Technology for Halloween

The Entertainment Technology Department of the New York City College for Technology (City Tech) in Brooklyn has a high-technology haunted house for Halloween every year called Gravesend Inn. Gravesend is actually a neighborhood in Brooklyn, down near Cony Island. For European readers, Gravesend is a town on the Thames, East of London. Makes a good name for a haunted hotel, in either case.

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According to the department’s home page, “The entertainment industry has grown tremendously in the last 30 years. The increasing prominence of the theme park, the arena concert, the marriage of mall development and amusement, the use of immersive technologies in advertising and marketing, and the expansion of cable and independent television has created an entirely new job market for technicians, managers and designers. City Tech’s Entertainment Technology program, the only one of its kind in the Northeast [US], and one of the few in the world, is designed to address these changes and provide students with the specialized technical coursework that is required to work in a variety of professional environments.”

I went to Gravesend Inn to see how technology was applied and had a chance to talk to John Huntington, Professor of Entertainment Technology and Susan Brandt, Assistant Professor of Program Management in the department. Professor Huntington explained to me that “Entertainment Technology” means primarily live events such as live theater, rock concerts, theme parks, etc. – i.e. Rental and Staging. While these live events use video content routinely, he said the City Tech program does not strongly focus on video issues such as content creation, editing or distribution.

City Tech Gravesend Inn 2016 Huntington resizeProfessor Huntington in the control room for Gravesend Inn (Photo: M. Brennesholtz)

Gravesend Inn used all the tools normal for rental and staging but on a smaller scale. These included lighting effects, motion effects, sound effects and video. Video was used as both part of the show and as part of the show control system.

The event took place in City Tech’s Voorhees Theatre, starting in the lobby, going down in the basement and then up to several rooms built on the theater’s stage. After the tour, visitors wound up in the theater auditorium. Two big screens over the stage showed images produced by NEC PX-700W projectors. These projectors are single panel DLP (0.65″ DMD), WXGA (1280 x 800), 7000 lumen projectors with 400W, 2000 hour lamps. The projectors were connected to the control room by a HDBaseT transmitter/receiver pair, with the receiver connected to the projector via HDMI. The NEC PX-700W projector was first shipped in 2011 and last shipped in 2014. I’ve certainly seen older projectors than these in college auditoriums!

The Voorhees Theatre with the lights on in 2015. The two screens are visible, along with part of the set for Gravesend Inn on the stage. (Photo: J. Huntington)

One projector showed the multiviewer image generated from the 20 VoIP surveillance cameras used by the students acting as show controllers to monitor progress of visitors through the haunted hotel. This multiview signal was also routed via HDBaseT to the public safety desk in the lobby. The second screen normally showed a diagram of the show, including the locations of the 19 motion sensors used to control the special effects and the status of the show elements in each room in Gravesend Inn. The student controllers could also show the output of an individual surveillance camera full-screen on the second screen, if desired.

City Tech Gravesend Inn 2016 Student Control resizeStudents monitoring and controlling Gravesend Inn. The 20 VoIP surveillance images are on the monitor and repeated on the big screen, part of which can be seen in the upper right corner. (Photo: M. Brennesholtz)

City Tech Gravesend Inn 2016 Projected Control resizeProjected control screen from one of the NEC projectors in the Voorhees Theatre. A small portion of the Haunted Hotel set built on the stage is visible in the lower left. (Photo: M. Brennesholtz)

After you emerge from the Gravesend Inn and its horrors, you are in the Voorhees Theatre auditorium and can see the two projected images. Professor Huntington told me that many of the visitors sit in the theater for a while to watch the surveillance images, especially if they have friends that have not yet emerged. To keep you company, there was a ghost sitting in the theater, presumably watching her friends perform.

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A New York University (NYU) Program Management class toured Gravesend Inn while I was there. Here they are watching their classmates go through the show on the projected surveillance screen. When they were all in the auditorium, Professor Brandt gave them a talk about program management and the technical aspects of the show. (Photo: M. Brennesholtz)

The show was run by Medialon (now a Barco company) software. Watchout software, under the control of Medialon, did the video control and processing. There was no dedicated Medialon or Watchout hardware and software was running on Macs that were connected by Ethernet to the video and audio servers plus the lighting and mechanical controllers. The routers and controllers were connected in a ring configuration so if any one Ethernet link went down, the show could continue without pause.

Professor Huntington told me that he had done the Medialon and Watchout software and the network design, rather than students, for two reasons. First, while students learn this software in the Entertainment Technology department, by the time they are proficient enough to do a show like this, they are seniors and about to leave. Second, a variation on this show is done every Halloween and continuity in the software must be maintained. His familiarity with the software allows him to add new features, delete ones no longer used and debug the software as needed. One thing included in the software is a “Stop Show” function. A single click by a student controller stops the audio, lighting, video and mechanical systems and turns on the work lights along the visitor’s route. The student controllers monitoring the show can use this control in case of an emergency or at the end of the day.

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The Porter welcoming you to the Gravesend Inn (Photo: J. Huntington)

According to Professor Huntington, the Entertainment Technology students did all the rest of the work from the AutoCAD designs from building and installing all the parts of the show to running it for visitors. He said they start the first day of school (August 31, this year) and, so far, have had the show ready for its scheduled opening every year. A good time was had by all, visitors, students and ghosts alike. The students even get college credit for it. –Matthew Brennesholtz