The incredible new Mercedes-Benz Stadium opened on August 26 for a home-team Atlanta Falcons exhibition game against the Arizona Cardinals. That date followed three “official” opening dates that were delayed as project managers finished crafting this modern technological marvel. For game day fans, though, it was definitely worth the wait.
One of the biggest technical challenges centered on the eight individual cantilevered “petals” that reveal the ocular roof opening of the 71,000-seat, $1.5 billion football venue. Getting the proper synchronization between all eight mechanically operated petals was extremely complex. The roof install was completed this past spring. The stadium’s overall construction took about three years.
The roof required 1.8 million pounds of trusses, more than 21,000 tons of steel and the world’s largest movable crane just to put it all together. Each of the four main trusses rises 72 feet from the floor and runs about 720 feet long. Each of the eight petals on the roof weighs 500 tons. They are each 220 feet long, 75 feet wide and 40 feet deep, and they come in four different sizes because the opening isn’t a perfect circle.
What all eyes will be on at games, however, will be the remarkable, 62,000-plus-square-foot—58 (x) 1,075 linear feet—“Halo” videoboard. It’s the largest video display in the world, and it’s one in a completely new shape and concept. No matter where a spectator is seated inside the building—or outside the building, for that matter—at least a portion of the immersive curved board, which has the potential for continuous motion on the screen, remains clearly visible. During games, the board will be digitally spliced into four quadrants, all at 15mm HD LED brightness.
As if that were not enough to grab your attention, there is also the “Megacolumn.” That’s a 100-foot-high concrete pillar wrapped in 71 linear feet of the same LED display material, and it’s bigger than half of all the NFL stadiums’ largest existing videoboards. Those massive displays, along with a 26-foot “Feather Wall” display (4mm LED pitch), eight ribbon displays (15mm HD pitch across more than 11,000 linear feet of boards at mezzanine level and another 500 feet plus at field level) and more, required more than 4,000 miles of fiberoptic cabling.
A New Paradigm For Integration
As mega venues such as NFL stadiums grow in complexity and size, they will upend (to varying extents) the traditional relationships between AV systems manufacturers and integrators. Nowhere is that trend clearer than with Daktronics’ role at Mercedes-Benz Stadium; Daktronics is the displays’ developer, fabricator and installer/integrator.
“The size, scale and complexity of these kinds of videoboards really argues for a turnkey approach [to design and integration],” Tyler Jones, Senior Project Manager on Mercedes-Benz Stadium for Daktronics, stated. The company is one of four that dominate the giant-scoreboard category, operating alongside Mitsubishi Electric LED Display Systems (the DiamondVision screen), Sony (the classic Jumbotron) and Panasonic Enterprise Solutions. This year, Panasonic supplied the screens for the Falcons’ suburban neighbors, the Atlanta Braves, at the team’s new SunTrust Park.
According to Jones, the oval Oculus—the 3,000-square-foot, 360-degree LED marquee that hangs above the main entrance of the Brooklyn Nets’ Barclays Center in New York that the company designed in 2012—acted as a template for the much larger Atlanta Halo. It’s 1,100 linear feet long, comprising nearly 63,000 square feet of signage. “We drew a lot on that experience, in terms of designing the Halo and installing it,” he said. “The difference is mainly in scale, but there was a lot of valuable knowledge gained from it, such as working with custom curved cabinets.”
One technical design aspect was the native voltage conversion for the Halo—to 277V, rather than 120V—from the 480V of the facility’s electrical mains. That eliminated the need for step-down transformers to be integrated into the videoboard, thus lightening its structural load. (Although it’s not physically part of the roof, the Halo’s design had to take into account weight and load restrictions associated with the stadium’s complex mechanical roof.) “That all figured into the design and the pre-install calculations we had to do,” Jones remarked.
Daktronics’ technicians worked with a pair of subcontractors, a signage-installation company and an electrical contractor, on the project. The former was tasked with staging the panels on the jobsite as they arrived by truck, contracting with the crane company to lift them into position and securing the panels in place. The electrical contractor pulled the fiber cable from the control room, which was built by Diversified Systems, to the boards, and it made the secondary electrical connections and terminations as Daktronics’ installers led the process. According to Jones, although individual components were tested at the factory, the entire Halo assembly was only put together for the first time on site at the stadium.
As stunning as the Halo is, Jones said the four ribbon boards in the venue are equally unique. Both the two ribbons that run around the upper level and the two ribbons on the lower suites area are literally part of the bowl structure. Both use Daktronics’ proprietary ProRail attachment system for installing LED ribbon boards; that eliminates the need for concrete fascia, thus reducing construction costs. He said that this installation technique cuts the thickness of the inner edges of the balconies to between nine and 10 inches, including the LED strips; that improves sightlines for many of the seats.
