SVC Podcast – Show Notes –
In this edition of the SVC Podcast, Contributing Editor Bennett Liles concludes his conversation with John Downie, Vice President of Digital Experience at Advent about their AV system creation for Stanford University’s new Home of Champions. John goes into detail on how Advent converted a gymnasium into a Stanford Athletics experience. He provides a look at how the 60 foot wide PixelFLEX LED video screen was mounted and he describes the creative process of eliminating reflections from the large display and balancing the brightness of it with the ambient room lighting.
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This is the SVC Podcast from Sound & Video Contractor Magazine with John Downie of Advent. Show notes and product links for this podcast and others are at svconline.com.
The new Home of Champions isn’t just a place. It was designed by Advent to be an experience. From the sixty foot PixelFLEX wrap-around video display to the interactive book tables, visitors are immersed in the Stanford athletic programs. John Downie, Vice President of Digital Experience at Advent is back to finish up on how sound, lighting and video were created. Right here on the SVC Podcast.
John, it’s good to have you back with us again this week on the SVC Podcast from Advent in Nashville. Vice President of Digital Experience and this is a really digital experience we’ve been talking about at the new Stanford Home of Champions. Video displays, books you can lay on a table top and they come to life with more stories. The thing that amazes me when I see this is where you came from on it. How did you get started on turning a basketball gym and athletics offices into such a revolutionary visual experience?
Well, really, the starting point was transforming the original basketball court space into the space that is there today. And that took our design team many months of planning and development, obviously with close association with the client. And then each to plan out what exactly was going to be in the space. I think I’ve spoken last week about this process of story mining and understanding what the individual stories are going to be. We used that as a platform, as a foundation to inform that physical design of a space. So that was our springboard to understand what the client’s needs were, what the stories were that we wanted to tell in the space. Then we moved into conceptualizing exactly what the design of the space was going to be with those foundation stories in place. And then once we worked with that conceptual design process and agreed with the client the boundaries of the scope, we move into our production design. And that’s when we start to become more diversified and separated in our individualized approach. From a digital experience perspective that meant actually planning out exactly what the interactives were going to do. So we worked closely with the design team to create some of those individual elements such as the LED board, the touch table, some of those 4K beautiful storytelling portrait-mounted screens that bring to life the individual athletes. So those are high concepts at that point in time and then we have to turn them into reality. So that forks into the functional mechanical reality of running cabling and running conduit and creating all of the plans for that and specifying hardware. And then the software and technical reality of building that user experience that takes that idea and actually builds a functional and workable tool. Folks here at Advent have those capabilities and have that expertise on their digital experience team. We just plow forward from that point and work closely with our GC partners and our A/V integrator partners, such as PixelFLEX on the board, and we start to document those approaches and work through all the individual problems that we come up against as we start to merge the physical world of construction with the realities of building digital-based user experience. [Timestamp: 3:29]
Since we’re talking today a little more about the real getting your hands dirty aspect of the project, how were the PixelFLEX display sections mounted? I know that you had the San Francisco building codes to deal with because the place has to withstand the possible shaking it could eventually get, so how did you mount those things?
Yes, that’s a great question, Bennett. So obviously we’re talking about a very long board and it’s very heavy in an active earthquake area. So one of the first things to do was work with the GC to make sure that there was adequate support for the board and there’s a floor of steel between the first and second floors obviously that forms the floor pan – that is a perimeter around the central area that the Home of Champions is in. We were able to leverage the existing floor steel to put in some kind of bracing and we were able to affix to that bracing with three bolted fixtures of ¾-inch plywood on this kind of soffit area that defines the space between the two floors onto which the board is mounted. And then each of the individual cabinets for the board are, in turn, kind of through bolted – into that backup ply. So it’s a very straightforward approach, but obviously the specification of fixings and the specification of sheer loads of those fixings was very important and needed to be approved in order to meet the building codes as well. And there were also some aircraft cable safety restraints on various parts of the board where there were traffic areas too. So if there was a sheer event the boards would be captured if they happened to fall, even though that was a very unlikely event. [Timestamp: 5:08]
Well, no matter how futuristic this place looks, it’s reassuring to know that it all had to start with just hacking into some good old plywood and doing the normal things behind the scenes to get it put together. It must have taken awhile. What was your timeframe on getting the whole thing done and working? Did you have to work around other people on this or did you have the whole place to yourself?
