Vertiblog Exclusive | Taking a look at the wizardry behind the magic curtains of Vertigo...
Paul: It's really not white light that was the limitation, it was the blue light that was the limitation. The red and green LED bulbs were there for a long time, but really the blue bulb was only commercially available approximately 6 or 7 years ago. Basically with the 3 colors, red, green, and blue, you can make the whole spectrum of colors. That was basically the limitation for the use of LED technology for video applications.
Vertiblog: Can you shed some light (no pun intended) on Barco's development of LED technology and how your company is driving the industry?
Paul: One thing is for sure, we are definitely driving the industry. Working with bands like U2 and not only what you see in the west but you will see in the near future in Europe are really good examples of how we drive the industry. We do this by close cooperation with technology suppliers. We share our road maps, we have the same vision of the future. By that cooperation we are driving the industry so that's very important for us. Secondly, we are also driving the increase of resolution in the industry. That is something where we are also #1 in development. The best resolution, the highest is 3 millimeters which we also introduced to the market. And the third point where we are really driving the industry is form factor. The latest development that we see in LED technology is form factor. People are not only looking at making square walls anymore. They want to do creative things, any shape, strange shapes with LED materials therefore we are designing more and more flexibility into our modules and there again we are driving the industry.
Vertiblog: What is the future of the light bulb, in your opinion? That is, do you ever perceive your LED technology, or LED technology in general, replacing the light bulb as we know it today? Is LED the future of lighting as consumers will know it?
Paul: Well, we are not specialists in the computer lighting industry, like in consumer lighting or the automobile lighting industries. All I can say is that the application of LEDs is really expanding into these areas. You see it more and more in home design and also auto design. You see more and more traditional light bulbs being replaced by LED technology because of three basic advantages, one being lifetime and two is brightness, and three, in the auto industry, is reaction time. It takes less time for LEDs to switch on. So, yes the LED technology is expanding fast into other markets beyond the market that we are focusing on which is the full color video applications.
Vertiblog: How did Barco's MiSphere technology end up being deployed as part of U2's Vertigo stage production?
Paul: Well let's go back five years in time. (laughs) Basically because we are perceived as a technology leader in the industry, we already have very close contacts with different partners who play a role in these big tours very early in the fuzzy phase. It's really true that through very good cooperation, through understanding each other, and through bringing the expertise of the different parties together in these fuzzy phases that products like MiSphere really are what they are. With the U2 Vertigo stage production it was really close cooperation between the rental company, XL Video, between Innovative Design, between Willie Williams who also played a very important role in this, and of course, Barco who came here with the technology information and also with a lot of experience of the do's and the don'ts in the touring industry. And really by having all of the advantages and assets together we end up having an interesting product as the MiSphere is today. And I think what is also a characteristic here is that companies and organizations who are willing to shift the boundaries of technology and the boundaries of experience are really finding each other in the industry and this is a typical example here.
Vertiblog: I would agree. Traditionally, U2 is known for pushing the envelope with different elements within their stage production and I don't think anyone could have imagined something such as the MiSphere light curtain and it's quite amazing.
Sabine: Rightly so. As you said, U2 are known as people to push the envelope in all aspects in their performances and, luckily, also in the way they design the stage, or have it designed, and the technology they're prepared to use. And on top of that they obviously have the budgets which are required when one wants to introduce a new stage design or a new technology.
Vertiblog: Have there been any unanticipated benefits from being involved with, who many would call, the biggest band in the world?
Sabine: For us the benefit is the fact that these guys are just early adopters of technologies and are the perfect, very high profile, platform to get recognition for our own innovations in the company.
Vertiblog: Is this your first time working with U2?
Sabine: No it's not. We also provided all of the visualization equipment used on the Elevation Tour three years ago. All the projection equipment, all the LED walls raising from beneath the stage; that was all Barco LED, all the projectors were Barco. One of the companies now involved called Innovative Designs who years and years ago did not belong to Barco, but now does, they were also involved with U2 when they came up with the PopMart Tour. So Barco has been involved with U2 for almost four years now and by our acquisition of Innovative Designs, even longer.
