Posted March 30, 2016 by Jim Wheeler 

Applying Innovative, Inexpensive Technology in a Theatre Space

This article was published as part of the Technology Showcase in the March/April Bulletin.

Back in 2004, our student union was being renovated to dramatically expand its size and services. One of the more celebrated spaces being added was a 500-seat movie theater. A lot has changed in the last 10 years. Movies only now account for 35% of our theater’s use. As a result, a significant challenge has been converting a space whose main purpose was showing movies into a space that can accommodate a variety of programs.

The movie screen is directly behind the stage, which is great for watching movies. It’s blinding if you’re a lecturer giving a presentation with video. The audio system was also configured for movies, limiting our ability to properly balance audio for presenters. Correcting these major problems required some creative solutions, as we lacked the budget to do a complete overhaul. Thankfully, a collaborative brainstorming session inspired very inexpensive solutions that could be done almost entirely in house.

Initially we looked to relocate the projector to the ceiling of the theater. However, that required drilling through concrete. The ceiling also has no rafters, meaning the install and any subsequent maintenance schedules would be extremely difficult. Mounting it to the ceiling became a nonstarter. It wasn’t until one of us mused, “It’s too bad we can’t put it right on the stage,” that a light bulb went off. Instead of moving the existing projector, we decided to install a short-throw projector on the floating ceiling near the head of the stage.

We opted to use a Digital Projection E-Series 8500 lumen laser projector. Conventional short-throw projectors have a limit to how bright they can be, since they use a mirror to achieve their reduced throw distance. Brighter lamps generate more heat, and mirrors can only handle a certain temperature before warping. With the laser projector, we were able to achieve a brightness level that is acceptable in that space.

Mounting the projector was fairly straightforward. It was getting content to it that was our next challenge, as this required running new cable lines where there previously were none. Like the location of the projector, this problem was also solved creatively. What if we could deliver content to the projector without needing to run cable? Enter, wireless HDMI. For about $500, we found the Intelix Skyplay wireless HDMI transmitter and receiver kit. The receiver is installed near the projector, and the transmitter is attached to a stand we use for presenter’s laptops. It connects automatically every time it’s powered on, truly making it a plug-and-play solution.

In addition, we added a 3-in-1 scaler and switcher. This allowed customers to use Macs, old laptops with VGA, or new laptops with HDMI. It also scaled the picture to a resolution that’s always compatible with our equipment. Lastly, we completely reconfigured our audio lines so we could have independent control of all the speakers in the theater. This was a simple matter of soldering on new XLR connectors to the lines and running them directly into our mixing board. By gaining independent control over all the speakers, we were able to create more balanced presets for presenters using microphones.

These solutions have been well-received. Our customers are thrilled to be able to put on trainings without being blinded, have their entire audience hear them perfectly, and not have to worry about compatibility issues with using their own laptops. And the movies are still great, too.
Jim Wheeler

Jim Wheeler is the Audio/Visual Manager at University of Connecticut.

Jim has focused on live and recorded sound engineering in the audio-visual field since 2008. He manages a student staff of 20 technicians, is responsible for coordinating audio-visual for event programing, and oversees the design and maintenance of the union’s audio-visual systems. Jim has also served as a sound advisor for the Drama department, and has been involved in over 30 theatrical productions as a pit musician and composer.

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