Yeah, so no, we had to work around other people. So we worked very closely with the general contractor because he was responsible for the structural fit-out of the space. And then we actually suffered some compression on the back end of that. It’s always inevitable in a complex construction project because Advent generally, even though we’re informed and part of the process from Day 1, our work really starts when the core structure is complete. We’ll start to get in and mount our AV once that’s finished. Due to the time constraints on this project we weren’t able to that, so we really started to work and parallel with the GC who was still doing some significant construction work. So we had to take all the precautions to make sure that the work was planned out correctly so we weren’t tripping over each other, so that there was protection against dust and the possible ingress into our equipment of other things. There’s a lot of steel work, which in this space we were mindful of – metal filings and drilling swarf coming into things potentially, and sheetrock dust, which we all know is potentially deadly to AV equipment. So yeah, there was a lot of planning to make sure that everything was orchestrated and able to be well planned out so we were all able to meet the end date that was given to us. [Timestamp: 6:41]
Well, I know that Advent is no stranger to handling projects like this. That’s where your expertise is. So how was your experience from previous projects applied to this one? Is there anything special that you brought to it?
That’s a great question, Bennett. We’ve been in the business of creating experiences that move people since 1999 and we’ve seen our business change. Historically we were more of an exhibit, exhibition-style company so we would just come in and put things on the floor and mountings on the wall. And our business has changed significantly over the last five years especially. We’ve seen more of these large-scale capital projects where we’re part design/architect almost and we are working very closely with the GC on a very large fit-out. So that’s equipped us with a special and somewhat unique process to approach these kinds of projects where we’re able to identify where the potential pitfalls are going to be way back in the process to maximize our efficiency as we move through that project. Specifically on the Home of Champions, all of the expertise we have in identifying cable runs and potential conflicts when it comes to power locations and especially all the hidden structure of a building and a space allows us to effectively mount heavy equipment or equipment that is somewhat cumbersome. Things like large-format touchscreens, for example. You may think you just hang that on the wall. But when a user in touching those, if it’s not properly mounted either to the correct substraight or the mounting isn’t in the right areas, the screen is going to wobble. We have two 70-inch 4K screens in the Home of Champions and they’re incredibly heavy, but a user can touch all of those areas. So we knew from the outset that we had to specify adequate blocking in a much larger area than if that was just going to be a regularized passive video screen because users are going to be touching it and interacting with it and we didn’t want that wobble. We wanted to be able to maintain the high-end user experience. And then thinking again about the LED panel, for example, we know how these things are going to react to the potential movement of a building and exactly how we’re going to need to run conduit and run power to that. So our experience in other projects let to us being able to make decisive decisions early on in the stage to make sure that we were able to meet the deadline. [Timestamp: 9:08]
Sometimes it’s difficult in this visual an environment to imagine exactly how it’s going to look when it’s real. You do all the work and spend all of the time on it and then the visitors may wind up with the room lights reflecting into their faces from the video screens so how did you get the brightness of the main video display and the ambient light in the room to work together?
