Smart Monkeys, Inc. Soars With Massive Project at the New Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles Airport
Miami, FL (2013) – Airports wing passengers to their destinations, but they’re not often known as destinations themselves. All that may change with the dazzling architectural entertainment aspects of the new Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles Airport (LAX), for which Smart Monkeys, Inc. provided technical consulting, systems design, programming and implementation. People may start buying plane tickets just to view the innovative media features enhancing passenger departures and arrivals.
The Integrated Environmental Media System (IEMS) has been designed to create both an unprecedented passenger experience and a new source of non-aeronautical revenues for LAX. Developed by MRA International in concert with Los Angeles World Airport’s (LAWA) executive team, the IEMS built within the Bradley West terminal architecture offers the first corporate sponsorship programs in a U.S. airport.
The IEMS consists of seven media features, including Welcome and Bon Voyage Walls, a four-sided Time Tower and portals that shepherd passengers to their departure gates, designed by Marcela Sardi of Sardi Design, who also acted as creative director for the content. The IEMS is supported by a state-of-the-art content delivery system designed by Smart Monkeys, Inc., which provides an intelligent show control system (Integrated Scheduler and Automated Controller, nicknamed “Isaac”) that enables mapping content onto unique, very large-scale, multi-dimensional media surfaces.
Although Smart Monkeys, Inc. has made “architainment” one of its specialties, the IEMS “pushes the narrative a bit further,” says designer and project manager Alan Anderson. “It turns architecture into multimedia entertainment for artistic and commercial purposes. Each of the seven media features has its own distinct identity integral to the architecture. These aren’t just big screens. And they aren’t digital signage. Each of the media features has been designed to serve a purpose.”
Smart Monkeys, Inc. was involved with the IEMS for more than two years. “The scale of the project is absolutely massive, and it was all produced in one go – not over a period of time,” says Anderson. The company confronted challenges of location and operation as soon as it began designing the content delivery system for the IEMS.
“Smart Monkeys was invaluable to this project,” commented Mike Doucette, Chief of Airport Planning at Los Angeles World Airports. “Their breadth of knowledge and ability to manage such a large project under all of our time and critical constraints was critical to the success of this project. We couldn’t have done this without them.”
“All of the media features are inside the TSA security zone, not in the terminal’s entry, so access to the hardware was going to be limited,” Anderson notes. “The system had to be able to run 24/7 and be operated by a terminal media operator who could take 100 percent possession of the system. Since the media features were open to corporate sponsorship, we had to guarantee a system that could display sponsor branding accurately and with minimum downtime to provide revenue for the airport. These considerations guided our choices.”
Mike Rubin, head of MRA International, says that Smart Monkeys, Inc. filled the need for “a team that could deal with the very large media features that had complex shapes. We needed someone who was expert in show control but also had experience mapping media onto large multiform surfaces – not a widely-known talent.”
After Sardi Design recommended Smart Monkeys, Inc. MRA International interviewed them and discovered that “they understood the issues immediately. They really had deep knowledge, unlike anyone else we knew. Environmental media is very cutting-edge, and Smart Monkeys was the most experienced of anyone out there.”
Media Features Enhance the Passenger Experience
Of the seven media features comprising the IEMS, six are dedicated to departures and one to arrivals. Montreal’s Moment Factory was executive content producer for the features; LA’s Digital Kitchen was content co-producer responsible for giving expression to the LAX brand across the features and developing the Destination Board content.“
The content creators explored the capabilities of each feature and set the bar high for the content displayed,” notes Anderson.The Welcome Wall is designed to greet arriving international passengers as they exit passport control and descend to baggage claim. A dramatic 80-foot portrait-mode LED wall, which requires an equivalent of four HD feeds, bisects the passenger departure bridge with content ranging from stunning atmospherics to joyful scenes of greeting.
The Bon Voyage Wall delivers a unique send off for departing passengers as they clear security and cross the departure bridge to the Great Hall. Inspired by legendary photographer Philippe Halsman’s Jumpology pictures, the 6mm Daktronics LED portrait-mode screen showcases LA locals jumping up in super-slow motion.
