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Technology idols

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Technology idols
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Across Europe, a myriad of pop concerts, stage musicals and televised singing competitions (including Sweden's 'Idol' programmes), are using Datapath technology as part of creating a look that bedazzles the viewing audience.

When it comes to the stage and screen, entertainment has always been big business. However, competition is fierce and each show or programme has to present suitable 'wow' factor to retain and grow audience figures. With the advent of rapidly advancing technology, video experts have pushed the boundaries of set design and while doing so have created new challenges and new demands.

A star is born

Take 'Idol' for example, a Swedish reality talent show that since its debut in 2004 has risen to become one of the country's most popular television programmes. Part of the global 'Idol' franchise, the show seeks to discover the best amateur singer in Sweden through a series of nationwide auditions performed in front of three judges who offer critiques to the contestants. The outcome of the later stages of the competition is determined by public phone voting following live performances on Sweden's TV4 channel.

Of course, a great format is of little value without a supporting 'look' capable of captivating the viewing millions. The live programmes are the showpieces of Idol and they need to provide an entertainment spectacle overflowing with creative innovation, colour and impact.

The live shows are set against a video wall backdrop of a large central screen flanked by 12 smaller screens – six on each side in two banks of three. Responsible for video design and direction on Idol 2010 was Morgan Brown, CEO of Stockholm-based Brownsblend AB, a specialist solutions provider for concerts, touring, TV and corporate shows.

Brownsblend works in partnership with fellow Swedish company, Beacon by SSR Stagelight AB, which specialises in providing design and technical solutions for all kinds of events. SSR/Beacon is also the exclusive distributor for Green Hippo's Hippotizer media servers in Sweden.

"Our hire is managed by Brownsblend and it contains several units ready for tour and installations," explains company owner, Peppe Tannemyr. "For Idol, two Hippotizer HD media servers were deployed, both fitted with VisionRGB-E2 capture cards from Datapath for the system and back-ups. The unit was used for sending camera images and other video sequences to the screens."

Serving up benefits

Media servers are essentially computer-based hardware systems running special software with the aim of streaming media to a target display device. However, modern media servers no longer simply play back media. Image warping, mapping, 3D functionality, keystone correction and adjacent image blending are but a few functions expected of today's servers. Furthermore, high definition (HD) media playback is becoming more and more accepted as the default resolution for large scale projection and media display.

The two Hippotizer HD media servers used for Idol rely on Datapath VisionRGB-E2 video capture cards, which offer a range of advantages, including: close integration with the image range for stable and high performance video capture; the ability to produce a multi-display windows from a single input source; direct show streaming driver support; and triple-buffering for tear-free captures. "The choice of Datapath is based on many factors – Datapath products offer high levels of technical capability, quality and stability – all at a good price level," says Mr Tannemyr. "When Datapath release a product, there's no glitches or bugs, it's always proven and reliable. When we find products like that we tend to stick with them."

One common feature of Datapath Vision capture cards is an on-card processor for real time mode detection. Real time means the playback is reactive and can mould itself around the undetermined and fluid art form that is a live production. The traditional concept of video playback is that it has a beginning and an end, and is of finite length. Although media servers and capture cards can facilitate this kind of playback, they can also play seamless loops or generate content there and then, in real time.

Because of this and the fact that no two live shows are ever the same, the latest media servers and video capture cards are designed to react to and follow the action taking place on stage seamlessly and uniquely.

Singing praises

Sweden's Idol television programme is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the increasing adoption of Datapath Vision capture card technology in Europe's entertainment industry. Datapath VisionRGB-E2/RGB-PRO capture cards were also integrated by SSR/Beacon in the Hippotizer servers supplied by Spectra (Sweden) at Eurovision 2005 in Kiev, Ukraine. The same configuration was also supplied by West Lighting (Finland) at Eurovision 2007 in Helsinki, Finland, and by Procon Multimedia (Germany) at Eurovision 2008 in Belgrade, Serbia. Eurovision is an established annual song contest competed among active member countries of the European Broadcasting Union.

Eurovision could not be higher profile. The contest has been broadcast every year since its inauguration in 1956 and is one of the longest running television programmes in the world. It is also one of the most watched non-sporting events on the planet, with audience figures having been quoted in recent years as anything between 100 million and 600 million internationally. There is no margin for error at Eurovision and here the Datapath E2 DVI capture cards were used for sending out incoming signals on live cameras.

In contrast to systems pre-prepared by SSR/Beacon ready for tour or installation, special projects are also a significant part of the company's revenue stream. For these, the company partners with another Swedish events industry specialist, Uppsala-based Scenteknik AB.

"Our special projects are often designed and done by Vello Hermann of Scenteknik due to his extensive knowledge and experience in the projector and video industry," states Mr Tannemyr. "For instance, the 2011 tour by established Swedish pop musician, Eva Dahlgren, used Datapath VisionRGB-E2 capture card technology for the cameras and Datapath's x4 display controller for using more outputs to projectors, all in full HD."

The Datapath x4 was used to split a 2800x1050 computer feed in to two 1400x1050 projector outputs soft-edged by a Hippotizer media server. In fact, the x4 can split video input into four independently cropped, rotated (90, 180 or 270°), scaled (up to 64x) or mirrored outputs. The unit offers dual link DVI input for very high input resolution along with DVI-I output for HD and 2048x2048 resolution.

The X-factor

"Datapath's x4 display controller is very fast and easy-to-use," says Mr Tannemyr. "It gives us high functionality for a good price – overall a great product."

Among other recent special projects by SSR/Beacon and Scenteknik is a production of 'Sugar – I Hetaste Laget', a musical based on the famous screenplay 'Some Like it Hot' being staged at the 100-year-old Oscar theatre in Stockholm. Here, a Datapath x4 is used to distribute a 1600x1200 feed in a non-standard aspect ratio, making it easier to work with the show's warp boxes and aligning the three projectors.

"All are mounted sideways, five metres offstage to enable a 10 metre wide digital backdrop with very little loss of depth for the performers," says Mr Tannemyr.

Hippotizer HD media servers using VisionRGB-PRO capture cards were even used for several years at the annual Nobel Prize presentation dinner in Stockholm!

Ultimately the team of SSR/Beacon, Scenteknik and Brownsblend can today demonstrate a proven track record of providing high level solutions and support/hire in technical video applications. A significant factor in this success is the use of high quality, high functionality Datapath technology. The European entertainment industry simply wouldn't be the same without it.