Recently we needed to run a “kiosk” style video display at an event. No problem, everyone does that, I hear you say. That’s just table-stakes.
Those of you who do this for a living will know that events have nice onsite people, usually in black T-shirts, with screwdrivers, leatherman tools, a walkie-talkie radio, and pockets full of cables. They come along and set everything up for you. They either work for the event itself, or for the hotel/venue you’re at. Just hand them your USB stick with your video or presentation and they will “make it so”. Soon afterward, a biiiiig TV on a stand turns up, if it’s not there already.
The black T-shirt person loads your video up, switches it on, sets the inputs, and hey presto! There’s your beautiful show running, and your marketing manager looks happy. Their radio starts squawking, they grab a signature from your event person, and they’re off, handing you the remote control with a meaningful look. As a true event veteran, you lock it in the little cupboard so people can’t mess with it.
So before continuing, let us pause for a moment and offer thanks for those nice people in black T-shirts. They will still be coiling up cables and sorting out equipment long after you and everyone else is schmoozing at the event happy-hour. They are blessed with the gift of knowing how to do one thing well.
What happens when your Marketing department just needs to showcase their latest sparkly video, at an event that has no onsite AV cover? Well…here there be dragons. Sales Engineers get to do all sorts of things, often acting as technical “gophers” for Marketing, Sales and other parts of the organization. That’s part of the thrill of the job. So it’s probably going to land in your lap, and you may as well reduce your stress by getting prepared and testing in advance. Here’s my little survival guide which might help you one day. But first, a warning.
“You said you’re an Engineer – how hard can it be”
Only do the tech gopher thing if you absolutely have to. Those black T-shirt people have the tools, supplies, and backup; you don’t. You are a plane-ride, or at least a train journey away from home, in an unfamiliar city, and all your stuff for on-the-fly problem-solving and MacGyvering is back home, or at the office. Amazon Prime won’t get anything to you fast enough to make a difference, and you probably don’t even have a venue address that would make any sense to a delivery person. Brick-and-mortar tech stores usually aren’t open 24 hours, and you know all they will stock are fluffy faux-fur-covered iPhone covers in various neon colors.
Make friends with the people setting up the next-door booths. They might need something that you have spare. You might need something from them, even if it’s just a pair of gaudy-looking promotional socks, a Cat5 network cable, or some duct tape. Always have these things, plus cable ties, some basic tools, a USB hub, a mini wifi router, a power extension reel, spare USB and HDMI leads, even if you think you don’t need them. They could be useful barter in the jungle environment you’re about to enter.
We demand… a shrubbery!
Well not exactly – but like the wise Knights of Ni, know in advance what you need from other people on your quest for the Holy Grail. The content that’s going to be shown – is it in 16:9 or 4:3 format?
If it’s a Powerpoint presentation, make sure you have all the right fonts loaded and externally linked content. The only way to be sure is to nuke it from orbit load it onto a separate clean machine and test it. Look carefully at the options for showing unattended (in “kiosk” mode). Check it loops back around as you are expecting. Check the transitions look OK. Check you have cables long enough to be able to lock the laptop away in that cupboard (next to the TV remote!).
If it’s Google Slides, your “show” options are more limited. Be sure to set the “available offline” flag on your presentation machine’s Google Drive. Wifi coverage may be patchy, and public hotspots at the venue will have thousands of people just like you, crammed into a small indoor space, all trying to download stuff. Even cellular coverage is going to be congested. Events spaces are often in hotel basements which have zilch mobile coverage anyway.
If it’s video, there a host of different formats, quality settings and so on. More on that later.
The golden rule is – check the content looks good on the screen it will be shown on, or at least something similar. TV screens may have overscan which means they won’t show all the pixels in your material. Unlike a computer monitor, bits will likely be missing from the top, bottom, and sides.
Beware the killer rabbit
Most folks can manage plugging in a laptop to show a presentation – but are you going to use your work laptop? You know, the one with all your email, Slack messages, documents, and files? NOT a good idea. Have you really figured out how to disable notifications/pop-ups from the screen, and tested it doesn’t ping them up on the big screen? That could be really awkward.
What happens during lunch – will your stand be manned? Is someone you know and trust watching your kit all the time? Nope.
If you have a security team or a CISO, and you leave your main work laptop unattended, even for a moment, you just found one of the quickest shortcuts to hunting for a new job.
So let’s be clear, we’re going to set this up so you can keep your job, even if all the kit goes walkabout or gets savaged by a pack of roaming hyenas.
How many MPEGs do you need, granddad?
This brings us nicely back to video. In some ways, video is the best booth medium – no missing fonts, no problems with externally linked content. You can show happy customers talking about how wonderful you are.
What we want, though, is a way you can show your Marketing team’s sparkling new video without needing a laptop.
If your venue provides a smart TV with USB ports, then you may be able to play video straight from a USB stick. Of course, you would always use a freshly formatted USB stick, with nothing else on it. Assume it will get savaged by hyenas, or left plugged in when everyone’s gone, or thrown into a packing crate and forgotten.
Always check this approach well in advance with the event AV folks, because there are a hundred ways that it might go wrong and only one way for it to work properly. For example:
- Can the TV be set to loop the content forever, or is someone on your team going to have to press the “play” button on the remote every three minutes? That looks bad. It will always have a few seconds of “black screen” which looks terrible, and someone will press the wrong button.
- What file formats will their TVs accept? If they say “.mp4” that’s not enough. Get them to confirm exactly what video encoding (usually H.264), audio encoding (usually AAC 2-channel stereo), bit-rates (say up to 20Mbps) and so on. VLC is useful here, but MediaInfo is better for reporting on video file format internals and only costs a couple of dollars. If possible, check your content plays back smoothly with no artifacts or glitches on the same TV (or close model).
- Check what file format your production company will deliver your video. It’s not unusual for them to deliver huge broadcast-quality files in 40Mbps or more because higher quality is better, right? Not if your TV can’t play it, or your memory stick isn’t big enough, or the files exceed the FAT32 limit (which can be as low as 4GB or 2GB). Plus it will take ages to transfer down to your laptop, and ages to transfer to your USB stick, only to find that the TV crashes part-way through playing it. Here a free command-line tool, FFmpeg, is your get-out-of-jail-free card. If you don’t like command-line, you can try iMovie, VLC or whatever .. but I like the predictability, control, and batch capabilities of FFmpeg.
- When will you get the video? Production is often going on up to the last minute if you have a new product announcement. If you can get an early copy of the material, you can test it.
More pixels than you can shake a stick at
If you are playing video, consider getting an all-in-one player with built-in storage well before the event, and testing it. These are no longer expensive.
I’ve had recent good experiences with an “Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Remote” costing around $30 – $40. You can use this as your plug-and-play video solution. I’ll write up how to do that in part 2.
That’s it for now! Happy eventing.