“Fans might be touching the ribbons without even realizing it, thinking it’s just part of the railing,” Jones said of the upper ribbon board installation. “I think a lot of design that went into some of the more amazing things in the stadium was also intended to make everything look and feel like it just belongs there.”
Point Of Control
The Halo, the Megacolumn and the rest of the scoreboard-replay video around the venue are managed from a large field-level control room, which holds 34 operator seats. Those are enough to produce two separate and complete shows on the venue’s displays, according to Mike Meglathery, Senior Project Manager for integrator Diversified Systems, which handled that aspect of the project. “They wanted to be able to do it from a single control room, so, we built one that’s twice the size of what you’d usually find in an NFL stadium,” he commented.
Meglathery said the circular Halo screen presented a unique challenge, which was made more challenging by the fact that the Falcons chose to buy the video-presentation hardware used to manage the displays’ distributed content from Ross Video, rather than from Daktronics. “The interface between the two vendors’ systems is definitely more complex,” he admitted.
To make it work, two Ross Video Acuity production switchers (one dedicated to the Halo display and one for alternate shows, but both able to be redundant systems in the event of primary failure) are buttressed by nine Christie Spyder image processors. Graphics are generated by a Ross Video Tessera graphics system and three Ross Video Xpression Studio CGs for in-game graphics. Replays are sourced from a 32×24 Evertz Dreamcatcher replay system. Input from the field comes through 10 Grass Valley LDX-86N cameras; eight of them are wired and two are wireless handhelds. Four of the wired cams are 4K capable, whereas four can handle up to 6X slow-motion video.
“The Halo is the equivalent of [about a dozen] video images in a circle. To be able to drive them contiguously and independently, and with pixel accuracy, was quite an undertaking,” Meglathery said. “It was a challenge to get all the products and platforms to operate as single system, but, once that happened, the entire video system [began to operate] at a much higher level than at any other sports venue.”
To reach that point, the individual vendors had to create custom software—not only as an interface between vendors’ systems, but also to connect even the same vendors’ platforms to each other. For instance, Meglathery said Christie delivered new software that allowed up to four of its Spyder image processors to run together. “They’d never had that many units synched frame-accurate before,” he stated. (Four other Spyder image processors are similarly linked, and they stand ready as redundant backups; two more Spyders are used for alternate graphics applications.)
Meglathery said that the integrator played a part in that process, acting as a bridge between vendors, testing each software connection between disparate platforms, and testing and monitoring the effects on the IP network itself, relative to traffic management, bandwidth and QoS. “We were learning and using skills that you don’t have as an AV integrator,” he explained. “It’s been an experience for our engineers. This project has been as much about networking knowledge as it’s been about AV.”
Interestingly, IBM—a company not usually associated with conventional AV—was a major part of the project. The computer giant was originally slated to build the network infrastructure for the IPTV system. However, according to Meglathery, early tests of IBM’s approach suggested that, although excellent for data, it was less excellent for video. So, although an IBM network is in place at the stadium to connect the asset editing and storage platforms installed there, the video production system exists on a completely separate network that Diversified designed and installed. (Meglathery affirmed the design kept video-over-IP demands in mind.) A key differentiator: The AV network uses an Evertz network switch, rather than a Cisco switch common to data networks.
All of those considerations are part of the Falcons’ desire to have a cutting-edge video facility and futureproof it as much as possible. “This is the first pro-sports stadium in which the entire video system is IP from the core—input from the cameras and the graphics are all IP, going out to IP displays.” (Although Mercedes-Benz Stadium is the first such IP-based venue to open, Meglathery confirmed that Diversified is in progress on several other projects that are similar.)
Mercedes-Benz Stadium also reflects another new reality in professional sports: the challenges of luring fans into seats that are rather expensive when, at home, they can get a great game-watching experience on an 80-inch screen through which 5.1 sound and HD video blast into the living room. And Dolby’s AC-4 immersive broadcast audio format is now officially part of the US ATSC 3.0 standard, meaning that immersive and object-based audio will likely launch sometime in the next two to three years. For all of those reasons, in addition to the 10 Grass Valley cameras for broadcast, another 14 remotely controlled, broadcast-quality PTZ cameras were also installed. They’re intended not to monitor the playing field but, rather, to capture fan engagement during the games and put people on the big screen.
If football, as Al Pacino’s Tony D’Amato character put it in “Any Given Sunday,” is indeed a game of inches, it’s also a game of complex relationships. As it turned out, one of those—the relationship between the Falcons’ ownership and loudspeaker manufacturer Danley Sound Labs—helped set up the winning goal for the suburban Atlanta-based company. Mike Hedden, Danley’s President and CEO, noted that it had provided sound systems for charity events that the Falcons sponsored in the region. Over several years, that formed the basis for a friendship with team executives and, ultimately, yielded an opportunity to present the case for its design for the sound system at the new stadium.
