The Media Server
Updated: May 1, 2018
Discussing the role of the media server in our workplace.
What is a media server?
I was first introduced to the media server back in 2002 following a chance demonstration. I knew nothing about video, yet was captivated by the seemingly endless creative possibilities it offered to manipulate images in real time, in a way which I had not seen previously. 10 years later it’s almost impossible to imagine a time when this technology did not exist. Today they are in many control areas of theatres, tv studios and concert touring productions.
Context within the entertainment industry
For the purposes of event technology, a media server is a playback mechanism for video content, sometimes incorporating audio and live video as well, with the unique ability to manipulate this imagery with a graphics engine in real time. Such manipulation could extend to scale, rotation and aspect, whilst combining Photoshop style effects to create masks or alter the colour, shape and form. It will have the ability to blend multiple images to composite a totally bespoke output. There are many competing products available to hire and purchase today, and each will have its own characteristics and abilities, but broadly speaking the media server comprises of a high specification of computer hardware with ingenious custom software.
Lighting and Video Convergence
Many of the media servers have been designed by companies manufacturing lighting products. There are of course exceptions, but this has created a real crossover between lighting and video departments. They are easily controlled by lighting protocols such as dmx and ArtNet, although many work equally well as standalone products, or can be controlled by other methods such as midi or smpte timecode. I think one of the main plus sides of being connected to the lighting console, is that with the maturity of the lighting software, developed over many years, the media server benefits immediately from all advances such as complex timings, the effects engine, and other programming aids. For the lighting programmer it’s like working with a very advanced moving light. When it comes to the show, the whole look and feel of the stage can be synchronised and will change together. I think it’s fair to say that with lighting moving into the world of video a certain amount of inter departmental tension was created. Thankfully, for the most part this has been diffused, and with led lighting products now demanding video based control the convergence of our worlds continues still further.
Professional software on consumer hardware
In the early days I clearly remember the derision afforded to the “consumer” product I was operating. A few years later the very same people were specifying the very same “consumer” media server for their own shows. I think realisation had sunk in that this technology was here to stay, and actually did a pretty good job all things considered. The naysayers did have a point however. Never before had consumer level computing been used and relied upon in such a way on our productions. It’s still true today that the off the shelf computer element of the media server, in fact in some cases the whole media server package, can be far less expensive than the professional video signal converter it is connected to.
Another exciting development came in response to the explosion of led lighting fixtures which were very channel heavy and processor demanding. One solution was to outsource this processing to a media server. Software was invented which would map the colours of a piece of video content to specific pixels of led fixtures, and output the relevant dmx values accordingly. The lighting console could control hundreds of led fixtures over tens of universes using only a handful of channels. Genius!
Today media servers can be found controlling lighting and video elements of large scale touring productions, primetime television programs, West End and Broadway shows, the list goes on. They can actually work as very good interface products also, typically being able to both receive and send commands over various protocols. Not only have they proved to be extremely popular, but also very reliable.
As computer hardware has evolved, driven by demands in other markets such as gaming I guess, the niche media server sector has benefited tremendously. When fitted with the very latest graphics cards and solid state hard disc technology, they can generate multiple video outputs simultaneously, and process an impressive array of effects. Frequently there will be single or multiple video capture devices in place also. This is all far cry from the early days, and with each software release more and more functionality is offered. It should be noted that the media server itself, will only form part of the overall hardware setup. There will be other equipment required to distribute and or convert your video signal from the server to its final destination. For broadcast it’s a common requirement to convert the computer based signal from 60Hz to a broadcast standard (here in the UK at least) of 50Hz. Most computers output via a DVI connector. A good investment would be a DVI Detective or DVI Parrott. These devices help provide required information for the computer graphics card about screen resolutions and refresh rates. EDID and HDCP issues can be a nightmare, with many professional video products not being compliant.
So you have this amazing box of tricks in front of you, what do you use with it? Good imagery is essential. Both Stock footage and bespoke content design houses are reliable sources of material. Like most things, content comes in varying sizes, qualities, formats and prices. Licensing content for your intended use is vital. Matching your requirements to your resources can be difficult, as can communicating what’s required to the originator. For this reason many operators and designers have taken to making their own content, learning and purchasing the software themselves. Not everyone has the time or inclination for this however.
Who know what’s around the corner, but as advances in computer hardware move forward, so will the media server. 3D video mapping is well and truly under way. Watch this space.
A few of the current media servers on the market today are:
All views expressed here are my own and are based on my own personal experience. They may not broadly represent the topics covered, and as such should be taken as one of the many views available only, and not as expressly definitive.