Its Lighting! No, Its Video!

Actually, the technology- formerly-known-as-Catalyst is both, and with High End Systems continuing to develop new and more versatile digital lighting products, nightclubs might never be the same. Product manager Bobby Hale explains.

By John Landers

       As one of the pioneers of automated lighting, Austin, Texas-based High End Systems has helped create the modern nightclub experience. During the past two decades, High End fixtures and control systems have become recognized as reliable standards in this constantly evolving, hyper-competitive business. With the development of a new line of digital lighting products, High End has successfully united two powerful entertainment technologies. The DL1, the first commercially available moving video projection fixture, is certainly a stunning engineering achievement, but is clubland really ready for intelligent video? The fixture itself, which is usually sold as part of a “scaled, assembled system,” is about twice the price of an HES x.Spot (that’s in the $20K ballpark); but early adopters, like Avalon Hollywood owner John Lyons, seem delighted with the DL1, despite its cost. To find out more about this emerging technology, we went straight to the source: Bobby Hale, product manager for High End’s digital lighting family of products. A 13-year veteran of the lighting industry, Hale previously worked on the design teams that developed the Cyberlight, Technobeam, Studio Color and Spot 575, and x.Spot. We asked him about the new DL1 and the Catalyst V3 Media Server, and how they might affect the future of the nightclub industry.

How did you become involved in intelligent video? High End Systems got into digital lighting back in 2001. Our first generation products were the Catalyst 1.2 and the Catalyst Orbital Head. The Orbital Head was an accessory that attached to standard rental staging projectors [so] we could actually move video around. That was sort of an experimental product, and the feedback we got from the marketplace was that people liked [being able to] move video around in a 3D space. We also found that when you take a 2D image, like a video, and project it into an atmosphere with fog or smoke – what we call particulates – we could create some really neat aerial effects.

What prompted the development of this new fixture? Because of the success of Catalyst and the Orbital Head, we started working on the DL1. The Catalyst Orbital Head is still a product we sell – we just wanted to come up with a form recognized by our industry, so we integrated a projector into a moving yoke fixture. Another reason we developed the DL1 is because we wanted to enclose the projector in a filtration system to help protect it. Today, there are a lot of projectors in clubs, and in a two- or three-month period those projectors are being sent back to the manufacturer to be cleaned because of nicotine and fog particulates.

Nasty stuff, especially for sensitive electronics… When they land on the LCD or DMD, it degrades the picture quality. So that was a big reason why we enclosed the projector in a head. We designed a patent-pending filtration system.

So, there’s more to the DL1 than just its rugged good looks? Yes. We actually protect the projector.

How does the DL1 compare, physically, to typical intelligent lighting fixtures? It’s 85 pounds – that’s lighter than a Cyberlight. The height is 33.9 inches, so it’s really not that big. It’s comparable to the x.Spot.

Can you rig it anywhere that you’d hang a regular moving head? It hangs like any conventional intelligent light.

Is the DL1 controlled in the same way? Yes. It’s 11 channels of DMX-512. It pans 400 degrees, tilts 270 degrees. We have an iris that acts as a shutter so we can go to a true black. With most video projectors, when there isn’t a video signal or you send a black screen …

You get gray… You get gray, exactly. So that was important, not only for the nightclub industry, but also for the theater and touring markets.

So, the DL1’s mechanical iris gives operators more visual flexibility and a broader dynamic range. What can you tell us about the video projector itself? We chose the projector that we’re integrating for its ANSI output, which is 4500 lumens, and its contrast level, which is 800:1. [It’s] also portable, so the design was inherently rugged. As far as comparisons to projectors in nightclubs, I’ve seen everything from 1,500 to 10,000 lumens, depending on the type of club. We feel that we’ve chosen a projector that’s right for the market.