Sabine: Indeed it was. It was, as Paul was explaining, U2 and the people who were involved with the design of the show, Willie Williams and others, who came up with a concept but couldn't find a product. They knew what they wanted but they couldn't find anything that was standard on the market already. So the various parties involved in the project including Barco and XL Video who is a rental partner and supplier of equipment for U2, and Innovative Designs, and Willie Williams who we know quite well, we all got together and they presented the concept and we had a look at it and then went back home and said, "Is there something we can make, something, to make a product to help them realize their design?" Because it wasn't a standardized product which we had ready on the shelf, indeed it was something which in relative R&D product development terms was put together in a short space of time. When you think of a normal product from the business case to the launch is usually about 9 months to 1 year, this was done in significantly less time than that.
Paul: But I think that's also the reason why we are cooperating. We have a lot of experience in different designs in, specifically toward what I would call a 'harsh' market. The technical requirements of that market are really very high. And it's not possible to do this if you don't have the technical package and the experience that this market requires. I mean, if you don't have this you'll never be able to do that in such a short timeframe. Because then you'd have to go through a prototype phase which was not possible here.
Vertiblog: I know the latest video City of Blinding Lights is a great showcase of your MiSphere lighting product and would actually make a great commercial for Barco.
Vertiblog: Can U2 fans expect anything entirely different for the outdoor shows on this tour compared to the indoor shows thus far?
Sabine: The answer is absolutely yes! (emphatic) And that is because we are not using MiSphere in the outdoor concerts of U2 in Europe. We're using an LED based product that we call OLite 510. It was launched a few months ago to our clients and Eurovision was its first commercial application. It may be interesting for you to know, although we can't give too much detail on it, we saw the designs of the stage for the European tour a few weeks ago and they are absolutely amazing.
Vertiblog: It's being reported that the oval stage which is a trademark of this year's Vertigo Tour is going away for the European shows, and I'm wondering if that is a result of the technology that you're putting in place?
Sabine: I can't really comment on the stage design. We did see drawings of the stage, technical drawings, but they were front views, I didn't see any top views where I can actually confirm, or not confirm, that the shape of the stage design is changing. But it's not due to the technology that they'll be using.
Vertiblog: Is it true that your OLite product line is able to be incorporated into the stage itself?
Sabine: Yes, OVision can be used in the floor. They actually can put it on little poles, little modules, and because these modules are small compared to traditional LED tiles which measure about 45cm. These OLite Modules are small and they mounted them, for Eurovision, in the floor and then put reflective glass on top of them. They also mounted them in bands on retractable current shaped 'thingiemajigie' at the back of the stage. So yes, it is very flexible.
Vertiblog: Is the reason for using the OLite 510 vs. the MiSphere for the European shows due to the fact that those shows will be outside or were there other considerations?
Paul: One of the reasons is that it fit better for their overall stage design they wanted for the European tour. For the outdoor, of course, they had different requirements than for the indoor, but the MiSphere is completely an outdoor capable product but it basically was dependent upon the effect the designers wanted to obtain and again, we sit together, we listen to them to see what they want to obtain and we propose the best product that is a fit for that.
Vertiblog: So it had nothing to do with the MiSphere's performance outdoors in terms of functionality, such as brightness?
Paul: Brightness is one of the things that was discussed but based on the effect that they wanted to obtain, this other product was proposed. MiSphere was perfect for the indoor tour and could have been used for the outdoor tour, but they wanted to have another effect and that is why we proposed our second amazingly new product. It will be completely different but as amazing
Vertiblog: I'm looking forward to seeing it!
Paul: Me too! (laughs). That's always the nice thing. You design the products with the applications in which they are used. I mean there you really see the true value of the design. And that's also why it's valuable to work with people like U2 because they are really using the technology as it should be used.
