Seattle Mariners Moves 8 Million Pixels, Part 2

It’s the biggest LED videoscreen in baseball and it made its opening appearance in April at Seattle’s Safeco Field. 7/23/2013 8:10 AM Eastern

Seattle Mariners Moves 8 Million Pixels, Part 2

Jul 23, 2013 12:10 PM, With Bennett Liles

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It’s the biggest LED videoscreen in baseball and it made its opening appearance in April at Seattle’s Safeco Field, but the technology that drives the giant display to ultra high resolution is even more impressive. Mark Stross of ANC Sports is back with us to talk about how big screen high-res technology works and where it’s headed, next up on the SVC Podcast.

SVC: Mark Stross from ANC Sports, it’s great to have you back for part two and talking about this huge new HD video display for the Mariners out there at Safeco Field and highest resolution on any screen anywhere that size. It’s bigger even, and I think wider, than the Cowboys’ screen in their stadium. And it’s like the next big thing, who’s going to have the biggest screen in the world? Right now I guess it’s the Mariners. So glad to have you here. This Safeco Field screen is unique. Did you have to make any sort of custom updates? We talked about those a little bit before in part one, but the VisionSOFT program has so much to do and so many big files to push here for the Mariners project. Did you have to make any serious changes to that?

Well, first of all it’s good to be back. Yes we did. We actually rewrote about 25 percent of the way our render engine handles codecs because when we got into this board size, which was twice the dimension of HD, and it was literally two HD boards combined width-wise, the codecs—the ability for the compression to work correctly, stopped working as well. The math wasn’t formatted correctly to handle this. So we literally went and re-optimized our math routines. We spent a lot of time, all the content providers—the software programs that are used to create content—in addition to that the sign companies, in creating tool sets that all worked up to HD because that was the Holy Grail. Then suddenly when you’ve gone beyond HD, you’re in a no-man’s land. And for us, that no-man’s land meant that we did a huge amount of codec comparisons, because obviously a codec is a tool you use to take a pure frame and package it so you can deliver it on the video board. And when we actually packaged the codec, we realized that there was all kinds of weird problems, like some codecs refused to actually save the file in 3,840 by 1080. It would go maybe 3,886. You could not get the dimensions correct. Others just wouldn’t go that large, and then finally the results that you would get varied. So we found a very generic codec that worked and we are now still working on some incredible enhancements and with one of our partners, we’re actually going to be going to ProRes using the Apple standard because it’s being adapted by the film studios and Red and other companies. As you know, Red did the Lord of the Rings series of films and they used those very flexible cameras. And we actually visited Red at NAB this year. We were talking to them about what we were doing at the Mariners. When we talked about the fact that we had to dissolve with our codec running, they looked at us and went, “Well, we don’t do that. We don’t have an in between codec yet, something that you can work with.” And so from our perspective, we’re realizing that the future of doing anything in 4K, 3K-plus—like the Mariners—is really going to be about how do you make the work flow all the way from the graphic artist all the way down work? What’s going to be the official standard so that people don’t get confused along the way, and how are we going to actually combine all that and get all the companies to agree to work in the same sandbox? It’s similar to creating the USB convention. At some point you’ve got to get all the players around a table and go, “For all of our sakes, we need a standard.” And I think the challenge of the Mariners is really the content. After getting VisionSoft reprogrammed and getting it to run, that’s great, but now you have to look at hard drive space and the concession to quality of image, and we have to decide where that’s going be. We can play uncompressed content perfectly, but that’s 20GB per minute, approximately, at that file size. That’s not efficient because the truth is, if there was a disaster and you had a 7TB or 8TB hard drive, to actually reprogram that hard drive, it would have to be rebuilt from square one. It would take a considerable amount of time, more time than any stadium and any control room’s ever really looked at. So from my perspective, the challenges here are truly about where do we settle? If we want to be the very best in image quality, what does that look like? From my perspective that looks like creating a standard that everyone agrees to use. Also I believe that will help the customer ultimately; the arena, the control room, the people wanting the very best because they would be comparing apples to apples, and I would love to see that happen. [Timestamp: 5:39]

Seattle Mariners Moves 8 Million Pixels, Part 2

Jul 23, 2013 12:10 PM, With Bennett Liles

Well I saw the demo and we have a link to it in the show notes. I think they have the Who’s We Won’t Get Fooled Again playing on the thing. It starts with the big – it looks like the whole screen is being shattered and falling in pieces at the bottom, and then all the players come out. It’s just fantastic. But you know, I know it’s a daunting challenge behind the scenes to make all this work with the resolution involved and the processing power that has to come into play for this. Do you think that this Mariners’ display is going create a new stadium trend in this or is it just too much for people to take on right now?

