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In his column, The Visualist, Robert Mokry writes:

“It would seem like every approach to lighting control had to have been tried already. But then a new product comes out that makes you say “why didn‘t someone think of that way sooner?”.

By Robert Mokry


Have there ever been so many top-end lighting control consoles on the market? (Not that I can remember). It would seem like every approach to lighting control had to have been tried already. But then a new product comes out that makes you say “why didn‘t someone think of that way sooner?” Such is the case with the timeline cueing approach incorporated into Jands‘ new Vista control console. If you‘re not familiar with Jands (www.jands.com), they are a huge rental, installation, distribution and manufacturing concern in Australia. I always knew them as the Vari-Lite people Down Under – and they still are. Jands has developed a lighting control console that uses a pen-based interface along with a timeline for cueing information. If you‘ve ever seen or used Digidesign‘s ProTools®, Avid‘s Media Composer® or Apple‘s Final Cut Pro®, then you‘re already familiar with the timeline interface. As I have said before, I think this approach would be great for control of digital media servers as well as automated and conventional lights.

Jands has also integrated a concept called “fixture abstraction”. What this means is that the console ’thinks‘ of automated lights in terms of their parameters – pan, tilt, color, focus, dimming, gobo, zoom, etc., and stores these as “abstract” values during programming, regardless of the fixture type being used. They are not tied to one type of automated light. Jands has mapped out the parameters for most of the popular fixtures in great detail. Vista‘s “abstracted parameters” that are stored during programming can then be applied to any automated lights being used, with the console correcting for differences between the fixture‘s differences in parameters and DMX scaling of those parameters. Basically it means that you can program with automated lights from manufacturer A, and then apply that programming to a system of manufacturer B‘s fixtures – for the most part. You will always have to make choices about what to do when you program with a fixture that might not have all of the same features of the lights you have to use today, but it sure is better than reprogramming your show from scratch. That‘s a huge timesaver.

I had the good fortune to speak with David Mulholland, Director of Development for the Vista project. During the obligatory discussion of beer (he had read my Maxedia article last month where we discussed Belgian ales, so he knew what to expect), David indicated I need to know about Coopers Sparkling Ale and James Boag (take note if you‘re traveling Down Under). I certainly look forward to visiting Australia someday and sampling these fine brews. I hear they like Texans down there too….

We finally managed to discuss lighting consoles, and Vista in particular. I first inquired what gave Jands the idea for the timeline approach. David said, “Our original idea for the Vista was to make a console that would eliminate a lot of the hack work that was involved in programming. We saw timing as an area where users often spent long periods getting things to look right and often had to spend just as long if they wanted to make even minor changes. The Timeline approach has been used for many years in audio and video applications as well as some laser control systems and even a couple of early lighting consoles. Once we started experimenting with this approach, we immediately realized just how powerful it would be for lighting control. Being able to see what is happening over time means that programmers can focus on what is happening during a transition rather than just on the start and end points of a cue. It‘s also great to be able to shuttle backwards and forward in the timeline, and to stretch or compress events to suit a timing change.”

I then asked, “Since the industry loves touchscreens so much (or at least they’re used to them), do you think people will adapt to pen computing, and why?” David responded, “For our very first prototype we used a touch screen but found that it just wasn‘t accurate enough to get the control we desired. For a while this looked like a major problem and we considered changing the whole user interface. Then we started talking with Wacom, and their Australian people supplied us with a 15” Cintiq unit to experiment with. Our R & D team and product development focus group were blown away with the quality of the LCD and the accuracy of the pen, and everyone that tried the unit wanted to take it home. We also noticed that a lot of people have trouble making selections on touch screens and use a rubber tipped pointer or stylus to avoid the ’fat-finger‘ problem. So in a way, switching to a pen-tablet isn‘t a big leap. And once people get used to the fact that you can rest your hand on the screen without accidentally activating something they find it very comfortable to use. The pen provides quite a few options:

A – The tip is used to point and click (by tapping)
B – There are two switches that can be used to right-click, etc.
C – The reverse end of the pen is an ’eraser‘

“On the Vista you can use the pen switch to access the ’right-click‘ menu where applicable, and although we haven‘t implemented the pen eraser yet we have plans to do so. This will mean that, for example, the operator could use the eraser to clear programming.” I then asked David what happens if you lose the pen. He responded, “Everyone asks that! We‘ve got a built in trackpad – similar to what‘s found on many laptops. You can also connect a USB mouse or keep spare pens in the armrest”.

We discussed Ethernet networking for installs and tracking backups, as well as offline editing software for Vista. David commented, “Currently, we don‘t support networking for multi-user operation and it‘s not high on our priority list at the moment. However, we are looking at smaller units with less programming and playback hardware. In fact we showed a wing and mini-console that is designed to operate with an external PC and screen at the recent PLASA tradeshow in London. As for offline editing, we already have a PC version that can be used as an offline editor. Adding a dongle enables DMX output, so it‘s possible to run a show from a PC. We also hope to get a Mac version out very soon, something that not too many people are offering right now.”

I wanted to know how Jands planned on handling pre-visualization in Vista. David responded, ”Our Fixture View icons display intensity, color, position and gobo data. But we don‘t have a full-blown visualiser built in yet. However Jands is a Registered WYSIWYG Developer, and the Vista can communicate directly to a PC running WYSIWYG via Ethernet.”

I then asked about how Vista handles more than four universes of DMX, and what is the maximum amount of DMX channels available via Ethernet without bogging down the console’s processor? David replied, “The Vista patch currently supports eight universes – four internal and up to four more via either Artnet or Pathport, the two Ethernet standards we support. In testing we‘ve had 700 fixtures all running real time effects without slowing down the console.”

I think the fixture abstraction thing is cool, but I also know it requires a person or persons mapping out all of the parameters of all of the fixtures to be used to make the system work, a very tedious and time-consuming task. David elaborated, “The Vista library is more complicated than most consoles and creating a fixture is quite time consuming. However we have an extensive library of popular fixtures and have developed a library editor application that‘s built into the console. We‘ll also turn around a new fixture quickly and we are adding to the library all the time.”

I then asked him the most important question for me – how will Vista handle the digital media servers? Will we see frames going by in the timeline? This to me is a hugely exciting and salable feature, especially if it’s tightly integrated with the media server. David was a bit coy about this – he commented, “at the moment we haven‘t settled on an advanced control method for media servers. However we think that the timeline lends itself to a more graphical approach, and we have a number of ideas under development we are bouncing off customers and internally testing. We do quite a bit of production here and the building is full of people with ideas. Unfortunately it‘s a little early to provide much detail, but I think you‘ll be hearing more soon after we finish the fall tradeshow season.”

The official launch for the Vista is PLASA in London and LDI in Las Vegas. I wish the Jands folks the best of luck with this interesting new product, and thank them for their cooperation with this article.

About the author: Robert Mokry is a 20 year veteran of the entertainment and mobile home industries, and forbids his daughters to date drummers. He can be reached at rmokry@robertmokry.com

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