Friday, September 29, 2023

Mad Systems: The Mad Magic

Mad Systems takes AV++® to global markets

by Michael Oliver

“They want and expect magic,” says Maris Ensing, founder of Mad Systems Inc., an AV and interactives designer and integrator based in Southern California, about to celebrate its 25th anniversary. He was referring to customers’ reactions to such technological breakthroughs as facial and license plate recognition, touchless screen technology, and near-instantaneous personalized media delivery, along with simpler tech like RFID… and more. But there is an irony associated with this “magic” – it is, and should be, invisible to the guest. The breakthroughs that Mad Systems has helped to foster over its quarter-century in business are a quiet revolution of technical magic.

A lobby videowall in direct sunlight? No problem

A recent project at the Missouri Botanical Garden (St. Louis) illustrates this point. Design firm PGAV Destinations was tasked with creating a videowall for the lobby of the Jack C. Taylor Visitor Center, which opened this year as the new, primary gateway for the Garden’s more than one million annual visitors. To help fulfill the function of the space as conceived by architect Ayers Saint Gross to “provide immersive moments of arriving, admiring, exploring and learning,” and to operate at its best efficiency, the 16’ x 9’ videowall (189”W x 6”D x 106”H to be exact) needed to hold up to intense direct sunlight, but to have the longest possible working life by never running brighter than necessary.

PGAV Vice President Diane Lochner says, “In the industry we have a lot of great partners and many in the audiovisual world – one of whom is Mad Systems. We brought them on knowing they had a real understanding of the hardware problems we faced and the knowledge to help us resolve those problems successfully.”

“The client had a project that required a large video display for an indoor location with very high levels of daylight and, during part of the day, direct sunlight onto the display itself,” says Ensing. “We worked with PGAV Destinations to create a solution that would meet all of the design parameters, which meant that we had to create a high-brightness, relatively tight pitch videowall solution with minimal depth to meet esthetic and architectural needs. We also had to create custom software to allow for the level of functionality required, including some relatively complex custom scheduling requirements. We partnered with Nanolumens and worked with them to provide the client with a 1.25mm pitch, 3,000 nit max LED videowall solution.”

During the planning stages, at PGAV’s downtown St. Louis studio and headquarters, their state-of-the-art pre-visualization system, the Hive, came in handy for assessing the three potential solutions: an LCD screen; front- or rear-projection screen; or the LED display that was decided upon. “Maris did a really nice job walking the client through all the considerations for those three options,” says Lochner, “which eventually helped us to see the best solution to this complex technical problem.”

This milestone technical solution speaks for itself every time the screen is bathed in the sunlight that pours through the atrium and 20-foot windows of the Visitor Center, with no sacrifice of screen brightness or clarity. It signals many possibilities for application in all types of settings, but especially where bright, natural light is part of the environment. “This videowall is the brightest screen with that pixel pitch in the country,” states Ensing.

Another element of the project was ensuring that the screen’s lifespan was maximized while ensuring consistent visual impact. “The life of an LED videowall is related to its operating temperature as one of the most important parameters, which means that you do not want to run the videowall at maximum brightness when there is no need to do so,” says Ensing. “PGAV and Mad did sunlight studies and renderings to make sure that we fully understood when sunlight would hit the wall during different times of the day, from which direction the brightest patches of light would come, and how they would appear and disappear from the wall. These studies then helped us to design a light sensing set-up that allows us to dynamically change the brightness of the wall depending on the actual light in the space, and make sure that we get to maximum brightness only when daylight is directly hitting the wall. This approach will optimize equipment life and ROI for the client by running the wall to the exact minimum brightness required for each second of its operating life.”

PGAV also worked closely with the Garden to produce the script and handle the overall media production, including a 12-minute, orientation film narrated by St. Louis native Jon Hamm (Mad Men, Top Gun: Maverick), while Mad Systems provided the media delivery in the form of their QuickSilver® AV system. “I’d known Maris and Mad Systems for many years, so it was great to finally get the chance to work together and see their genius at work,” says Tony Miceli, Director of Media Production at PGAV Destinations. “The client’s directive to us was ‘Bring the Wow!’ and I believe we achieved that. The lobby experience media we created doesn’t get washed out when in direct sunlight, and always maintains an ideal brightness, making our content always look perfect. I’m also extremely impressed with QuickSilver after seeing it firsthand and in action. I really believe it represents the future of AV and control for many projects.”

Building on 25 years of innovation

Mad Systems is celebrating 25 years of success. But they’re not spending a lot of time donning party hats or making self- congratulatory speeches. Now it’s time to grow – time to bring their innovation to more projects and places. Mad Systems has begun a significant market expansion to bring their products and services into the attractions space and to grow globally, particularly in Europe, the Middle East and Asia Pacific.