Ten years ago if you had asked me that question, my answer would have been, “I think they’re going to realize this is too much to take on.” Today I have a completely different perspective. I believe that if it can be bigger it will be. If it can actually be more impressive than another building, it will be built. And from that vantage point, I believe 4K is coming and I think it’s going to happen much faster than we all assume. The differential in this new battle is going to be interesting. It’s going to be the people that are going to compress and compress and compress down on their current rendering engines, and the people like us that are actually looking at quality, quality, quality, quality. So I think when I look at the software platforms, we are going to be fighting a war not based on do we have software to run a videoboard, because we all do; it’s going to be based on the quality of that experience. And the plans that ANC has and has set out to do are impressive. We have gone after key partners who are the very best in their respective fields, and we’re not trying to be everything. We’re trying to bring into VisionSoft the very best. And that is a different philosophy than our competitors and it’s also why, perhaps, the Mariners chose us. Because the one thing the Mariners know is that if they ask us to do something we will try to do it. We can’t always say yes, and there are times when we absolutely fail to meet an expectation, but the majority of the time, we actually create completely unique situations for our teams and I think they appreciate that. And I really appreciate the challenge of being able to do that. So really in the future, I think it’s 4K. I think it’s going to be dependent on how a software can effortlessly handle that, and I think we’re going to have to become content managers for the team. VisionSoft, for example, will be helping with the media management by when you put content into the system, it will automatically back it up. Teams are going to be spending more time rendering the stuff. They’re going to have less time to actually get it into the system, therefore our system has to do more for them to help reduce the stress and strain of putting on a show. [Timestamp: 8:33]

Well I know it’s a lot to handle, not only for the creative aspect of it, but the processing power, the nuts and bolts of this; it’s just a whole new thing. It’s not just a bigger version of what you’ve had before. It’s just really the 4K and the resolution involved on this size of a screen, if there’s any lacking quality it’s really going to show it up. So that’s the real challenge.

I absolutely agree. You know, that’s another thing that is the concept of quality. In the video board industry today, you can talk about a board being super large, but then you have to look at how many pixels are in that board, how many light elements? And for us, we were very happy with what we did with the 16-millimeter pitch and the mounting technology for the LEDs. With us now being able to put literally surface-mount LEDs on an outdoor board and cram 16-millimeter pitch in there and make it light enough and at the same time continue to hold the contrast levels—the pure black is black—with that now being done, what is interesting for the future is going to be how many pixels is enough when you have such a large board? And when you go to 4K, will you be going to 4K on a small board, like let’s say at a basketball arena, to make it look like absolute glass television or are you going to try to do it on the massive boards? Because the amount of pixels, like the Mariners’ board would do if it had 4K, would be probably double 4K if they get the pixel size down to that. And from my perspective what the challenge is going to be is where is that sweet spot? Because I think, Bennett, for the first time we have more pixels technology rendering power than ever before, but every time we utilize it we’re making it more difficult to sustain it from the perspective of the production. [Timestamp: 10:36]

Yeah, the production aspect of it, like you were telling me before, that can lead to some big problems that sort of hide until you actually splash it out there on the screen and then realize we weren’t on the same page here.

Exactly. You can imagine. I mean you don’t want to find out game day that the opening animation that you were counting on for this special event wasn’t rendered correctly because you cannot go back and quickly fix it. VisionSoft now, we’re going to be heavily looking at ways for us to build animations in, the best way to put it; we’ll be using our layering system to allow the creativity of the content providers to actually provide elements, and then we combine the elements in realtime. I believe that is a way to help with this big resolution problem, which is to have to literally break down the ingredients so that way a team could work on a two-dimensional portion of the animation for the everyday event, but have the 3D portion below it and have the elements fit in together like a Lego set. That will help everyone produce content faster. One other aspect of this is the Internet is fast and it is getting faster, but it’s not fast enough to handle 20GB files being your default size as of yet. I believe the Internet’s going to drag a little big behind the resolution of the boards. I don’t foresee we’re going to have another incremental increase in Internet speed across America any time soon. It’s gone much faster, but the truth of the matter is the stadiums will always have a shared pipe coming into them; therefore there will always be some limitation or some restriction to the ultimate speed. When you’re not in game day you will have that speed, but when the reporters come into a building and the building starts to get utilized, the Internet speeds usually decrease. So again if you’re relying on content to be shipped to you from another location via the Internet, you have to look at the file sizes because it is significant. Can you get that content from X to Z and how big is the acceptable size for that content to be? I hope you can see, Bennett, that is part of this equation that none of us wanted to actually look at, but at the same time it’s probably the most important single aspect of where we go with the 4K technology. [Timestamp: 13:00]

Right, and the fans are out there watching this, they’re not going to know that much about what’s going on with the nuts and bolts; they’re just going to know what they like and that’s where that really comes into play. So Mark I really appreciate your being here to explain all this to us. As far as 4K and these big screens, this is a whole new world and I’m glad that ANC Sports is a part of it and you’re here to sort of explain it to us. I appreciate your taking the time to do it.

Well thank you very much. And as I said, what we’re doing is cool and exciting. It’s new multimedia and I am very proud of ANC. ANC is actually forging new technologies and it’s neat. It’s neat to be a part of that. And you know what, Bennett? It takes a team of people to do this. The team that is behind me is stellar. I’m very lucky. [Timestamp: 13:51]

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