Three shifts in AV/IT that matter: Neil Grant

Neil Grant is one of a very small cadre of audiovisual technology and design specialists who have been working at what might be called the “big end” of the superyacht market for well over 15 years. The client list of Harris Grant reads like a who’s who of technology superstars. So, if you’re looking for insight into what technology, music and video look like in the near future, Neil Grant is a good one to ask. He very kindly offered his insights to us for this series.


There are three subjects of real interest for me right now in audiovisual technology. First, the market is shifting and major IT hardware manufacturers are specifically developing products to support high-end digital audio and video delivery signalling a shift from commodity devices; second, the adoption of Dante protocols means we now have incredibly simple yet powerful tools to manage the post production and routing of ultra-high-quality audio, and third, the possibilities of surface-mounted LED arrays are simply staggering.


Shift #1: As analogue has been replaced by digital storage and delivery, major IT manufacturers are offering bespoke ultra-high-end audiovisual solutions.


Historically, with the move to encoding and delivering music and video as digital data, integrators have utilised conventional IT hardware to route and deliver this content, rather than using specialised - and expensive - broadcast quality systems manufacturers. But, one can do terrible things to audio and video in the interests of moving and storing content in the digital domain. Those of us from a broadcasting background are used to moving huge amounts of content very much faster and with far lower latency and degradation than has been available in commercial, residential and marine IT networks.


What’s interesting is that over the past few years, some of the top IT companies have begun to develop equipment specifically for the audiovisual content delivery market. Their gear clocks very, very quickly, provides extremely low-latency and has been consequently expensive. Broadcasters are used to seeing companies like Cisco, Meraki, and Aruba on the IT side of the room, but now we’re seeing specialist competitors offering highly differentiated, agile, audiovisual components and solutions.  From this small number of specialist content delivery manufacturers, we will increasingly see the tables turning and the big IT companies will now be stepping in as well.


What does this mean for clients? It means there is no longer just “an IT installation.” We are moving higher and higher-quality digital audio, video and data at ever-increasing speeds and lower latencies that goes well beyond conventional commercial IT. And the very best in class are more specifically oriented towards solutions for these new purposes. There are content management tools to maintain data integrity and track what’s gone where while delivering large amounts of content synchronously, which is what the very top end of the marine market needs. Superyacht AV/IT networks are evolving into small broadcast facilities.


Shift #2: Audio has its own network and simpler integration


What we’re doing on large projects is distributing digital audio through a large-scale digital matrix. Using the immensely successful protocol called Dante, we are able to know the identity of every loudspeaker and amplifier channel combination on the vessel and we can set them up in multiple configurations as large-scale matrices, configuring and delivering audio as required to each section of the vessel and then reconfigure on the fly with the push of a button. This is the sophisticated evolution of what we have known as ‘Party Mode’ over the years.


The shift now is towards the removal of all hardware from a destination cabin or salon, and both audio and video are delivered through separate matrices. These installations are complex to integrate and configure, but once they’re up and running, they’re robust. It’s a real selling point for the clients. We can log on to an installation and look at every single amplifier node, input and output, and see its status. We have an immensely improved level of reporting but also the ability to configure the installation for the use of the day. It goes far beyond selecting a master source in the owner’s office and routing it to the sundeck and calling it party mode. Back in analogue days, even that wasn’t something you could do easily without re-patching. Now with the vertical integration of Dante and Soundweb, it’s an incredibly powerful system once installed.


it now is genuinely achievable—only with superyacht-level budgets—to create absolutely immersive experiences

Shift #3: High-density surface-mount LEDs are changing everything, again.


The third topic that I think is highly relevant to the universe of superyacht audiovisual technology is the rapidly evolving potential of high-density surface-mount LEDs. With the stratospheric budgets that are allocated to creating entertaining and party spaces aboard the largest of vessels, there are opportunities arising for whole new levels of design.


We have one project in bid at the moment that has floors, steps, walls and ceilings that are entirely composed of these programmable surfaces. We’re working towards corrosion-resistant, non-slip surfaces that are serviceable from the forward face and decoupled from the vibrations of the yacht. We’re working with the top creative agencies in the world to deliver the custom content this kind of space will require. 


And let me be clear here: The screen technology we’re looking at is rocketing past 4K towards 8K with sub-millimetre-pitch and the re-manufacturers are able to create screen surfaces and shapes tailored to the setting required. This means it now is genuinely achievable—only with superyacht-level budgets—to create absolutely immersive experiences. How the room looks and behaves is entirely dependent on what’s sitting on the content servers. You can appear to be outside, or in an art gallery, or within anything imaginable. It’s extraordinary.