Vertiblog: The MiSphere curtains seem to be innovative in so many ways in terms of portability, uniqueness, semi-transparency, and versatility, making them suitable for an in-the-round performance. Is there anything you would like to see improved with the technology in the longer term? Do you feel this technology 'peaked' or are you looking at future enhancements, if so, can you elaborate?
Sabine: I'm going to take a step back here and tell you something that a lot of people don't know about Barco but which, after 5 years, it still amazes me. 60% of the products that Barco has on the market today did not exist 2 years ago. Barco, as a technology manufacturer, has a very high innovation rate, and a very quick introduction and turn over of new products. And that's really surprising also in terms of MiSphere. And this goes to your previous question was there consideration in terms of brightness and why this technology was not used outdoors. Certainly there was. It's a new product. LED as a technology is not new, but the application in that specific form factor is something nobody's ever seen before and that's why everyone's going 'wow!' about it. But it also means that, A. There is room for improvement in that product or that application of that technology, and B. the technology and certainly the productized form of that technology certainly hasn't peaked. Technology, per se, is never, say whether you look at a car, or the components of a car, or whether you look at LED as a visualization technology, is never complete and always, as you said, in a state of flux. Certainly with MiSphere and with LED, both, there is room improvement and neither has really reached its peak, not as a technology nor as a platform.
Vertiblog: Was the MiSphere curtain as the end product taken as far as that concept could have gone? Obviously it's very unique as it's not a high resolution screen and it's still very appealing visually. Was high resolution ever a consideration?
Sabine: The intention was to have a relatively low resolution product, but there was a reason for that. We've noticed in the rental staging and touring market in the last couple of years there is a convergence of the lighting market and video market. All of products that were traditionally video products were in one hand and lighting in the other. But increasingly we have creative show designers, lighting designers, video designers, come to us looking for a product which answers both needs. And that's why MiSphere was designed the way that it was. It needed to be capable of being a video product, but also needed to be lighting product. It had to show full video if it had to, but it also needed to be able to be used as a diffused lighting effect as part of the lighting design of the stage.
Vertiblog: I think it's one of the more unique ways, from a fan's perspective at least, that it's been done beautifully.
Sabine: It's a first as well. We don't profess to know everything and we're learning as we go along. And as those markets are still converging and that it's not an established market, a lighting/video converged market yet, we're also still finding our way and as Paul stated earlier I think our huge added value is that we have such close relationships with the people who design these stages, who do the lighting for these shows, and who do the video designs. We meet with them once a year in North America and in Europe. We have brainstorming meetings with them and I think there are few companies that can say that they have such a close link with the market as we do. And the information that we get from them is so useful, especially in the new markets. We get to hear from the horse's mouth what these guys would like, what they're thinking, what they don't like about existing products, how they would like to see them adapted. Then we go back with that information to our R&D department and they try to interpret that to come up with something which will answer the needs that these guys have. It's a learning experience from all sides, really.
Vertiblog: Is MiSphere an expensive technology to deploy in relation to other standard production elements?
Paul: The clear answer here is no. Because if you really look closely at it, the MiSphere and a curtain of standardized components, that we also produced in high volumes, the cost of this technology is similar of other standard production elements out there, so there really is no difference.
Vertiblog: Do you or does your organization have any involvement with the band members themselves?
Sabine: I think it's important to say that we have no direct contact with the band in our situation, at the moment. However, the company called Innovative Designs which is part of the Barco group, have been involved with U2 for a very, very long time. When we spoke of U2 being early adopters of technology and pushing the boundaries of what they do with their shows. I think a few years ago when they were doing their PopMart Tour that was the first time that LED was used in a huge stage show. At that time Innovative Designs did have to go do a demo in Ireland and the band did come to the demo, which is unusual because usually only show and stage designers will come and have a look. And the LED walls were set up there and Bono walked in and only asked one question of Frederic Opsomer who is the managing director of Innovative Designs. He said, "Has this ever been used before?" And Frederic said, "No.", and then Bono said, "Good, then we'll be the first to use it." So that exactly points back to what we were saying earlier about them being eager to do something different. But at this stage during the production of the show we do not have direct contact with the band.