The Story Board is a 120-foot long multi-panel LED display that spans the west end of the Great Hall. Dubbed The Voyage of Discovery, the Story Board tells ambient narratives, which include graphical journeys through destination cities, evocative stories of travel and transformation, and vignettes and visual panoramas. Suspended overhead on custom trussing so the panels appear to be floating, the Story Board can be appreciated by passengers at any point in the story and from any vantage point in the hall as they visit shops and cafes.
The Time Tower is built around the Great Hall’s elevator tower and is designed to tell time and reveal time as part of the travel experience. The 72-foot high, four-sided media feature requires eight HD signals for full coverage. It has a base of diffused glass panels with an interior layer of 10mm Daktronics LEDs whose interactive surface reacts with particle effects to the gestures of passengers as they approach the tower.
The upper surface of the tower, composed of high resolution 6mm LEDs, integrates a functional clock face driven by the airport’s universal clock with fun content such as the mechanical clockwork Dance Time featuring Busby Berkeley-style dancers and interlocking pieces of luggage that form a Jenga-like graphic puzzle.
Above the Time Tower is the curved Destination Board, which displays flight departure information while entertaining passengers with visual data on destination cities. The 80-foot wide screen is flanked by fun facts, weather briefs and images related to the passengers’ travels. An arched LED crest displays graceful patterns related to the display, such as national flag graphics or subtle arrays of colors.
Two Portals, each leading to the North and South Concourses, provide a transitional experience as passengers leave the Great Hall en route to their departure gates. Each Portal consists of ten 28-foot tall columns of vertically-stacked 55-inch LCD monitors whose content is themed around the art traditions of various destination cities. As passengers walk by the Portals their movement causes the content to move and transform.
The columns are angled to present one image as passengers walk past them. In the bases of four of the 10 columns are infrared scanners and speakers, which react to passengers walking by and fluidly affect the content’s images and sound.
Key Factors for Functionality
To ensure the redundancy and robustness of the IEMS, Smart Monkeys, Inc. devised a strong network backbone, created control and data management systems, and specified video servers and players that would withstand the rigors of almost constant operation. Electrosonic, a nationally renowned leader for complex audio-visual systems integration and a long time collaborator with Smart Monkeys, was the integration company for the entire system. Their scope included backend equipment and control room out to the media features and gate displays. The two teams worked hand-in-hand for over a year to bring the system to life.
In this “merger between AV and IT, an enterprise-class Cisco switch forms the backbone,” says Anderson who worked with the LAWA IT department to make sure the switch met their guidelines. “It needs to be rock solid for the scale of data it manages for the media features and to control hundreds of devices from the LED displays to the video players.”
The control system acts as the brains of the operation and is modeled on the highly-successful design that Smart Monkeys, Inc. created last year for Universal Studios Orlando’s new Lagoon show and parade. “We have over 40 Windows and Linux Virtual Machines (VMs) in a cluster so all media or show control is virtualized and operates in a fault-tolerant mode on three Dell enterprise servers simultaneously,” Anderson explains. The servers have associated SANs adequate for their needs.
“The equipment takes up just 8 RUs,” he says, “instead of four or five racks if everything was on individual servers.”
Choosing an enterprise-level IT solution to operate an AV system “is a more pragmatic approach to AV,” he notes. “Our point of view is that the entire world runs on IT; IT doesn’t stop at the doorstep of AV. It can be very useful to an AV installation.”
Two “complementary paradigms” are at work in delivering the video portion of the media features. “We had to play high-quality HD content and map it to LED walls in perfect frame sync and video genlock,” Anderson says, “so we needed multiple servers for a single media feature. The Time Tower has eight servers for eight video feeds that map onto the structure.”
Additionally, the video needs to be interactive, whether “based on human interaction like sensors and touch or the interaction with databases, the Internet and data feeds from the outside, even the elevators in the Time Tower,” he points out.
Consequently, two video server types are required for each media feature. “The first responds to high availability and guarantees playback for the corporate sponsor,” says Anderson. Seven Grass Valley 4-channel K2 Summit servers, configured in a bank of 28 video channels, meet this need for HD playback. “The K2 comes from the broadcast world, but we view this project as a broadcast facility in an airport with channels broadcasting within the terminal. The terminal has very similar needs to a TV station,” he notes.
