Everything You See & Don’t See – 150 Media Stream: A Stunning Accomplishment
by James Careless
As seen in AV Technology Magazine
Astounding! From an AV perspective, there is no other word that comes close to adequately characterizing ‘150 Media Stream’. It is a 3,000 square foot audio/video display in the lobby of 150 North Riverside Plaza; a shimmering 53-story cantilevered glass tower alongside the Chicago River.
Don’t get fooled by the square footage of 150 Media Stream: It is anything but a monolithic video display. In fact, the installation is divided into 89 separated super-thin LED blades variously sized between 3.25″ to 15″ in width, and standing vertically anywhere from 6′ to 22′ tall.
Actually, this 150′ long installation doesn’t stand; it floats. The concept of 3″ thick extruded aluminum frames that house the LED blades was designed and developed by McCann Systems – and all custom-made by McCann Systems attaching to back-mounted brackets affixed to the building’s 13′ concrete base wall. As a result, the entire display appears to be suspended in air; weightless and reaching skyward to the wall-to-wall glass windows above.
“Everything you see – and don’t see – in the physical 150 Media Stream installation was designed and built specifically for this project,” said Frank McCann, President & CEO of McCann Systems. “It had to be all custom-built at our fabrication facility in Edison, New Jersey, because there is nothing like this AV installation anywhere in the world.”
The vertical spaces between the 89 LED blades are almost as important as the blades themselves. This is because the glimpses of the 13′ concrete base wall behind the monitors can either separate groups of blades into a series of displays, or be visually bridged in the viewer’s imagination to support a larger, full-blade panorama. (Audio is provided by speakers cunningly hidden inside the blades’ cases, while the wiring is hidden from view.)
“With 1.25 million square feet of space between bridges spanning the Chicago River, 150 North Riverside Plaza is a marquee location for Riverside Investment & Development,” said Anthony Scacco, the company’s Executive Vice President. “As the largest video display of its kind in Chicago, 150 Media Stream makes a statement about the quality of our design and our brand. We want our tenants to be proud of being here, and to look forward to what they will see every time they pass by this innovative piece of public art.”
Compelling Non-Repetitive Content
As striking as 150 Media Stream is from an engineering perspective, it is the unique AV content that makes this installation truly one-of-a-kind.
The reason: Rather than populate these blades with meaningless corporate videos and commercials, Riverside Investment & Development (the builder/owner of 150 North Riverside Plaza) has been commissioning artists to produce pre-recorded linear content to use the 89 blades and their setting to full advantage.
“We commission visual artists with the imagination, talent, and ability to work with 150 Media Stream’s distinctive canvas,” said Yugo Zhou, 150 Media Stream Director and Curator (and an accomplished artist in her own right.) “It is up to them to create presentations that take full advantage of 150 Media Stream’s unmatched visual possibilities.”
The work of Chicago new media artist Jason Salavon is the first to be seen on 150 Media Stream, which was officially launched into service on April 20, 2017. “The opportunity to explore these aspects of this project was intriguing,” Salavon said. “There is no other video wall in the world that looks like this one.”
This said, Riverside Investment & Development wants the content on 150 Media Stream to be non-repetitive. To be precise, “the client was clear that they never wanted to see the same content on the 89 LED blades over the course of a week, relying on prerecorded linear video wasn’t enough,” said Chad Hutson, President of Leviathan. “That’s why the installation’s scheduler switches between prerecorded linear video and generative content, to ensure that the content on 150 Media Stream is always fresh and different.”
‘Generative’ content is created by a series of algorithms that interact with real-time data such as the weather and news feeds, to deliver graphical video feeds whose colors, shapes, and speed match the mood of the world outside. Leviathan helped create the generative software for 150 Media Stream, and to design the content servers that generate and play this content out.
Working together, 150 Media Stream’s mix of commissioned linear video and algorithm-created generative content keep this installation’s visual lineup consistently fresh and different.
Like any astonishing magical illusion, the nuts-and-bolts of 150 Media Stream are not meant to be seen by the viewer. But these nuts-and-bolts exist, because feeding the equivalent of four 4K video feeds operating at 60 frames per second across 89 LED blades is anything but a simple trick.
All of the magic that drives 150 Media Stream comes from a sixth floor control room inside 150 North Riverside Plaza. Under the control of a custom-programmed scheduling server, this control room is equipped with five 4K video ‘content machines’ that serve the 89 LED blades below.
“Four of these content machines are needed to playback all 4K video feeds,” said Nino Fusaro, McCann System’s SVP and Director of Operations of the New Jersey regional office. “The fifth is a backup should there be an issue with one of the four in use. The backup content machine can assume any position on the wall and will automatically sync up after an issue is detected.”
Each of the four content machines is responsible for a quarter of the 89 blade video wall (conceptually, that is how the playout system ‘views’ 150 Media Stream’s 89 LED blades). “All the video feeds – four plus the backup from the content PCs – are fed to and routed by a custom video processor that ingests the five 4K video feeds, then carves four of them up into 16 outputs,” said Fusaro. “The video processor then outputs to the 16 LED controllers and continues on to the 89 LED blades via fiber.” The audio feed is fed through the same system, and managed by the scheduling server.
Making 150 Media Stream into a reality came with many challenges along the way.
The first was to come up with a design that would work in this lobby. “The 13′ concrete wall that we were working with gave you the visual sense of sitting at the bottom of a swimming pool, looking up” said McCann. “It took a few iterations before we came up with the current design, which breaks up the boundary between the top of the wall and the glass, and makes it disappear.”
Another challenge was sourcing the display and playout equipment. Although McCann Systems was able to incorporate some off-the-shelf items such as a Biamp Tesira 48 channel DSP server, Crown audio amplifiers, Dell 1TB hard drives, and off-the-shelf Dell/HP servers, the heart of this installation was custom-built.
A case in point: To make the actual video installation look as lightweight and airy as possible, McCann Systems opted to locate the 89 LED blades’ 48 volt DC power supplies outside of the blade cases and hidden from view, which required a custom solution balancing technology and architecture. “We had to run about 12,000 feet of 8 gauge low voltage cable between the power transformers and the blades, to get the kind of lossless performance we needed,’ said Frank McCann. “It was a lot more work than just building thicker blade cases with the power supplies inside, but it was worth the effort to get the sleek form factor we were after.”
This ‘custom challenge’ extends to McCann Systems having to build the 89 LED blades itself, rather than buying off-the-shelf 4K monitors. The company even had to engineer and develop the aluminum extrusion dies in custom sizes, to craft the blade cases to the thinness and strength that the client wanted. The printed circuit boards, or PCB, were also designed and manufactured in custom sizes specifically for 150 Media Stream. Each component was designed by McCann Sytems engineers, sourced separately for custom manufacturing, and then assembled by McCann Systems.
The software and supporting hardware to control 150 Media Stream and to divide the 4K video streams for playout was also a custom challenge for McCann and Leviathan: You can’t buy this stuff at Best Buy.
Not surprising, “we had some complications when the 89 blades were first fired up during initial testing,” said Fusaro. “Frankly, there are going to be challenges with marrying all of this custom technology together. After a while, we got sections of the blades running, but it took a lot of hard slogging by the McCann team to get the entire 150 Media Stream installation functioning as planned.”
This said, the bugs were eventually worked out and 150 Media Stream was launched as planned on April 20, 2017. Now backed by spares and ongoing technical support from McCann Systems, this ground-breaking 150′ video installation will be dazzling Chicagoans for years to come –using a one-of-a-kind display layout that simply does not exist anywhere else on the planet.
To see 150 Media Stream in action online, go to 150mediastream.com.