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Seattle Mariners Moves 8 Million Pixels, Part 1

Show 86-1

In this edition of the SVC Podcast, SVC Contributing Editor Bennett Liles talks with Mark Stross of ANC Sports about the massive new LED video display, largest in major league baseball, that recently made its debut at Safeco Field, the home stadium of the Seattle Mariners. Mark provides details on how the screen was installed, connected and tested to be ready for its debut at the start of the Seattle Mariners’ baseball season.

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

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Editor’s note: For your convenience, this transcription of the podcast includes timestamps. If you are listening to the podcast and reading its accompanying transcription, you can use the timestamps to jump to any part of the audio podcast by simply dragging the slider on the podcast to the time indicated in the transcription.

The biggest LED video screen in baseball burst onto the scene in the Seattle Mariners’ Safeco Field in April and the fans were knocked over by the size and the super high resolution. ANC Sports teamed with Panasonic on the project and ANC Sports CTO Mark Stross is onboard to give us a look at how this behemoth is set up and controlled, coming up right now on the SVC Podcast.

SVC: Mark Stross, very nice to have you with us again on the SVC Podcast; CTO, the big technology man, with ANC Sports. And there’s not much bigger technology than the huge new LED video display that made its debut in April at the Seattle Mariners’ Safeco Field. Your outfit was central in the setup for that, so what’s been happening at ANC Sports?

Mark Stross: Well, first of all it’s wonderful to be back, and a lot of cool things are happening at ANC. We are now working on a new platform of software and we’re also learning and providing these incredibly large videoboards with content and services, and it’s very interesting to see how, after the last time we spoke which was the Cowboys, we’re coming back to discuss a screen that’s even larger than them in resolution and what that really means. ANC Sports provides multimedia and sports solutions. And it’s interesting how more and more we’re also doing entertainment in those same venues and entertainment outside of those venues. And it’s been amazing to see the growth of ANC and the growth of experience. So again, it’s really good to be back and I’m excited to talk about some of the cool new things. [Timestamp: 1:57]

And the really cool new giant videoscreen at Safeco Field is sort of the last step and the crown jewel in a multi-phase upgrade there. The out-of-town scoreboard in left field went in around three years ago, then the LED ribbon boards and now the giant video screen. How did all of this come about with ANC Sports?

You know, working with the Mariners has been a multistep process. From the very beginning, we always wanted to do a very big board. The idea of how big it was going to be was hypothetical because it was really going to be also the cost of LED projected forward. So as that cost came down, the viability of doing this beautiful high-resolution board came into focus. But it was not a shoe-in for ANC by no means. The team was very interested in getting the very best from their partners, so in this particular situation we came in under Panasonic to provide the software solution. Panasonic provided the team other perks for going with them. So what’s very interesting is that when you look at the whole industry, it’s really about the deal that best serves everyone and those deals will occur in many different hybrid situations. So we’ve been at the Mariners in slightly different business positions, and with this new board our scope has also become that of helping with the content management; going beyond just installing the board and maintaining it. And that’s something that I think for our company it’s going to be an area of tremendous growth, but for the industry it’s going be an area of tremendous training and growth and learning. And to learn how to actually cope with the Mariners’ board, that’s, for me, the challenge. I’m looking forward to it. It’s wonderful. It’s a reinvention of what is possible outdoors. We’ve gone from a videoboard that never looked like television to now a videoboard that looks better than television, and that’s really, as I started, pretty cool. [Timestamp: 3:58]

It really is and there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes in the control area to make this work, but the fans of course are just knocked over by the sheer dimensions of it. What are the specs on this thing as far as size and resolution?

Well the board is 201.5ft. by 56ft. and its viewing area is approximately 11,425 square feet. It’s 1080 by 380 by 40 pixels, so 3,840 pixels across. And with the 1080, it is actually two HD screens combined. That means we’re moving approximately 4,147, 200 pixels on that board. So let me put that into the context of a dissolve. That means we’re moving approximately 8,300,000 pixels. And from my perspective, from how we started at ANC where we were moving a 100,000-200,000 pixels, to go to 8 million, that’s a tremendous advance and it’s also been a tremendous increase in how big a piece of content is going be. [Timestamp: 5:11]

The size of it isn’t the only thing that’s unique. It is the biggest in baseball. I think it’s even a little wider than the one in the Cowboys stadium. But another big thing with it is the incredible resolution you have.

Right. The Cowboys is 180ft. by 72ft., so the Safeco Field board is actually just a little bit less high, at 57ft., but it’s definitely a little longer. But there is a big difference between the Cowboys’ screen and also some of the other big screens. Charlotte Motor Speedway is one of them. The Indy board is truly awe inspiring because, you know, it’s 200ft. by 80ft. But there’s a big difference. It’s resolution is 32 millimeter, so that means it has a resolution of 784 by 2000 pixels, and we on the other hand with the Mariners, we go up to 3,840 pixels by 1080. I think you can see that is a very big difference in how you’re going create content for it. [Timestamp: 6:11]

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

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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