Going live with AV
The live event sector is booming. Dan Daley looks at some of the dominant trends in the pro AV market.
There’s still some whistling in the dark in the wake of what turned out to be the worst economic turndown since 1929, but the optimism in the business pages is palpable now. And while there’s still grumbling about wage growth (or lack thereof) there’s no mistaking the rebound in corporate event spending — market analysts the Aberdeen Group predict that corporate meeting and event spend will rise from 9% to 20% of overall corporate spending through 2015.
It’s barely five years since companies like Bank of America and Morgan Stanley were stigmatised by the press and the public for producing lavish corporate soireés even as they were making thousands of employees redundant. Now, everyone’s looking for a backstage pass to live corporate and organisational events that look and feel increasingly like high-end entertainment, and with audio and video to match.
In fact, live event production is undoubtedly seeing some of its momentum coming from another interesting trend: over the course of the past decade, music artists’ revenues have shifted inexorably from sales of recorded music to ticket sales from concerts and touring. Pollstar, a trade magazine covering that industry, estimates the size of the North American concert industry alone at $A8 billion, a sizeable increase over past years thanks in large part to a steadily increasing number of festivals.
People aren’t usually coming to corporate events to see a concert (though plenty of classic rockers have appended their incomes with private gigs in recent years) but what the trend towards live music has done is made going somewhere a thing again, a counterstroke to the bunker-like nesting encouraged by a wave of internet-connected devices that bring the world into homes and offices. The shift to mobile devices is also allowing more people to bring the internet with them when they do leave home. All of this, along with a recovering economy, has helped create an environment that has seen live event production make a comeback, including for corporations and organisations.
And that’s been helping AV’s fortunes, with integrators reporting demand increasing for ever-larger video and ever-louder audio (or at least more bass — subwoofers are no longer optional in either installed, portable or touring sound systems anymore, and they are now being deployed in batches rather than individually). This renewed focus on AV is underscoring a few trends in the live event production sector, ones that will likely grow in importance in the very near future.
On the audio side, aside from how subs have become ‘de riguer’ for any system comprised of anything more than a USB-powered Bluetooth speaker, a definitive trend has been the migration from copper to fibre and from matrix to network, a trend that’s only accelerating.
Propelling this has been a dramatic increase in the number of audio channels required to put on more complex event productions. That’s been a boon to network system developers, including Oz’s local hero, Audinate, whose Dante network has undergone the Xerox effect and become a virtual surrogate term for the category.
The Ravenna platform has also been making some headway, as have other proprietary ones such as QSC’s Q-Sys network, suggesting a diversity of operational requirements that can only be good for the category long term. The AES-67 standard, introduced last year, is offering some expectation of intercompatibility between platforms, which is also helping move networking forward by making the future a bit less scary to take chances on. And that future is almost certainly going to include the next iteration of multi-channel sound, as Dolby’s Atmos and Barco’s Auro compete for attention.
If audio technology is becoming more complex, it’s also putting some new emphasis on an aspect of sound that’s been around since cave-dwelling days but that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves until relatively recently. Acoustics consulting and acoustical products have been a huge growth category in recent years, a natural outgrowth of the recognition that low speech intelligibility impedes getting the corporate message across.
The effect of this newly arrived acoustical awareness can be seen most graphically in the US house-of-worship market, where message communication truly considered a matter of life (or afterlife) and death, and for which loudspeaker manufacturers have established entire departments to cater to congregations that increasingly view their sound systems as competitive advantages. But the demand for highly intelligible speech has migrated to the corporate side, and sound-system providers for live events now put that requirement at the top of their lists. (Along with extra subs.)
On The Screen
Bigger productions are demanding bigger video. LED technology has dropped precipitously in price in recent years, because the chips that drive them now comprise between 20% and 30% of the cost of a fixture’s bill of materials, compared to 50% or more a few years ago. That’s driven innovation in power consumption and form factors — LED tiles can now be made in almost any aspect ratio, from 1:1 squares to almost any geometric configuration. Conventional projection has experienced its own innovation streak, however, most recently with laser light sources providing brighter illumination and reduced operating costs thanks to longer lamp life. But when it comes to very large installations, the trend is leaning towards LED, thanks to its modular nature.
At some point, however, just going bigger isn’t enough. The company that produced the eerie holographic appearance of murdered rapper Tupac Shakur at the Coachella festival in 2012 tells me that the concept — based on a 19th Century projection trick known as Pepper’s Ghost — is starting to gain some traction from corporate users.
Nick Smith, president of AV Concepts, cites a 2014 Nike product roll-out in which pre-recorded holographs of four NBA stars gave event attendees insights on the sport and posed for selfies with them, doing the one thing that gives the illusion its biggest emotional impact: permitting real-time interaction between the living and the virtual.
Nick says he’s also been able to scale the illusion down for small deployments for events such as trade shows and retail pop-ups, and in some cases CEOs and other presenters are able to appear as if on stage while they are actually in front of a video camera thousands of miles away.
As live events become bigger and more complex, AV systems management is evolving, utilising more cloud-based control and combining automation and analytics in the same process. For instance, when sensors detect that a break-out room in an event is at capacity, it will automatically change signage outside the room to direct additional attendees to overflow areas, without humans having to cue that. That same information can also be used to later analyse the relative popularity of certain sessions or panels that are part of the larger event, allowing organisers to better refine their agendas for future events.
In fact, so much of everyday life is now lived in the cloud, from social media to messaging, that event AV is really just simply joining those aspects there. Thought leaders in the intersection of AV and social media expect that there will be an integration of apps like Facebook and Spotify with AV platforms at events, part of the trend of personalisation of the event experience.
This paradigm shift, from the broadly collective to the intensely personal, will affect how the AV integrator relates to event production.
“In the past, AV integrators used to be about providing infrastructure,” one said to me. “In the future, it’s going to be about connecting platforms.”
Second Screen Becomes Second Nature
The next frontier to watch will be second screen applications, such as event manager Freeman’s FXP Touch. These are designed, in a sense, to short-circuit the tendency of attendees at events to become distracted by their own mobile devices, checking email or Snapchat when event producers would prefer that they be listening to the message coming from the stage.
The second screen, whose content is derived from the live presentation before them, comes up synchronously on their smart phone or tablet and engages the audience members on an individual level, while at the same time allowing presenters to gather feedback such as what slides a viewer may have lingered over and whether or not they tweeted during the presentation.
Live event production will use AV to a greater extent, and in more novel ways, than ever before. What will be challenging is predicting what the new technology elements and configurations will be, and how to ramp up for them. But that’s been the challenge all along, hasn’t it?