We do a lot of preliminary work in virtualized 3D models to understand how, especially these large format AV displays are going to have an interplay with the environment and the lighting and the reflection across all elements of the space. So we approach the problem solving of that. We talked earlier on about our expertise in other projects. This is an area that we spent a lot of time and made a lot of investment is to create toolsets that would allow us to virtualize the space to understand how the nuance of light reflection is going to potentially create a negative impact on the user experience. So before we get into the space we actually turn things on. We know that we place monitors or screens or lighting in the correct areas and minimize those negative highlights and interplays of sound and color. So I talked about the 70-inch monitors that we have with the large 4K videos on them. They are mounted directly opposite the large LED ribbon board. So had we not taken that into account and we hadn’t changed the positioning of those on the vertical, you would be able to see this large reflective band of light from the LED board. So we were able to identify that as a solution. In the virtual study we were able to change the position of the board and the screens ever so slightly. We were able to angle the screens completely undetected by the user. It means that we don’t get those highlights and reflections. And then lastly, using the great controls on the PixelFLEX boards, you were talked earlier about brightness. We were able to just very easily dial down the brightness to a level that was acceptable for the space. We run the board at about 60 percent of its standard luminosity; 100 percent would just be too bright for the space. So we knew that we’d have to lower the level. We had done some studies at PixelFLEX’s headquarters beforehand and then when we got to the space we knew that we were able to achieve what we wanted to achieve due to that forward planning and also the virtual studies that we’d undertaken. [Timestamp: 11:30]
So it’s all done, you fired it up for the first time on the demo so what was the reaction when it all came to life?
Well, the first time we fired it up it didn’t work, Bennett, because the graphics card that was in our playback unit had a catastrophic hardware failure. So that was – yeah, I say all of this planning, but you can never plan for the completely unexpected. So yeah, the very first time we spiked it up we got a very strange picture and myself and actually another engineer spent a very frantic 24 hours trying to make it work. And we realized that GPU was actually broken in our playback unit. So after we fixed that, we rushed in another GPU, we spiked it up and the client came in and we showed them. They were just bowled over. They really liked the LED board and what it did for the space. They immediately started to identify ways in which they could utilize it in the future as well, so this is not an install-and-run for us and for the client. They saw the future potential for this as a really important, integral part and central part of the space. So we, from the outset, started talking about the ways in which we could utilize it moving forward beyond those initial templates that we had created for it. [Timestamp: 12:36]
Even as experienced as the people at Advent are with doing this type of project, I’m sure that you learned a few things here so what are you going to take from here into future projects?
Yeah, that’s a great question. We always do a period of reflection and what we learned after a project and if we were doing it again what could we have done better? The board is curved as it wraps around the corners of the building. We curved that and we would have approached that differently from just a construction perspective. It was very hard to get the panels of the board aligned correctly. We achieved it, but it just took a lot of time. So this was a new build within and existing building. You can measure and plan, but when you start demoing things, and as you said they were ripping sheetrock off the walls then you’re really able to understand what’s behind it. So our measurements were slightly incorrect because we were working off as-built drawings and the reality was slightly different. So that gave us some problems with the curvature of the screen that we had to work around. So one of things we identified was probably doing more in-depth surveying and cutting some inspection holes in plasterboard to understand what was behind something rather than making an assumption. And then bringing backup GPU’s to the site. As I mentioned earlier along we had that problem with our primary GPU’s, so ensuring we’ve got adequate backups available. [Timestamp: 13:52]
That was certainly a good lesson.
It was a great lesson. We always do have backups, but we never had one of these GPU’s break so we didn’t have one and in adventury we didn’t think we needed it. So just yeah, making sure we’ve got adequate backups. We applied a lot of previous expertise to this project and it really paid off in our ability to deliver a great product on time. And a lot of the things that we learned we actually outside of the AV and the digital experience space. So yeah, I was very thankful that our learning list was fairly small on this project. [Timestamp: 14:23]
A totally immersive place and the more I read and saw about it the more interesting it got on how this all got put together and you’ve done a great job of telling us about that. It’s John Downie, Vice President of Digital Experience at Advent. The project is the Stanford Home of Champions showcasing their legendary athletics program. Thanks for taking time out to give us a look at how it got done.
Not at all, Bennett. Thank you for inviting me back. I really appreciate it. Yeah, if anybody’s in Palo Alto, do go and see it. It’s a wonderful space with wonderful history and stories in it.
Thanks for joining us today with John Downie of Advent. We’ve got links and notes on this conversation at the website of Sound and Video Contractor Magazine at svconline.com. Be back here with us again next week for the SVC Podcast.