How do you expect the DL1 to be used in clubs? I view the DL1 as a multi-functional tool. In a nightclub, it can do two tasks. Number one, it can project images onto walls or screens, which is what most projectors are doing today in nightclubs. The second task or function is the ability to perform the digital aerials. This is very important. Digital aerials, as we discussed earlier, are laser-like effects that you can actually point at your clients. With lasers, you have certain FDA regulations where you’re not allowed to scan the crowd. Since this is not a laser, we are able to create these multicolored, laser-type scans, and project them at people.

Can clubs utilize the DL1 with pre-existing video gear? Yes. The DL1 can accept any RGBHV signal, composite, or S-video.

Well, that should please the VJ community. Yeah, there’s a VGA connector there, so if you wanted to connect it directly to you computer, you can. We also have S-video, because that’s a standard consumer connector, so you can connect your DVD player to it.

What are some of the advantages of using the DL1 with the Catalyst Version 3.0 Media Server? One of the most important advantages is the ability to correct for trapezoidal distortion on both the horizontal and vertical planes. This is commonly called keystone correction.

And that gives you a nice, rectangular image, regardless of the projection angle. What else can you tell us about Version 3.0? The Catalyst software is based on a four-layer system. On each one of those layers, you can play a movie or have a still image, like a logo. Using the intensity control, you overlay these movies. Say you have a Digital Juice Jump Back loop happening on layer one, and on layer two, you have a Skyy vodka logo. By varying the intensity, we can overlay that logo onto the loop, and at the same time, you can add color to the Skyy logo, or rotate the logo on the X, Y, and Z axes. You don’t have to put it in Final Cut Pro and re-render it. All of this is happening in real time.

Which means an operator doesn’t have to spend hours and hours programming everything. That’s a very big selling point of the Catalyst software. Instead of having to re-render content, by mixing layers and adding all of these effects, we’re creating content in realtime.

Much like a DJ does with music. Exactly. So, a VJ would probably think about the layers as four different inputs.

And this is all using Quicktime movies for source material? Yes. Also, we have something we call Spectrograph. You can feed audio into the media server and the audio will trigger waveforms that we can add different effects to. Are you familiar with an oscilloscope? It acts somewhat like that. It works off of different frequencies and creates waveforms that you can project.

So you can see what you’re hearing. Which can be part of your overall presentation. I wouldn’t want that on all night – it would be boring – but you could cut to it on a real heavy bass song, and then mix out of it into something else.

Or use it as one of your video layers in the Catalyst Media Server? Very good. This is the second generation of digital lighting products from High End. Version 3.0 [gives operators] the ability to do video dissolves or crossfades between the layers. We also have two separate outputs so the Media Server can be configured to run two DL1s, or two plasma screens. So we have two dedicated video signals coming out of Version 3.0. Using all four layers, we can create an effect called video montage: That’s like a picture in a picture. We can scale down one of the layers, and we can have a different image playing in a different part of the overall projection.

Catalyst 3.0 seems like a rather powerful tool for VJs. The Media Server [makes it] so easy to add content or imagery in the club environment. I see the DL1 and the Media Server being used not only to enhance your customers’ experience, but also as a revenue stream for the club owner. Because we’re using digital media or video, you can actually communicate to your clients or customers. Let’s say you’re using the DL1 to project digital textures. You could flash up a sponsor’s name, or promote a theme night. So, not only is it a tool to entertain, it’s also a tool to communicate. It’s digital signage.

How does that help the club owner? If he had a sponsor that wanted to have their logo projected every hour, he could sell advertising that way, and/or use the tool to himself to promote some of his nights or his drink specials. With the Catalyst Media Server, all you have to do is drag and drop the file into the library folder, rename the file, and you’re ready to use it. It’s very simple. I think it’s an important component to the system. With the Catalyst Media Server, we can take any content, any Quicktime movie, and we can add over 80 visual and color effects.

