Perth’s big screen goes a long way

By Paul Hemsley

Residents of Perth are getting entertainment from around the globe through a giant public area screen that uses existing teleconferencing technology.

The majority of households in Perth are likely to have a large screen television with a cable or internet connection, but the City of Perth has lifted people off the sofa and into the town’s centre with an even bigger screen.

Physically remote from the rest of the world, the council took it upon itself to link its residents in a communal setting with other parts of the globe during cultural and entertainment festivities.

Despite the City’s distinctly metropolitan population density, not to mention the growing population of Western Australia because of the mining boom, Perth is still challenged by its geographic distance from other Australian cities, let alone its connection with the rest of the world.

Separated from the rest of Australia by the immense land mass to its east and the Indian Ocean to its west, isolation is swiftly becoming less of a problem for Perth as technology is harnessed to provide more effective communications.

The eventual connection of the National Broadband Network (NBN) is expected to deliver faster and more reliable online service to remote parts of the country, including the remote regions of WA.

After a long search for products, including Skype, that could deliver a solution to entertain the masses on a large scale, the council found that video conferencing technology could be potentially used to bring global entertainment to the big screen in the public venue.

The council looked at a video conferencing product from LifeSize, a subsidiary of Logitech, to install a large screen in the city’s Northbridge Piazza.

The result was a large outdoor light emitting diode (LED) screen broadcasting live-stream action captured and transmitted across the internet by the LifeSize video conferencing system.

The idea was simple. Bring performers from across the globe to Perth and vice versa without them being physically present. However the City of Perth needed to achieve this global connection with live performances and events at a cost effective price and found that satellite time was far too expensive and out of the question.

The public conferencing system promised to not only connect global artists but save money for the council and Perth’s citizens who would otherwise have to travel vast distances to physically see these acts.

The system from LifeSize that was eventually installed has reduced the need for travel, depending on the performing act or cultural event.

The City of Perth’s Northbridge Piazza screen coordinator, Damien Blythe says video conferencing provides a low cost way of communicating.

Mr Blythe says the technology brings culture in from around the world by sharing the local culture with other locations.

“It’s about generating an experience where normally you’d have to get on a plane and go somewhere else but we’re able to have people present with each other in real time,” Mr Blythe says.

He says it’s a good way for a WA audience to connect with a different part of the world or a different part of the country other than evening television or pre-recorded movies or videos.

“Skype’s been around for a long time but there’s something completely different when you have a group of people and you can see life in the world happening behind them,” he says.

“It gives you a sense of ‘over there, right now’,” Mr Blythe says.

Picking a brand The Perth project’s inception took place in Melbourne, where Mr Blythe worked in 2006 as a broadcast manager at the city’s Federation Square.

“It’s been a baby of mine for some time now that we could have a richer connection with someone overseas,” Mr Blythe says.

Resource and logistics reasons prevented people from different areas of the world to talk to people at Federation Square, so Mr Blythe did various projects using Skype.

“I’ve been experimenting with the model for some time to get better at the technology,” Mr Blythe says.

For the Perth project, LifeSize was the first product that Mr Blythe had found that worked and was inexpensive.

“We’d done things in the past with Skype and we tried to get a four window presentation, so we’d have four people in the one window talking together and that was very clunky and very scary,” Mr Blythe says.

Prior to choosing LifeSize, it was seen purely as a conference tool but it was found to have a bigger application at broadcasting live video, which has since been used to show stage performances, opera, ballet and orchestras to Perth audiences.

Mr Blythe says LifeSize was easy to use and had a price point. “It has reliability and there’s something about the product that doesn’t intimidate you,” he says, adding that anyone can jump in and use it.

Council conferencing The LifeSize system was always more about delivering entertainment to the people who would gather within Northbridge Piazza to see live-streamed events from interstate or overseas.

However the council does have an internal conferencing system that has been useful for council employees given the city’s distance from the rest of the populated centres in the country.

According to Mr Blythe, the council does use teleconferencing in an educational context to connect with other cities on student based projects.

“Normally speaking, in the past that was more along the lines of going to a location that had a large Polycom system,” Mr Blythe says.

Compatibility between different systems from unrelated companies would normally present potential problems for buyers using the products trying to connect with each other, but no such issues have arisen from the LifeSize system in Northbridge Piazza.

Mr Blythe says the City of Perth has connected the LifeSize system with Polycom and Huawei systems “without a hitch”.

According to Mr Blythe, the other systems use the same protocols and have a range of layers in which they can connect. “It’s fairly standardised … now in terms of how these things operate,” Mr Blythe says.

Costing is hardly an issue for the council because purchasing and installing the hardware is only a one-off.

The cost of the hardware boxes that actually deliver the content to the big screen range from $1000 to $5000, according to Mr Blythe.

Following that initial upfront purchase of the hardware, the costs are related to the internet connection from a regular provider.

“There’s obviously event costs with delivering such large performances which exists irrespective of hardware,” Mr Blythe says.

He says after that purchase, it’s more about finding other people to connect with from around the world.

Reducing travel costs also factor into managing financial savings with the system in place.

Mr Blythe illustrates that to have the same level of experience, the LifeSize system presents international dancers competing with Australian dancers live and in synchronisation.

He says having 20 or 30 dancers performing together in Perth and from another location wouldn’t happen because it would be too expensive.

“The only [other] way to achieve that is putting them on a plane,” he says. Mr Blythe says the LifeSize product allows flux for these sorts of opportunities because there previously wasn’t any funding to be able to do it.

“We can increase the number of times we connect with the rest of the world along this kind of performance project line,” Mr Blythe argues.

He says the system saves money by being able to deliver a performance from overseas without having to send people over long distances.

The system has demonstrated a return on investment that benefits ratepayers by actually entertaining the people actually viewing it, as Mr Blythe says people have walked away from it with a smile on their faces.

“When it’s clear you have a large audience walking away, talking positively about this exciting thing they’ve experienced – connecting in real time to another culture on the other side of the world and danc[ing] with them – I think that speaks for itself,” Mr Blythe says.

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