Driven mainly by advancements in presentation and display technology, corporate events are becoming bigger and more sophisticated, yet the typical, small-staging venue continues to be an industry mainstay. The temptation to use such technologies and techniques in these intimate settings is great among industry professionals. Sometimes, though, the industry lags behind in its adoption of innovative technologies, but in the case of high-definition video in small venues, slow adoption has more to do with expense than any lack of desire.

Even though HD is a hot topic in the A/V industry right now, it's not something normally used in small venues for live events. HD is especially prominent in the high-end consumer and broadcast television industries, with a great deal of time and money spent producing shows using HD equipment. However, HD is probably the most expensive and challenging content to display in a live setting, and there's rarely a budget for a full-blown solution in small venues. In addition to cost, there are other obstacles standing in the way of HD gaining a foothold in this space.

I recently spoke to some designers and engineers to find out why HD hasn't yet caught on in the small venue market. I'm always interested to hear from people who keep their finger on the pulse of what's going on in the industry. In our discussions, the price of HD was a common complaint, but other factors came into play, as well.

“Small” is defined more by budget than venue

From the start of my research and discussions with industry experts, it became clear how much more expensive it is to deliver HD over standard definition — a 2:1 to 3:1 differential. Everything, including cameras, playback decks, digital media servers, switchers, converters/scalers, and projectors are in the neighborhood of two to three times as expensive to buy, which equates to at least a 2 to 3 times higher rate for rental (before discounting).

In some instances, “small” is defined more by budget than venue. Mark Lovelace, director of operations at Stager Solutions, San Diego, addresses this point, particularly when it comes to HD.

“Once the HD trigger is pulled, the budget has to increase proportionally,” Lovelace says. “My experience is that the limited supply of true HD engineering equipment leaves little room for price shopping.”

Stager recently conducted a high-definition show for a supplier of HD hardware in a small venue with a very limited attendance. “We needed a full HD chain, from camera to projector, to showcase their high-def gear,” Lovelace says. “As it turned out, HD engineering gear was relatively hard to find during the production season, particularly on the West Coast. For this show, we had to put together separate components, rather than the usual engineering racks, as the racks were on extended rental to the network guys. Again, there was little room for budget considerations as we had to take what was available.”

16:9 projectors

Virtually all projectors today, from the least expensive to the highest priced, offer compatibility with most common high-definition sources in analog and/or digital format. That is not to say they are pixel-to-pixel capable of HD display, but rather, that they can accept and process most common HD inputs and map them to the resolution of the projector. This processing involves letter-boxing, or windowing, where the 16:9 image is displayed somewhere within the 4:3 or 5:4 aspect ratios of the images, resulting in lower than native HD resolutions on the screen.

There are not many true 16:9 projectors on the market just yet. At the high end, there are some 2k (2048×1080) DLP projectors being introduced, but they are priced far too high for almost all small-venue work. There are also some wide-aspect LCD products coming into the market and some wide-aspect, single-chip DLP projectors already in operation, but projectors designed for use in event staging aren't readily available just yet. We can certainly expect more movement in this direction by the projector manufacturers as more content becomes available, and as the price of HD hardware comes down. Eventually, the market will demand more cost-effective, wide-aspect projection.

From a projection standpoint, if the decision is made to go the HD route in a small venue, your choices are normally either LCD or DLP. Which choice is best? While LCD projectors put out a lot of light for the buck, they commonly suffer a blue/green shift due to the LCD technology and lamps used. This isn't acceptable to most designers, so DLP is selected more often than not.

Mark Lovelace recently worked on a big show in Las Vegas that wasn't in HD, but he still needed to decide between LCD or DLP.

“Our initial idea was to get LCD projectors in here, however, given the nature of the show, we decided to go with Christie X10s, as we felt the LCD look was unacceptable,” he explains. “So if an analog show like this forces us to make a decision like that, why would I want an LCD projector on a full HD show?”

It's truly amazing what some engineers will do to incorporate an HD look into a show, however. Bob Baker, service manager at AVHQ/Show Solutions in Norcross, Ga., and his colleagues have been known to tinker with this approach for clients.

“Right now, we are in the process of planning a small show [100 people] in a draped off section of an arena which will use a 25×40 [Vista Systems] Montage screen,” says Baker. “We have had clients use the Montage full screen vertically, using 1280×1024 projectors with wallpaper on the unused edges. We have also had people insist on 16:9 images using 15KHz video (4×3 aspect ratio), which is not HD material, but definitely provides an HD feel.”

Some designers have even used digital cinema projectors, which are definitely not small-venue projectors — a testament to how creative stagers can be when a situation demands it.

Screens

The issue of screens is usually managed by masking existing screens or acquiring screens from any number of manufacturers or suppliers. Relatively easy to find are 16:9 screens, unless you are looking for a significantly large size. In that case, the search for custom screens begins. Screen Works, Da-Lite, and Stewart all make a number of standard 16:9 screens, and many screen manufacturers offer custom manufacturing to suit virtually any need.

What it all means

HD is likely not your best alternative for small-venue productions. Rather, it's most appropriate for those who want or need a truly exceptional image that is clearer, more colorful, and more detailed. Of course, having access to the necessary funds to pull off an HD production helps, but there are very few companies with the financial resources willing to do this.

Bob Lockley, director of video operations at Stage Right in Mettawa, Ill., says it best, “Once the pricing structure of HD equipment decreases to the point where it offers a better price to performance ratio, I'm confident the A/V staging industry will more seriously consider it as a small-venue option.”

In other words, most industry insiders believe HD eventually will become the preferred solution for staged events of all sizes.


Gary Fuller serves as director of sales rental/staging and global product manager, rental/staging, for Christie Digital Systems. A projector industry veteran, Fuller spent nearly seven years at Proxima in product management and sales and was one of those responsible for the development and execution of Proxima's successful plan to move into the Pro A/V channel. Fuller has also served as an adjunct faculty member for the ICIA Institute. Email him at gary.fuller@christiedigital.com