware is not so great.”

It is not always the larger venues that have the most demanding requirements, as Knox from RGBlink points out: “There is a large discrepancy in the level of sophistication of equipment used and the need for staff with greater technical skills to operate it at the highest levels.” Larger venues are likely to be able to recruit and deploy dedicated operational support engineers; smaller venues not so.

Knox continues: “We have been putting a lot of effort into improving usability and accessibility into equipment designed for smaller spaces, like interactive touchscreen control, which has become really important to making those applications workable as the display market increasingly moves to large format LED.”

Reliability of system operation is a massive factor, since the displays are so prominent, and as anyone who has experienced a system failure at a large public gathering can attest; they are highly noticeable by the audience. In extreme cases it can even rule the venue out of action with a potential loss of revenue as Stanborough from Cabletime details: “Reliability is hugely important to all installations, but particularly for venues, which often derive revenue from their videowalls and displays. No venue would want their screens to fail, so they look for proven technologies that they can count on.”

Measures to increase system reliability through component redundancy, backup and replication can be taken to almost any level, but come at a cost; which must be considered at the earliest possible stage in system design.

Jay Gonzalez, president of Analog Way Americas, says: “Reliability and redundancy can have a significant impact on overall project cost. Thoughtful and serious discussion about system up-time requirements versus downtime risks should always take place at the outset of the project planning process.

“All stakeholders - end user, vendors, consultants and integrators - should join this discussion. Redundancy measures may range from offline product replacement schemes or advance replacements to total redundancy and auto switchover of all devices in the chain. Regardless of what redundancy strategy is selected a thorough discussion about reliability and anticipated up-time operation is always recommended.”

Stanborough from Cabletime says: “Venue customers are willing to search overseas to secure reliable products. Many of our customers in the APAC region are willing to spend more and shop around, particularly from European manufacturers if they think that they are getting a more stable, scalable and reliable system. However, the underlying infrastructure within the venue must also be solid, to ensure it can support the demands of high bandwidth streams and content.”

The measures taken and equipment used to ensure the acceptable level of reliability will depend upon the type of video distribution systems in use and will be different for each location. Knox outlines the possible options offered by RGBlink: “Uninterrupted power is always the first level of reliable operation. We offer hotswap and redundant power supply options on many of our products to support those requirements. Additionally with our OpenAPI we support commands over UDP/RS232 that maybe triggered by EMS and BMS systems.”

Stanborough from Cabletime explains his company’s approach: “The systems have to be designed to be robust and reliable from the start using superior components and designing and building systems that are fit-for-purpose. IPbased systems will usually incorporate a failover stream and if one endpoint or encoder fails, the content can be routed from a different source.”

Data security can be an issue in public venues that are spread over large areas, often with tens of kilometres of wiring and publicly accessible Wi-Fi networks. Encrypting valuable content provides a counter measure. James Keen, group marketing manager for Tripleplay, details: “IPTV is an integral part of the public presentation solution in many large-scale public environments. It provides a high level of core flexibility and security. Encrypted feeds can be delivered to thousands of TV screens, mobile devices or PCs simultaneously across the core IT network, delivering a unique feed to each and every screen and, if required, incorporated into digital signage layouts.”

He believes that it is this functionality that: “sets IPTV aside from many of the solutions that are emerging in our market.”

Distribution of AV over IP offers some important benefits to installations that are spread over large physical areas. One of the most welcome advantages is that display points can be established wherever a network can be accessed. Knight from Lightware summarises the benefits: “Whilst AV distribution over IP systems are not yet able to completely replace traditional pro AV systems, they are being considered in a wider range of applications than ever before. There is something of a sweet spot regarding cost and system size. Systems under this size are still most effectively handled by traditional AV systems, whilst systems above it can be handled by AV over IP much more efficiently.”

Stanborough adds: “We’ve been providing AV over IP for over a decade and during that time demand for our AV over IP solutions has grown exponentially. Singapore Sports Hub is just one of the customers that have been using our system to push AV over IP for several years, and as venue managers realise the revenues they can raise from advertising and promotions using AV over IP demand grows even greater.”