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Live events: What next?

Of all the individual markets that comprise the AV industry, perhaps none pushes the technology envelope further than live events. Ian McMurray finds out what the latest developments are...

PHOTO: Anna Warr Photography

It doesn’t matter whether a live event is a music festival, an awards ceremony, a trade show, a charity ball, a product launch or a cultural spectacular or celebration, two things are pretty much guaranteed. The first is that the organisers want to deliver an engaging occasion that will live in the memories of those who were there. The second is that AV technology will be involved: video and audio have long played a role in delivering those memorable experiences.

The problem those organisers face is, of course, that we’re all becoming somewhat blasé: most of us own a “Been there, done that” t-shirt. We’re becoming harder to impress. For AV manufacturers and integrators, the bar isn’t getting any lower when it comes to live events.

And, as if that wasn’t enough of a challenge: given the current state of the world, how can organisers plan for a future event not knowing under what constraints they may be operating?

“Today,” says Hartmut Kulessa, European marketing manager for projector products at Panasonic Business, “customer expectations are higher than ever. We are used to using technology in our daily lives, so when we attend a live event, we expect something more advanced. There is an expectation that we will be amazed by what we hear, see and interact with.”

Fabian Stumpfl, CEO of AV Stumpfl, agrees. “It doesn’t matter whether a member of an audience knows anything at all about technology,” he says. “The difference between Full HD compared to 4K is obvious to everyone, and even more so when using uncompressed content. Seeing the difference between a VHS tape and a Blu-Ray disc might be a fitting analogy here.

“We are constantly trying to push the limits of what’s possible with our PIXERA media servers and are seeing an increased demand for truly reliable uncompressed content playout solutions for Full HD, 4K, 8K content and beyond.”

And it’s not just what we see. “The expectation for an elevated audio experience at live events is being driven in part by technology improvements in home, car and cinema audio,” says Raul Gonzalez, applications engineer, live sound and rental systems at Harman Professional. “As consumers are investing in and listening through new audio technology that is supporting systems like 5.1 surround and Dolby Atmos, they create a demand for live events to improve the sound experience to be consistent with the way they consume audio.Also, with live events being more and more driven by spectacular video content, the audio quality needs to elevate to match the visual experience.”

“There is the same expectation for a business event as for a leisure event,” notes Hanne Page, segment marketing manager, events at Barco. “It’s  about creating a memorable experience that stays with the audience long after the event.  People are looking for ‘Instamoments’ they can share.”

For many live events, projection mapping has become the most visible manifestation of AV technology. Panasonic has long been a proponent of the technology.

“The introduction of 50,000 lumen, 3-chip DLP projectors delivering native 4K images has been a game-changer,” claims Kulessa. “It brings new levels of commercial and operational benefits, picture performance and creative flexibility that outgun the LED display that has come to dominate the live events market in recent years.”

Rendering in real time is another technology that has proven transformational in delivering memorable live experiences.

“It makes possible execution and realisation as close to the event date as possible, providing ways to remain flexible until the very end,” says Page. “More and more content creators are picking up on the technology, which is enabled by increasingly powerful processing.”

Stumpfl notes a similar trend. “It used to be that for certain types of live events, pre-rendered content was the norm, but now a skilled media server operator is able to create mind-blowing beauty on the fly,” he smiles. “Real-time graphics has skyrocketed. That’s why our Pixera system supports Notch and allows the integration of Unity and Unreal game engines into media server workflows. In fact, our latest media server, the Pixera two RT, was designed specifically with ultra-demanding real time graphics applications in mind.”

The proAV and broadcast worlds are certainly converging in some areas. A case in point is Panasonic’s Kairos, which was introduced in May. “It’s an IT/IP video processing platform that offers an open architecture system for live video switching with complete input and output flexibility, resolution and format independence, maximum CPU/GPU processor utilisation and virtually unlimited mix effect scalability,” Kulessa explains. “Solutions like this open up a new world of creative production opportunities for live events with faster and more intuitive control of live and augmented or virtual images. This type of technology will also have an important role in the future production of live event streaming – freeing the production team from the constraints of dedicated hardware and enabling the transition to live IP workflows. We think it’s an innovation that will change the live events industry.”

Harman’s Gonzalez sees a similar scenario. “One of the most important  advancements is the confluence of IT and AV technology,” he says. “In the past, audio, video and lighting ran exclusively on their respective platforms. We’re now seeing the opportunity to bring disparate systems onto the same platform with powerful digital distribution and control though the network for higher speeds, higher quality and ease of use.”

The way forward for live events looks like it will include more pixels, more brightness, more sophisticated media servers driven by accelerating computing horsepower, and a growing reliance on IP that will see pro AV and broadcast become increasingly difficult to distinguish from each other.

Barco’s Page sees the Internet of Things assuming greater importance as universal connectivity becomes the standard.

“Increasingly, we’ll see the ability to connect to equipment that is rented and on the road, monitor its performance, pull up bug reports and sensor information,” she says.

The question remains: what will be the impact of the current social distancing measures, and for how long?

There are, of course, numerous technologies that are not strictly AV technologies that are having, and will continue to have, a significant impact on live events. Among these are technologies like BlackTrax, a vision-based system that connects to third-party applications, robotic lights, media servers and so on that allows AV equipment to be automatically adjusted on the fly. CAST Software’s Vivien allows events to be pre-visualised in 3D. AI and facial recognition, together with apps, for example, can create unique, personalised experiences – as can VR and AR.  The importance of social media means that few live events are not streamed.

“If we do see a massive and lasting cultural shift as a result of the current pandemic,” says Stumpfl, “it is likely that streaming and VR/AR based solutions might become a lot more significant, which would obviously include a number of ways in which these experiences might be a lot more personalised than any mainstream solution available today.”

Uncertainty about what the future applies throughout the AV industry, but perhaps mostly so in live events. There is, though, one thing that can be predicted with confidence.

“Live events will continue to be pioneers in the use of AV  to entertain,” says Kulessa. “With the capabilities and ease of use of the new technology, live events will  become fully fledged productions with the use of sophisticated multimedia and editing techniques taken from the broadcasting world and delivered in real-time.”

“Whatever the future, one thing seems certain,” concludes Stumpfl. “People will want to continue coming together in a way that satisfies both their need for entertainment and for a communal experience.”

Whether those events are delivered in the real world or virtually remains, of course, to be seen…