After taking over part of the real estate in the heart of London, Outernet Global is about to reveal an exhibition installation of staggering scale and remarkable ambition. Anna Mitchell learns more from Technical Director Mike Whittaker.
The launch of Outernet London this autumn will mark the gradual opening of a vast and varied complex intended to transform a corner of the British capital, and will mark the end of a very long process. To get there, Laurence Kirschel’s real estate firm, Consolidated Developments, purchased much of the city’s historic Denmark Street; developed an ambitious concept that includes 16K 360 degree screens, an underground concert hall with a capacity of 2000 and a boutique hotel; and successfully navigated the design and planning of all elements. The construction alone took over three years.
The 2,260 square meter LED display, currently claimed to be the largest pixel density LED deployment ever, is housed in the cube-shaped Now Building in the heart of the neighborhood. This will be a very visual indication of the breadth of Outernet Global’s technological ambition, with 400,000 people passing and visiting the site each day.
In January 2020, Mike Whittaker joined the project as CTO, immediately tasked with carrying out the ambitious technical plans. Was it intimidating to be asked to deliver a huge project that, at least from a video point of view, was never made? “It was the technical challenge and the scale that drew me to the project,” Whittaker retorts.
The huge immersive 16K wraparound displays are created from over 2,000 square meters of AOTO LEDs, managed by four 64K controllers. The space is also inundated with audio from an L-Acoustics L-ISA system which enhances the feeling of immersion for spectators and visitors. If the configuration marked some first techniques, it is also quite unique, as well as very diverse, in its objectives.
“We could use the space as an art gallery efficiently, the next moment there will be elements outside our home, we will have big events and they could be run by advertisers or something like a concert. . Having a technology stack that worked for all of this, and one that was as simple as possible to handle all the possibilities we might face in the future, was the challenge, âsays Whittaker.
Regarding display technology, Whittaker [pictured right] said LED was the only option for the space and what they needed to accomplish.
âFor this ladder – the tallest wall is four stories tall – the LED made sense,â he says. “In the spaces, we have 2.8 mm [pixel pitch], and there are two outer walls and they measure 5mm [pixel pitch]. Everything is classified IP. The LED works just at that scale, with the sharpness, luminance, and nits, all that. It just creates this spectacle.
On the audio side, Outernet London has partnered with L-Acoustics to install an L-ISA immersive sound system. “It’s the audio that’s going to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, it has to be an equal partner to the video,” says Whittaker. âIt’s a key part of working with your senses that was in our creative brief. And the eyes and ears aren’t the only senses targeted, the aroma goes into the mix as well.
Behind the scenes is what Whittaker describes as “the core.” It is the technological combination of Ventuz real-time content creation and delivery, Mediagenix’s Whats’On scheduling system, and Lucid show control.
Whittaker says Ventuz has a proven track record of rendering real-time content to television. He was convinced that all they had to do for Outernet London was to increase this. âWith Ventuz, our questions weren’t just ‘can you render in real time? “, But” can you also do it transparently? “. We don’t want to see the join when we walk through a cluster or around a corner, and they were one of the few companies at that point that could do that. There are a lot of great renderers and game engines out there, but when you say “I’m going to give you a 16K canvas, make it transparent” you see worried looks. Ventuz could give us a very tailor-made solution and equipment to achieve what was required.
With Ventuz taken for granted, attention shifted to the programming system which also had a crucial role to play.
âIt’s not a billboard,â says Whittaker. âThe calendar will have an impression; by watching the content you will know what time it is, if it is rush hour, morning, evening. It’s dynamic. We went with Whats’On from MediaGenix, which is used by some of the biggest broadcasters in the world. The glue that then brings the lineup to something that gets released on Ventuz is a Lucid show control system.
Real-time rendering was vital for the interaction between audience and content. âWe will have an app and you will be able to interact through cellphones, but you will also be able to interact directly with the content. Whittaker won’t say more about it, other than “it’s a motion capture on a slightly different scale, no costume.”
A final area of ââthe technology setup to note is that the master systems integrator QVest has played a key role in designing the operations center from which the entire system will be run.
While acknowledging the scale of the challenge, Whittaker seems unfazed. He has great confidence in his team and his technological partners. Above all, he has confidence in them to overcome the obstacles that will inevitably arise.
âWe don’t just have a transactional relationship with our partners, they are companies that want to work with us to make this happen,â he says. âTake for example the LED. If you have a fixed surface, that’s one thing, but we have the largest permanently installed mobile platform in the world. This is a particular challenge where you have to work with the people who make the frames and your LED supplier. How to wire that? How do you put pictures on it as they move? “
And while partnerships are crucial to making The Outernet work, they will be absolutely critical to ensuring its future success, said Whittaker. âWe’re going to need development. It is not static. We will not be showing the same show five times a day. We want to be, and we will be, challenged by our clients, by artists, by the events with which we engage. We need to make sure that our products have roadmaps and that we work with our partners to influence them. It will be successful through partnerships rather than “I give you money, you give me a product, then we both go our separate ways.”
Whittaker sees part of building Outernet London as creating an ecosystem of partners and solutions that his team can scale and deploy to other locations. London is not the end of the road, sites are already being studied in the United States for future Outernet projects.
The other side of the challenge is content creation and Whittaker has great faith in the in-house creative team whose role is to develop content, work with clients to develop content, and work with creative agencies to explain aspects such as resolution and how to work with it. a canvas of this size. Partnerships are once again important. âWe collaborate with some of the best storytellers in the world,â he says. “We have a partnership with the Ridley Scott Creative Group, Marco Brambilla is our art director, there is something planned from [artist] Marina Abramovic.
Whittaker expects and is happy to be challenged by the ideas and demands of content creators. In addition to working with Ventuz, he says they’ve also built relationships with Unreal Engine and Unity. âAll of these systems have strengths, we want to leverage them and make sure the capacity of these displays is endless. “
It’s easy to get distracted by these endless possibilities, but the Now Building must also be seen in the context of the larger development.
Whittaker says creative heritage is woven into this part of London, stressing the importance of Denmark Street as London’s Tin Pan Alley. The boutique hotel on the site contains the apartment where the Sex Pistols lived, with graffiti they left on the walls. This is joined by several restaurants, bars, not to mention the concert hall with a capacity of 2000. In collaboration with the BPI (British Phonographic Industry), a recording studio has been built pro bono and is dedicated to new emerging talents. Building this entire campus from scratch allowed the team to set up an infrastructure that will also allow content to be shared between the sites and the hotel via an IP network.
The concept defies simple definition, but Whittaker offers the most apt summary: âThis is entertainment in the broadest sense. “