What else does the new software offer? Off the top of my head, we have one library with 160 High End gobos that are static, like lithos, and then another library of Digital Juice Jump Back loops. We also provide ArtBeats clips, two libraries with 255 digital aerials, and18 Sean Bridwell Digital Textures. [Bridwell is] a local Austin graphics artist. I said, “Listen, I need something psychedelic that you’d see behind a band,” and they ended up being things that work really well being projected on a club wall. We also ship with the full DHA metal gobo library. I don’t think that’s as interesting for the club. But I’m not really into gobos any more. I like motion.

But if a club owner wants to create a more traditional look… Some people will use it like a conventional intelligent light. That’s what’s so cool about the DL1 – it can act like an x.Spot, for example. All we have to do is import those gobos…and it can function like any intelligent light.

From what I’ve seen, intelligent video has many potential uses. It really breaks a paradigm. When people look at video, they’re used to it being still. When they see this video image start moving, they’re immediately attracted to it. It’s something that’s not “normal.”

That’s the essence of the nightclub experience – something that’s not “normal,” but in a good way. It’s basically media in motion. It’s also the multi-functionality of the DL1. Not only are we doing the job of a video wall, but when you turn it around and project it in 3D space and we do these digital aerials, you’re adding
another dimension to video.

So, it’s not just providing video wall capabilities in a set location, it can be anywhere or everywhere in a club. Exactly. When I think about the DL1 in a nightclub, the first thing I think of is the whole room being white: That makes any wall a projection surface. With the DL1, you can continually move your video wall around, and also you can point it towards the dancefloor and do digital aerials, the laser-type effects. You’re getting two effects in one product.

We found that when you take a 2D image, like a video, and project it into an atmosphere with fog or smoke what we call particulates we could create some really neat aerial effects.


Does that make digital video a worthwhile investment for the average nightclub? We actually see DL1 as an opportunity for cost savings for club owners. You walk in clubs today and see three or four projectors stacked up trying to accomplish what a single DL1 has the ability to do. It’s the flexibility of DL1, especially when driven by the Catalyst Media Server, that makes the product so attractive. Don’t forget about the cost of servicing unprotected projectors.

What’s next for the HES digital lighting division? What we’re working on right now in engineering, which will be launching in March, is a camera that can be installed in the DL1. Anywhere the DL1 points, we’re recording, and we can send that via S-video back to a video switcher. What’s neat about the camera is that it has infrared capabilities. When the club’s in a blackout situation, we can still take images of the dancefloor, feed them back up to the video switcher, and play them out a different DL1 onto a screen. So, if you can imagine the club’s really dark, and people are dancing, they look at the video screen and they can actually see themselves.

Like an out-of-body experience… It’s definitely trippy. I’ve seen it. Sitting in a dark room and seeing a projection of yourself is pretty bizarre. It’s like night vision goggles.

Is the camera also protected from smoke and fog, like the projector? Yes, because it’s inside the enclosure. If you look at the DL1, the center window is where the projector outputs. There’s a dark red window to the left – that’s where the camera will go.

This all sounds like a lot of fun. It is a lot of fun. That’s the thing about digital lighting – it’s total creative freedom. You’re no longer limited to the metal or glass patterns that are shipped in a fixture, and with the Media Server, you’re no longer limited to how the video is rendered.

Will High End be pursuing other price points in digital lighting, or does the DL1 represent the best balance of price/performance for the foreseeable future? Regarding price points, HES does not discuss its product roadmaps outside of the company. However, it is a Wal-Mart world. You know, prices are falling. High End Systems intends to keep its leadership position in this new market.

Fair enough. How will digital lighting be used in the future? I think of club owners building their clubs around the power of digital lighting. When I say the power of digital lighting, what I envision is creating clubs that use digital lighting for virtual scenery – the whole club being completely white, and having DL1’s all around the ceilings and creating virtual environments. During happy hour, all they’re projecting is rainforest scenery. Then, in the evening, they’ll do a space theme, or a lunar landscape. That’s where I see digital lighting in the future, in the clubs – actually creating virtual environments.

Copyright 2003 Club Systems International Magazine
Copyright 2003 TESTA Communications