Vertiblog: If one bulb goes out, do they all go out? (joke)
Paul: I can give you a very short answer to this one, 'No!' (laughs)
Vertiblog: But seriously, Barco's MiSphere technology allows for the display of animated graphics, text, and video. What do you see in the future for LED technology?
Paul: Without giving away too much of our roadmap, there are clearly some trends in the usage of LED technology and this market. Creativity is certainly a trend. Flexibility is certainly a trend. The increase in performance of LED technology is certainly a trend. The popularization of the technology is certainly a trend. I mean, as it's getting more and more produced in greater volume, the cost goes down, and it's achievable for more and more tours to have bigger and bigger stages with the same budget. A perfect example of the trend of performance and the trend of creativity and flexibility are the two products that are going to be used by U2, and those are the MiSphere in the US and the OLite 510 in Europe. And then you really see the roadmap that we've had already in our minds for years is coming into realization because it's being employed by early adopters like U2, and that's really great.
Vertiblog: What other groups are using your lighting technology or is it exclusive to U2?
Sabine: If you're referring to specific technology such as MiSphere, then at the moment, yes it is exclusive to U2. We do have another product called MiPIX that allows for a lot of creativity and is used quite widely in the touring industry by bands like the Corrs and Britney Spears and various other acts.
Vertiblog: Can we expect any Barco involvement, for example, on the Rolling Stones recently announced tour?
Sabine: I'm going to have to answer with the very cliche answer, 'no comment'. (laughs)
Vertiblog: What was your first reaction when you saw the MiSphere curtains 'in action' at the first live performances?
Sabine: I actually want to tell you a little story. The first time we saw them in action was not at a concert. I think that, for me, made it even more exciting. We built up a sample of the curtains here in Belgium. And I remember it was a rainy winter night, it was snowing, it was raining and we built it up in a warehouse where we'd have space enough to hang it. And we all drove there in a bus one night, maybe 40 or 50 people. And we walked into that warehouse and until then we had only seen the itemized parts of the product, the little bulbs themselves. And we walked into that warehouse in the cold and the dark and you just saw those meters and meters and meters of MiSphere hanging there and that was just awesome. That was just unbelievable, I'll never forget that moment, much more so than the concerts themselves.
Vertiblog: We've yet to see the MiShpere live, only in videos, but when you see the lights unlit they are interesting enough and you don't know what to expect but when they are lit up they are quite spectacular.
Sabine: And for us, too, before we saw them. Everyone here thought, 'Yeah, okay?' (skeptical)
Paul: It's really like a mystery that is revealed once you get them lighted, it's really amazing.
Vertiblog: The feedback that you've received can't be anythng other than positive.
Sabine: Yes, absolutely. It's been phenomenal actually. The increase in traffic to our website, due to this tour, it's gone up tenfold. It's unbelievable the interest people have taken up with this product due to the tour. And I think after now that people that never before have been interested in some little piece of technology called MiSphere are coming to our website wondering what this little mysterious round ball that everyone is talking about.
Vertiblog: I guess we would be one of those people. (laughs)
Vertiblog: I know that the focus of these questions has been primarily about Barco's involvement with U2, but I think it's important for our readers to know that Barco is also a partner of the Canne's Film Festival and your projection equipment was used in the premier of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Barco is not limited to entertainment, Barco is also involved in military applications, and from the outside it seems like a very exciting company.
Sabine: It is from the inside, too. (both laugh)
Paul: I think you said the right thing. We are first a technology company and, on the other hand, we are the company that realizes dreams. And I think the power of Barco is really combining these two. We are involved in concerts and the entertainment industry in general and we really use our technology not as a means on its own but to realize people's dreams as we've discussed here and many others to come.