PC-based generative X-Agora video servers from Moment Factory fill interactivity needs. “These servers need more graphics power to process realtime video rendering on the scale of a Time Tower,” Anderson says.
It’s Smart Monkeys, Inc.’s “Isaac” intelligent show control system that “makes the system a smart system and not just a playback system,” Anderson points out. “We designed and programmed a system that allows the operator to schedule all the media in the terminal from a single scheduling-engine interface.”
Efficient video file management is at the heart of the control system. Video files are ingested and prepared for scheduling with the operator creating a “capsule” or collection of video files that need to play in synch on a particular media feature. Once files are previewed and validated the operator schedules the content into the system. The schedule is database-driven and feeds three Medialon Manager Pro systems, which complement each other. One Medialon handles the logical portion of the control system with video ingest and control room monitoring. The second controls all the equipment for the main LED features’ playback and physical playout. And the third controls all the gate systems as well as systems’ clock and sync.
“We have more than 20 SpinetiX single-channel HD digital signage players in the control rooms, which can play back media at the gates,” says Anderson. “In their ‘in use’ mode they display flight information. When they’re not in use they display advertising material.”
The system also controls four NEC LCD screens at each gate, which operate in matrix mode. “If a gate is not in use we send a video signal for the four screens to work as one big screen playing advertising,” he explains. “As soon as the airport database flags the control system that the gate is in use we change the mode so the top two screens display advertising and the bottom two flight information from airport servers.”
Considering the complexity of controlling all the media in the new terminal – not just the content for the media features but the media for the gates as well – Smart Monkeys, Inc. rose to the challenge of making control as easy as possible for the operator.
“We figured out a way to have a unified interface access point for most operations,” Anderson says. “We designed a web-based GUI that allows everything to take place through the browser. We manage the credentials for users of different levels of the system, then they get into their mode of operation – scheduling, media ingest, monitoring – and access the Medialon panels embedded inside part of the web page.”
Although individual features of the control system are innovative, “the biggest challenge was integrating the scale of this project. We looked at what IT does, what broadcast does, what AV needs, and we used that information to create one control system with the best of networking, virtualization and broadcast operations. That’s what makes the system unique.”
Playing It Forward
The control system designed by Smart Monkeys, Inc. is scalable and can be expanded to accept more database information. “We have allowed the corporate sponsors and operator to push things further,” says Anderson. “For example, a sponsor could decide to bring in mobile app interactivity to respond to their communications needs.”
He gives kudos to MRA International working with LAX for “setting the bar really high for sponsors. There’s a certain ‘wow’ factor built into the foundation content, but there’s room for that content to grow and soar.”
The new Tom Bradley International Terminal certainly gave Smart Monkeys, Inc. a chance to spread its wings.
“It’s one of the biggest jobs we’ve ever done and shows our ability to manage jobs this size and bigger,” says Anderson. “This project also demonstrates that we work best as an integral part of the process active from the beginning when the needs were defined, then designing systems based on those needs and programming and implementing the systems.
“We were part of the review process at every level – with the designers, the content producers, LED manufacturers, the operator-defined tasks,” he adds. “We worked closely with the client defining what was needed from all parties involved to make the new terminal a success.”
MRA International’s Rubin reports that Smart Monkeys, Inc. “performed remarkably well. Without them we wouldn’t have been able to deliver the system we have. Because this is a public project, they had to design a system that could receive different manufacturers’ products even when they didn’t know what those products would be. And the system had to be very robust and have a lot of redundancy. It had to be designed as turnkey system so that a third party could run it.
”He notes that it was key that Smart Monkeys, Inc. participated in the initial vetting of six manufacturers and worked closely with Sardi Design, Moment Factory and Digital Kitchen. “It was a pretty enormous design and engineering task,” he says. “The media features are actual architectural fixtures.”
The result is “a stunning success,” Rubin says. “Smart Monkeys, Inc. was the braintrust of the system. Everyone on this team has great respect for them.”.