A Closer Look At Dataton Watchout 5


Dataton Watchout 5 has been out a few months, and now that I've gotten the chance to use it on full-scale productions, as well as test it in my own studio, I feel very comfortable recommending it strongly. The biggest update, of course, is the new support for multiple screen outputs from a single display computer, but there are quite a few other bells and whistles included that are pretty amazing. Watchout 5 now includes stereoscopic 3D imaging, a continuously updating image server, and more control over individual media elements. I'll discuss each of these features below.

Multiple Outputs
I'd like to start with the most important update: multiple outputs out of a single display computer. This feature alone is worth the price of admission because it actually reduces the total rental or purchase price for any application that needs more than a single channel output by using the graphics card's ability to output to multiple displays. That means a show that used to require four or five Watchout computers now only requires two. Of course, it requires comparatively faster computers to pull it off, but it ultimately reduces the total cost.

There are some restrictions, however, but I think they are basically inconsequential. One is that you have to keep all display outputs out of the same machine at the same resolution. That means if you want to output full 1080p HD out of one output, you have to also output 1080p from the others. Watchout also requires Windows 7 to use the multiple display function, so that means no more Windows XP for those of you who were reluctant to upgrade. The last restriction is that it is limited to a single graphics card per machine, so if you want to actually output multiple streams, you'll need a single graphics card capable of doing that.

For my testing, I used very powerful AMD graphics card with Eyefinity, capable of outputting six displays at once, and for standard definition video, it worked like a charm. I was able to output six individual 720x480 streams with no noticeable stuttering or delay, and I thought that was pretty darn good for a first try. I only could get three simultaneous streams of full 1080p playing smoothly, but even still, that's an enormous improvement, eliminating the need for two other machines and licenses. In addition, many, many productions do not actually need full HD anyway, and SD would be fine for a vast majority of theatrical video uses. I only used a single 7200rpm hard drive and not a RAID array or a Solid State Drive, so I'm sure that, with some more testing and hardware improvements on my end, I'd be able to play even more streams.

There is one major issue, that will only affect a small section of the users, but that does include me, so I need to mention it. Unfortunately, getting multi-channel audio out of Watchout on a Windows 7 computer has proven very problematic when using a pro-audio device such as a MOTU or M-Audio box. The regular on-motherboard 5.1 audio worked with multi-channel files, but if you work on large productions like I do, that often is an unacceptable solution from the sound designer's perspective. As of this writing, there is no known configuration of Windows 7, Watchout 5, and a pro-audio interface that currently works with multi-channel audio. It's a shame but ultimately only a small price to pay, and there are many creative work-arounds, such as syncing the audio on another computer handled by the sound department, or on a Windows XP machine in the Watchout cluster that isn't used for multiple screen output.

Stereoscopic 3D
Personally, I don't often work in 3D, nor do I particularly care for the effect, but some people really do, and like it or not, 3D is here for a while at least. Watchout 5 now includes 3D video playback, which means that projectors, LED screens, or televisions can set as either a left or a right channel. There is global control of the stereoscopic effect, which makes it pretty simple to set it to the current screen size, and the direct playback of stereoscopic video makes it so the effect just works. Of course, you still have to create the 3D content and appropriately depth-map your videos outside of Watchout, but assuming you've done this already, Watchout is the only one of the media servers that makes it this easy.

Image Server
Watchout 5 now includes a "live image server" that polls a directory on the computer at a given interval to look for updates to the file. This could be useful for a number of applications, where the desired effect is continuously updated content. For example, in the touring production of the show Wishful Drinking, we do a trick where we have an audience member take a photo with Carrie Fisher and then later put the image into the show on-screen. Depending on the house, sometimes we don't have a show curtain, and the projections are visible during the entire intermission, which would be the optimal time to do the switch. However, in order for there to be no interruptions to the display, we have to teach each new house crew how to operate Watchout and do this somewhat tricky maneuver. Had we been using Watchout 5, we could just replace the file on the image server computer, and Watchout would just automatically update the photo for each performance, saving a lot of headache and complication.

Furthermore, the Watchout image server supports Adobe Flash SWF files that can be programmed to fetch live RSS feeds, Twitter streams, Flickr photostreams, or any number of creative solutions by allowing the power of the Flash programming into Watchout.

More Control
Watchout 4 had introduced the ability to read data from other sources like MIDI, serial, or DMX, and you could do things like track a DMX channel and change the color of a photo or video according to the current DMX value, which makes it useful for allowing the lighting designer to set the color and mood of certain scenes, but that was basically it. Watchout 5, however, allows control of nearly every parameter of a media element, such as position and scale. This means that you can do something extra-fancy, like read the data coming in from an automation encoder and track your projection across the stage coordinated with the movement of a piece of scenery.

Unfortunately, there still is no way to plug a stagehand's brain into the computer, so manual moves still have to be timed the old-fashioned way! But it's not just automation tricks that we can do; all of these live inputs mean that we can start to use Watchout more like TroikaTronix Isadora or similar "experimental" video programs that are primarily used for live feedback. For example, I hooked up my iPad over MIDI to the Watchout computer and used a MIDI drum machine simulator to generate color flashes, live sizing, and positioning in Watchout.

Another new feature is the ability to position media items in the stage window using the same 3D metaphors of x, y, z space found in popular content creation applications such as Adobe After Effects and Maxon Cinema 4D. Instead of scaling and positioning an item at the same time and having to keep track of each elements' multiple properties, you can now just position objects in 3D space and let Watchout sort out the details. You can also use the stage preview window to view your compositions from the side or top views to check on things.

I've always liked Watchout for its similarity to Apple Final Cut Pro and After Effects, because the timeline as the basic interface and visual metaphor is what makes sense to people who come from the film and video background. With these new improvements, it's become clear to me that Watchout is probably the strongest choice of media servers for most applications right now.

Dataton's Watchout is distributed in North America by Show Sage.

Daniel Brodie is a freelance New York-based projection designer and multimedia artist. Check out brodiegraphics.com.

Check out the full demo from Infocomm:

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