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I Have Seen the Future… and it is Digital

More and more churches are using digital projectors for songs, announcements and even video for image magnification. In visiting different churches I have seen some very creative uses in the media content being projected. In fact, there is a whole industry devoted to media content and the programs used to deliver it to the projector. As the cost of the projectors drops, the lumen output is going up and so the projectors are becoming very cost effective.

I’m sure you are wondering why a lighting column is talking about a video issue. The reason, is that a projector can be regarded as a lighting instrument. Simply defined: a video projector is an ellipsoidal reflector spotlight, which has a really good gobo. Now before anyone gets too offended, think about it for a minute. An ERS has a light source, a pattern slot, and a lens system. A projector has the same 3 key components, in our simplified definition.

In order to make a projector useful as a lighting fixture, we need two things. The first is a good mounting system, preferably one that moves. The second is control over the projector from a lighting console. “He’s dreaming!” you say, but not really, I have indeed seen such a fixture and you can buy one right now. At present only one company has such a device, the High End Systems DL-1. The unit looks like a moving light, but it is really a projector that is completely controlled by a lighting console. It can also accept two inputs and can switch between them.

One feature of this fixture that anyone who has used a projector in a theatrical show will love, is the separate iris it has for blackout. Another fun feature- when you flip the fixture, the image stays in the correct orientation. The control of the image is amazing. The switchable inputs are also very useful when you want to go between media content and a camera input. However, because the projector is now controlled by the lighting console, there may be some confusion as to who is in control; is it the lighting director, or the video director?

If the lighting director has control of the projector, then why not the content being projected? We really begin to see a blurring of the lines, and this is where I may start to get myself into trouble.

Again, I’m not dreaming about this idea. there is not one, but four companies that I know of manufacturing media servers. Now you can have a media server controlled by the lighting desk sending content to a moving light. Can you begin to see the possibilities? Presto, I have a fixture with infinite shape control and color selection! No longer are you limited by a dichroic filter wheel. No longer are you limited by a measly eight gobos. Think of an infinite selection of full color images, and that is only the beginning.

We are all used to sending information from a computer with a program such as Power Point. The presentations are static and the program is full of limitations. Other programs have come out that allow more control of the content and allow the incorporation of video along with static images, and even an overlay for nursery/child information and announcements. Control over the content is limited in terms of real time manipulation. Hold onto your hats boys and girls, the ride is about to start.

These new media servers have changed the name of the game. A media server performs two distinct tasks. The first task is to be a repository for media content files in a host of formats. The second task is to allow for on-the-fly manipulation of the media. Now you can create effects live, and make adjustments as required. The term “server” should be familiar to anyone involved in computer networks. A server can contain large quantity hard drives which in turn can store vast amounts of data. The amount of available content is more limited by you and not the hardware. Realistically, how many items can you remember and keep current so that you can call them up for use during a live show? Most of the servers out there have the capability for instant access to 255 images or video clips.

The live creation of complex images is what makes a media server really stand out. Multiple layers can be controlled so that you can fade between images, or place an image onto an object in front of a background. You can spread an image over several objects and then rotate the objects in 3D. How about changing the color of an image, or lighting the object to provide extra highlights. Even more fanciful, create a three dimensional landscape and then move into the landscape like a camera zooming in.

I have been to two demonstrations of these servers, and each time I am filled with possible application ideas. If an image isn’t fitting on the screen correctly, you can scale the image, or fix the keystone from the lighting desk. You can also change virtual scenery during the rehearsal, as the director begins to shape the final production. Problems with changes to the projector or screen location are now handled in minutes, whereas before they would potentially take days to fix. The projections can evolve with the changes to the production in real time.

My dream is to have a lighting rig using only these projectors. Not only can I have the lights move when and where I want, but (and this is big) I am not limited by any of the current restrictions on color or pattern count. All of the mechanical attributes of a moving light are now controlled as video. Right now they can crop the image, which for me would require shutter cuts. Any logo can be loaded into the server for use; no more spending hundreds of dollars on glass patterns in full color. If you want to animate a pattern and have it twinkle, or rotate, go ahead. One company even offers media content manipulation as part of the server package.

The people that create content can now be involved in the creation of new images that are made up of multiple layers and objects- in real time. The lighting department and the video department are going to become merged and it may get interesting deciding who is in charge.

At present, there are limitations on the lumen output, so in reality, replacing all your moving lights with projectors is not going to happen. Also the cost factor will take a long time before it decreases enough to make attaching a media server to every fixture a reality.

I have to be careful with the term “long” though, because at the rate technology is evolving, “long” could only be a matter of a few years.

Soon enough people will start to incorporate the media servers into their projection systems. Only time will tell when the dream of a complete lighting rig using media servers will come true, but I believe that I will see a show one day with such a rig in use. I also strongly believe that I will see such a system used in a church.

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