Quite a project: AV in Australian sports stadiums

High-end AV equipment in sports stadiums is the new normal worldwide. Sean Carroll looks into what’s next for Australian venues.

Australian sport is growing in stature internationally, helped along by a fine sporting history, and stadiums are evolving in tandem with our reputation.

We like to keep relics such as old Sydney Cricket Ground stands and Adelaide Oval scoreboards, but aroundthese original elements the technology
changes frequently.

The manual scoreboard had a useful life, then LED versions and LCD screens took over, able to be updated instantly.

Instead of fans bringing a brick of a radio to listen to the broadcast, there are single-use, single-ear headphones that connect to specific frequencies in the stadium.

Even better, most people have a smart device that can stream the broadcast.

In the past five years, projection, lighting and audio technology has grown rapidly, and companies and stadiums are extending the limits of in-game or pre-show entertainment.

Rutledge AV, A Diversified Company, an Australian end-to-end provider of large-scale AV solutions, was in charge of equipping Optus Stadium in Perth. One of the most eye-catching features of this stadium is a light show that pairs up with pre-game and post-game music.

There were also some flashy intros when Chelsea and Manchester United played exhibition games there.

Elijah Steele is Western Australia operations manager for Rutledge AV.

“The most important part is tying everything together and properly integrating things that enhance the viewer or spectator experience,” he says.

When designing the Optus Stadium facilities, Rutledge AV was able to integrate audio, video, lighting, the broadcast team and more to create the light show.

“If it’s done right, these new technologies in stadiums will get large crowds time and time again, as long as the systems are engaging and engrossing the fans,” Elijah says.

Rutledge AV team leader of engineering in Victoria, Tim Arrell, echoes his colleague’s thoughts.

“I think Optus is setting a benchmark for what’s expected in Australian sporting venues,” he says.

“The state government really supported the venture. It was very much as case of ‘American-type venues are far more technology advanced and heavy with this
kind of stuff ’.

“Everyone in Australia was asking how we could do something like that, and we’re just scratching the surface.”

On the other side of the Pacific, ice hockey rinks are turning into ‘seas of fire’ and basketball courts fall through the ground and transform into a huge highlight reel. It’s all thanks to the work done by Quince Imaging, a hybrid imaging and design company.

Co-founder Scott Williams is chief operating officer. He relates how he and his team came across the idea of projecting on the actual playing surface.

“About ten years ago, we saw somebody pull a white sheet out on a basketball court and try to do video projection and it was woeful – underpowered – players were tripping all over it,” Scott says.

“We sat in a room and said: why don’t we try to project on the court itself and use the three-point line, the key and logos as guidelines? We can project bright enough to suspend reality for some.”

They weren’t wrong, and today about one-third of National Basketball Association and National Hockey League teams have some kind of permanent installation.

To cover a basketball court (approximately 30x15m), the systems use about eight 30,000 lumen projectors with in-house media servers and infrastructure.

The high-quality projection systems are even being tried on baseball gridiron fields.

“Grass is tricky – none of these stadiums are domes so you can’t point the projection straight down, which would be easy,” Scott says.

“We’ve developed techniques that conserve the brightness, as the projection is at 30-40 degrees off axis. Raster slices become huge because you project a large trapezoid.”

Another issue is sheer size. The projectors used in basketball and hockey stadiums can cost about $A145,000 each for permanent installations.

“Think about how much larger a football or rugby field is and it becomes expensive in a hurry,” Scott says.

Epson business marketing manager Paul Haddad has noted the increase in projection mapping in recent years but says there’s more to it than just projecting onto a playing field.

“We hope to see an expansion in immersive experiences for fans – we have the ability to bring objects to life via mapping.

“This can be executed around the stadium, in the hallways and entrances to theme a stadium in the home team’s colours or animate content to heighten the entire game-day experience.”

Paul mentions some of the work done with ANZ Stadium that enhances the experience.

For the State of Origin Game III in 2019, the stadium projected blue on the outside. This furthered the home team advantage by turning a stadium that’s used by many into a home ground.

“Projecting onto grass brings its own technical difficulties, like focusing on contrasting colours,” Paul says.

“Even then, it may not have the same effect. Alternatively, the Melbourne Storm people have projected onto the roof of their stadium before games.”

One of the most remarkable Storm projections was during the Anzac Day match. The entire stadium was blacked out, players loomed above on the insides of AAMI Park and a bright white light illuminated the players standing with arms locked.

Paul points out that by saving money on permanent installs of these projection systems, clubs and stadiums can focus more on content creation.

“We’re seeing a lot of focus on stadium development nationally,” Rutledge AV’s Tim says.

“The Perth project has prompted Melbourne venues to look at how they can do this – a ‘fans first’ approach – and there’s all the work going on in Sydney at the moment.”

Australia isn’t new to the projection mapping scene, as Quince Imaging’s Scott points out.

“Folks have been projection mapping the Sydney Opera House for years, and it’s not an easy thing to do.

“It’s just a matter of finding the right customer with the desire to make a difference for their fans and for an event.”

Rutledge AV’s Elijah is looking to the future. Given the proliferation of powerful mobile devices and access to high-speed WiFi, there are ways of expanding that no one has touched yet.

“Over the next three years, mobile devices and other technology will play a big part in personalising the user experience.”

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