An earlier proposal for the new venue had specified many of the same components already installed in the Georgia Dome—the Falcons’ existing home—and team executives had expressed dismay with that venue’s intelligibility. It also helped that Danley’s proposal required just a fraction of the boxes that the other bid specified—36 versus 250-plus, distributed over eight locations within the stadium. And, the system could achieve the 0.5-or-better Speech Transmission Index for Public Address (STIPA) rating that the bid specifications contained. Finally, Hedden said, Danley’s design could achieve that without any acoustical treatment, and treatment would have been complicated given the nature of the stadium’s roof. (Not using it shaved close to $2 million off the cost.)
Danley’s design was derived from extensive modeling performed using Bose Professional’s Modeler sound system software. In fact, it was the largest such modeling project to which the system had ever been applied, as per Bose’s engineers. It was also one with its own very modern problems. The project team began the sampling/modeling process by using wireless microphones to span the huge space from the playing field to the upper reaches of the seating areas. However, downtown Atlanta’s RF density constantly intruded, with spurious signals interfering with the measurements.
The solution was to use wired microphones, pulling cables as long as 700 feet up the aisles; workers were stationed along the way to move the cable over to the next measurement point, until the entire venue had been circumnavigated. The cables became so long and extended into the seating that Ivan Beaver, Danley’s Chief Engineer, found that, at the end, it was simply more efficient to cut the cable connectors off at the top end and spool the cable back down to the field to avoid the connectors catching on seats.
“The Modeler software allowed us to do auralizations of the venue based on the architectural design, which let us be much more precise in our predictions about how sound would behave in the actual bowl,” Hedden explained. “Our design was able to achieve a STIPA value of between 0.52 and 0.6 with the roof closed, and between 0.5 and even 0.7 with the roof open.”
The result of that work are eight distributed speaker positions that consist of a Jericho 1 box on top and a Jericho 2 box below it, with two BC418 subwoofers paired on one side of each assembly. Those are powered by Crown MacroTech HD amplifiers.
The Danley system, along with an extremely large number of other speakers—mostly JBL pendant and in-ceiling transducers in distributed systems that extend into restaurants, bars, lounges, suites and walkways—were installed by Baker Audio Visual, an Atlanta-area AV systems integrator. Mercedes-Benz Stadium was the single largest sports venue project the integrator had ever done, and the first ground-up NFL stadium.
The vast number of speakers was rivaled only by the many miles of cabling, including copper for the speakers and fiber for the NFL and broadcasters, that were pulled. The sheer scale of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, in and of itself, had the potential to pose a challenge. When working on a building of that size, it could become overwhelming to look at the job as one gigantic project. So, it proved useful to break down the whole into a lot of smaller, more easily digestible tasks.
Compounding challenges centered on the project’s scale were its interleaving timelines, with various project participants working on their own schedules, all of which had to be reconciled on the fly. An integrator might start the day roughing in some conduit, and then end up pulling cable in a completely different part of the stadium, because another firm had to install something. After finding a place to stage materials, an integrator might have to move to make way for something else. In addition, there was a steady stream of design and work-order changes, which compelled the rerouting of conduit and cabling, as sponsorships and concession locations changed.
Although the cabling appears to be straightforward brute force, its scale was made more manageable by using networked audio. In this case, a Dante audio network was deployed, running over the IBM fiber-network backbone that’s ubiquitous throughout the venue. Although the IBM network had been determined to be incompatible with the video system’s needs, audio’s lower bandwidth requirements made it an acceptable fit.
Audio originates in one of several points in the venue, such as announce booths or the audio control room. Then, it’s transported along the Dante network on fiber to electrical systems rooms (ESR)—essentially intermediate distribution frame (IDF) closets for audio—on each level. The number on each level is determined by how many zones needed to be supplied. For instance, restaurant and suite levels have more zones. In the ESRs, the data signal from the fiber network is sent to an optical network terminal (ONT), an IBM interface, that converts the signal into analog for the copper wiring out of the ESR and onto the speakers. The fiber/copper combination helped make the cabling process easier to manage and kept the audio signals as pristine as possible from source to speaker.
The Atlanta Falcons’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium represents a milestone in AV technology, particularly with respect to its signature Halo, which reflects the ongoing shift toward immersive media. But there was just as much of an inflection point in how its AV came together. Both the video display providers and the main sound system providers were considerably more involved in the design and installation of their respective systems than has usually been the case with large-scale projects.
This season, the old rules might just be changing.