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August 4, 2023

Outernet – A New Display-Centric Experience in London

Some economists think that many developed economies have reached ‘peak stuff’. Many consumers have the goods that they want, so these economies are moving to more of an ‘experiential’ model, where people are happy to invest in experiences to create memories, rather than buying physical goods. A project that is really leaning into this trend is the Outernet venue in London’s West End.

The venue is variously described as a media location and an art gallery but it really is a highly flexible media space that is distinguished by very high resolution (up to 8480 x 4800 which is a bit over ‘8K’) on a single LED display in the ‘Now’ space that has a total immersive resolution of just over 16k and with 6 individual LED-driven spaces – some on the outside, but most on the inside. They add up to almost 2,300 m2 of screens in the six Now spaces. There is also a 2,000 capacity underground music venue, ‘Here’, the first purpose-built facility for popular music in central London since the 1940s.

The venue is owned by a property company that also owns a hotel, offices and other buildings in the block, but that wanted to do something different with this facility which had previously just been a poster site. The location is on Charing Cross Rd, the centre of the music scene in London, and just yards from Denmark St – London’s ‘Tin Pan Alley’ and still the home of musical instrument retailers. The Rolling Stones recorded there in their early years.

There are five locations inside and a sixth on the exterior of the building.

The Outernet project started around four years ago when the initial team came up with the concept. After a ‘shoot out’ of different display vendors, Aoto was chosen to supply the LED displays – with .5.8mm pitch on the outside and 2.8mm LEDs on the inside. Although system integrators were used for parts of the project, CTO Mike Whittaker told us that it was hard to put out an RFQ for a lot of the work as the design evolved as it went along. LED was chosen because the venue wanted complete surfaces covered and didn’t want projectors, for example, in the line of sight.

Flexibility is Key

Key to the spaces is that they are is very flexible and are intended to be a ‘real time’ environment. The complex can accommodate product launches, premieres, real time ‘experiences’, exhibitions, festival relays and many other different uses. This means that the control of the space is more like a TV station, Whittaker said, with each room and display seen as a different ‘channel’. To control what appears where and when, the company uses the What’sOn scheduling software from Mediagenix of Belgium which is also used in the TV industry.

For show control and play-out it uses Lucid’s RocketShip software and real-time engines from Ventuz. This means that all the displays can be kept in sync across a LED canvas totalling 26k across the whole site. In the Now building the five ‘surfaces’ run as a single screen and they can all run together driven by multiple triple GPU engines. Content can be generated from other real time engines such as Unity and Unreal.

From the GPUs, the content goes to a Vbox master cluster to mapping processors and then onto the displays themselves.

A Mix of Live & Pre-Rendered Content

The systems typically use a mixture of real time and pre-rendered content. Sometimes, things have to be done live as there is not enough time to perform the pre-rendering. The facility is open long hours (it opens at 8.00am), so on occasion tests have to be conducted in the early hours. VR is sometimes used with clients off-site to help with pre-visualisation to run through what is planned and so that they can get a sense of the immersive experience.

The flexibility and live nature of the venue means that it has been popular with marketing agencies that want to influence visitors with the emotions associated with brands. To achieve that influence, Outernet has 96 audio channels in the Now and can produce ‘from mono to Atmos’ and beyond to fully designed spatial sound. It can also add aroma into Now and Now Trending – that’s especially helpful for some brands. Really good audio adds immeasurably to the immersion of the space and people do get very involved. In the last week, a moment in time with 200 people in the Now saw around 40 lying on the floor staring up at the ceiling!

Interactive Experiences

Tying the visuals into the audio can be very powerful. Whittaker told us of a recent project on social anxiety, “Monolith” by Jack Dartford. The real-time experience was designed so that the more people were in the space, the more motion and audio, so that there was a clear sense of the scaling of the emotion. Real time cameras were used and as well as supporting motion tracking, Outernet uses them to measure the impact of different content. For example, the company tracks visitor numbers and ‘dwell time’. The experiences can be so immersive that they could become a little disconcerting, especially with some movement, so a lot of time has been spent understanding how to make the effect just as impactful as it needs to be, but no more!

Outernet has been open since November and so far there have been no real problems with the LED displays and the company has spare tiles from the original batches if there are any encountered. Sometimes the extreme viewing angle to the tops of the displays can give some challenges with colors shifting, but not to an unmanageable degree. The LEDs are typically run at around 30% peak output, although after events using haze (fog), the displays can be pushed to 98% to burn off deposits from the atmosphere.

As well as showing content in the venues themselves, the integration with other properties means that, for example, content from the Outernet can be streamed to the Chateau Denmark apartment hotel, ‘HERE’ and to the related office space.

The installation highlights the value that really high resolution content has when you are trying to create a large scale and immersive space.

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