Gil Densham and Bruce Freeman are two men with a new mission. CEO and chairman of Cast Software, respectively, they are betting the farm — figuratively speaking — on a new product called BlackBox, a moniker not intended to be its actual name, but that seems to have stuck. With patents pending and beta testing underway, BlackBox (BB) combines hardware and proprietary software as an integrated, bidirectional, high-speed communication solution that enables various control devices connected as inputs or outputs to send or receive instructions from each other in realtime.

The Business Angle

“Trade shows such as LDI are full of high-tech equipment that can create the wow factor on stage and screen,” points out Freeman, whose concern is that “the various genres of equipment don't always talk to each other, and the creative process can be hampered when the technical execution of the dream is made difficult in lining up all the different aspects of technology.” The goal of BlackBox would be to allow moving lights, moving scenery, cameras, video, and audio, etc. to be synchronized to track the action of any moving object, or objects, including performers — all in live realtime, all in true 3D — for large and small scale productions alike.

As the developers of Wysiwyg, the folks at Cast discovered it was better to be industry-wide, rather than locked to one manufacturer. “There are today 40 companies that are registered Wysiwyg developers,” notes Freeman. The same theory is in effect for the development of BlackBox, with an initial group of partners already on board, including MA Lighting in Germany, Outboard in the UK, and Niscon Inc. in Canada. “We are using the same business model. BlackBox is open to all companies who want to get involved with the project,” says Freeman.

“In hard dollar terms, BlackBox can save money, and human error can be eliminated as well,” says Freeman, pointing out that pre-cueing and synchronization will cut many hours out of the technical process and provide genuine cost savings. So how does it work?

Inside The BlackBox

As a piece of hardware, BlackBox is a device working from a special 3D Wysiwyg file that accepts input in all forms and converts positional data about any moving object, from one or several sources, then uses this data to establish the exact 3D positions of the objects, computing instructions in XYZ, yaw, pitch, and roll terms, and sending it out as moving positional information to whatever control devices need it. “This is a new paradigm for universality,” Freeman adds.

In terms of tracking actors, a technology that can be used as a plug-in to BlackBox is a tiny (the size of a fingertip) RFID — radio frequency identification — tag that broadcasts the performer's location on stage to special receivers, which in turn send the information to BlackBox. “All the people involved in a production can use BlackBox, and everyone would then know what is going in where and when in realtime,” says Freeman.

“Today, in a rock show, if the talent does not stick to the preconceived cueing choreography, you would have a real coordination mess on your hands,” he adds. “Soon using BB, which will automatically synchronize the lights, scenery, video, audio, and cameras, the singers wearing tracking tags can be followed instantly, in realtime, solving these problems. BB is also a great solution for flying Tinkerbell at Disney. It is hard to follow her flying with automated lights and building cues.”

Spatial Audio

“Realtime pre-viz comes from the lighting industry,” says Dave Haydon of Outboard, UK-based originators and suppliers of audio show control and live surround sound engineering, as well as the creators of TiMax© Audio Imaging systems. “Gil Densham at Cast sees the visualization environment as more than just lighting and asked us to get involved as the sound partner for BlackBox, which we can plug into with our gear. We are engaging to add audio show control and products.”

TiMax can be considered as a peripheral to BlackBox — as an input for live realtime tracking, such as a model helicopter being flown using a joystick, with the sound following it. Haydon adds, “We can also be a controlled output. TiMax technology can respond and be used for tracking actors, scenery, lights, or even cameras, through BlackBox.”

What Does It All Mean

“BlackBox is not a successor to Wysiwyg, which is primarily a non-show-critical pre-cueing and designing tool,” explains Densham, “but a huge extension to the toolset that Wyg offers and now becoming a realtime show-critical tool.”

For Densham, the importance of BlackBox lies in the realtime dynamics that allow any one of the connected controllers to make changes and instantly update all others connected with the changes. “In today's way, motion control is driving a projector screen around, and then lighting and video have to build cues and content to follow, and then the director changes the motion's path and timing, and lighting and video now have to go back to change all their cues and creative content — a long and painstaking task that has to be repeated over and over again,” he says. In the new — or BlackBox — way, any changes made are instantly updated, saving as many cueing hours as would have been spent. “Our research has shown that, on one Broadway show alone, we could have trimmed $200K out of the costs for a two-minute sequence and the cost to cue it with the changes,” Densham adds.

While large high-tech productions such as Cirque du Soleil's KA and Robert Lepage's Damnation Of Faust at The Metropolitan Opera have done similar work on a per-production basis, BlackBox is aiming at an industry-wide solution. “BlackBox shows tremendous promise and is part of a larger trend in modern show control, where systems are linked together but not bound by the limitations of synchronizing everything by time only,” says show control guru John Huntington. “I'll be especially excited if Cast can integrate the ability to make short-term predictions about where physical objects are heading and integrate full support of ACN.”