disguise: A 2020 Review

disguise CTO, Ed Plowman discusses the company’s latest releases – vx 1 and vx 2 media servers – and how the rise in virtual events is likely to alter the events landscape. TPi’s Stew Hume reports...

During the trying adjustment period of 2020, whether you were involved in corporate events, sports or live music, one piece of common ground which organisers the world over shared was the move towards virtual events as a temporary replacement for their physical counterparts. From rudimentary livestream sets on social media to the involvement of more complex virtual studios with content creators, the exploration of virtual events, along with AR (augmented reality) and XR (extended reality) have added an extra dimension to the ‘virtual conversation’.

Having already worked on this technology for several years, disguise has been at the heart of many of the most notable virtual projects of 2020. Just before closing out the year, the company announced two new offerings – the vx 1 and vx 2 media servers – to help yet more individuals enter the dynamic world of virtual events. Taking some time out of his busy schedule, disguise CTO, Ed Plowman discussed some of the lessons learned from last year, and how he predicts this new form of event delivery will affect the overall entertainment landscape. “Like everyone else, in March, all our shows in the live environment were cancelled,” Plowman reflected. “Now, there are two things you can do in that situation – either mothball everything or pivot your focus.”

No prizes for guessing which option disguise took, especially as the firm had already been developing several offerings for some time that were about to be in very high demand. “Prior to March, we had already seen some acceleration on the xR side of the business. But post-March, the phone was ringing off the hook with a number of virtual productions getting in touch.” Through this time, disguise has reported over 100 xR stages have been built in over 30 countries, with many more planned as the industry starts to adopt and recognise the importance of immersive, remote, real-time productions. Plowman pointed to some of the company’s highlight case studies from last year, which have helped spearhead xR across a variety of applications, including the 2020 MTV Video Music Awards, along with Billie Eilish’s ambitious performance.

Although many of the pieces of both software and hardware that make these events possible were very much in disguise’s roadmap moving forward, the global situation obviously altered the pace at which the demand needed to be met. “In 2020, we announced three massive launches,” stated Plowman, citing the RenderStream software, the launch of the major xR toolkit, and the two new media servers – the vx 1 and 2. The CTO admitted that this was somewhat of a gamble due to the global situation, but it is a risk that “has already started to pay off.”

He elaborated: “Although there is some promising news out there with the development of a vaccine, in the immediate future, ‘live’ in the form we know it is not going to be possible during the first part of 2021. With the innovation in the virtual world, there is now another option for these types of performances.”

Talking about the latest of these releases, Plowman discussed the original goal with the vx 1 and 2. “The vx 4 has been our flagship server for some time, with the 4x4pro being the main workhorse people have used. However, there was a real need to bridge the gap between the vx 4 and the smaller solo,” he stated.

With vx 1 and vx 2, disguise’s customers can purchase a machine with one or two 4K outputs respectively, opening the door to midsize xR stages at a fraction of the original cost, with the option to scale up as and when needed. Working in tandem with rx and RenderStream, the vx 1 and 2 lowers the barrier of entry to xR, enabling uncompressed video playback and the ability to scale out real-time generative content from leading third-party render engines like Unreal Engine and Notch.

This wish to open the world of virtual events to new users is very much in line with some of the other announcements that have come from disguise this year – including its commitment to providing free access to its Designer software licence until June 2021, alongside recently launching an e-learning hub with online certified training courses free to access for anyone interested in learning or upskilling in all seven disguise workflows.

“What we have seen so far is only the beginning,” concluded Plowman, while giving his final thoughts on virtual events. “For the past year, this has been a technology out of necessity, but what it has turned into is incredible; there are numerous time and cost benefits, with fewer people needed on set and more able to work remotely. We’re getting to a model where it doesn’t even matter where the talent is based – a show can still be put on.”

He closed by expressing his excitement for several projects in 2021 and assured TPi that as far as virtual events and the shows that disguise is powering, “the best is still yet to come.”

This article originally appeared in issue #257 of TPi, which you can read here.