A new, high-profile project is Mattel Adventure Park, opening in 2023 in Glendale, Arizona. Epic Resort Destinations, developer of Mattel Adventure Park, is embarking on a journey to create an immersive theme park experience like no other. “Our vision was to curate a team of leaders across the industry that would enable Mattel Adventure Park to elevate the overall guest experience through a variety of creative technological advances. In partnership with Mad Systems, we have collaborated to bring innovative audiovisual and interactive technology that will delight guests of all ages,” says Mark Cornell, President, Epic Resort Destinations.

Mad Systems played a key role in developing the Crayola IDEAworks traveling exhibit that opened in 2021 at The Franklin Institute. Photo courtesy of Immerse Agency and The Franklin Institute

Other noteworthy projects include the Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Honor and Museum at Acrisure Stadium, opening later this year (a PGAV design project), the Crayola IDEAworks traveling exhibit that opened in 2021 at The Franklin Institute – and of course the videowall at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Helping spur the company’s growth is an expanded team of industry veterans that includes business development specialists Toni Losier and Paul Kent, and project manager/museum expert Darryl Baggley, with the continued leadership of Ensing and Mad Systems President and CEO Tricia Rodriguez. (Look for this team at IAAPA Expo 2022 in Orlando.)

Over the years, the company has matured and evolved and made significant (and disruptive) contributions to the development of AV systems. Among their most significant milestones is AV++®, Mad’s signature, “21st-century AV systems tool kit.” It includes the QuickSilver AV system; advanced QuickSilver tools; recognition-based media delivery; and recognition-based customer service options.

They’ve built an impressive portfolio of projects and community of clients and partners, including top design firms such as PGAV and Ralph Appelbaum Associates. The majority of their work thus far has been in museums, science centers, and corporations, mostly in North America. The distinguished list includes The Franklin Institute, Griffith Observatory, the National Air and Space Museum, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, the Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago), ESPN DC-2 SportsCenter Studio and the California Department of Water Resources, among many others.

Although the company is building out its California space somewhat to accommodate this growth, they are accomplishing the expansion without significantly increasing the physical footprint. Many members of the team are remote, another example of innovative management and company culture.

Mad Systems is expanding into new markets including sports-themed venues. A noteworthy new project is the Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Honor and Museum at Acrisure Stadium, opening later this year (a PGAV design project). Photo courtesy of PGAV Destinations

“It is an inspiration to collaborate with a company that thinks innovatively and who will eagerly set out to explore imaginative solutions that exist outside-the-box,” says Chris Miceli, a principal at Ralph Appelbaum Associates [no relation to Tony Miceli at PGAV]. “That is Mad Systems. The ingenious approach to media integration they pioneered, called QuickSilver, will undoubtedly expand the spectrum of possibilities for how designers conceive media integrated environments.”

Losier and Kent join the team
Toni Losier Business Development Specialist

Toni Losier joined Mad Systems in 2020, as Business Development Specialist. She is a familiar face in the themed entertainment industry with more than 20 years’ experience in AV. “Toni is based in Orlando, which keeps Mad Systems’ presence strong within the surging central Florida theme park industry,” says Rodriguez. “Her refined skillset has brought in some of Mad’s exciting recent projects and has helped expand our reach into new markets.”

Losier was well acquainted with the company’s work and reputation, so that when the opportunity came to join Mad, she did not hesitate. “I also relished the idea of working in a smaller company, where my skills in relationship building could be brought to bear more fully,” she says. Losier sees opportunity in many directions, including sports: “Mad Systems’ innovative and disruptive technology can enhance the customer experience at sports halls of fame, many of which are attached to major sports stadiums.”

Paul Kent Vice President of Global Business Development

Paul Kent joined Mad Systems this year as Vice President of Global Business Development, and for him, it’s partly about an attitude: “The freedom and the anything-is-possible mentality are what I find so refreshing, as well as the not being stuck in the more traditional ways of producing AV,” he says. “It’s not all about cables and wires. It’s about the end content and the ease of delivering it. So, for QuickSilver, and the amount of bespoke engineering the company can do, there are a lot of opportunities across Europe, and the anything-is-possible approach is a market differentiator.”

Kent will help spearhead growth in the EMEA and Asia Pacific markets. “We will use Mad’s successes in North America and the great work that’s been done there to lead to more growth in new regions,” he says. Based in the UK and a longtime colleague of Losier, Kent is a well-known industry figure with decades of experience and an active role in the Themed Entertainment Association and Experience UK.

“Paul has seen our new technologies at work and fully understands the impact that this will have on the future of AV,” says Rodriguez. “We are very excited about adding him to our team.”

“I’ve thought of my role as being a technical interpreter. I’m not a detail engineer, but I understand what’s going on with the tech and how to relate that to what clients are asking for,” says Kent. Referring to QuickSilver and its associated technologies, e.g., recognition systems, he foresees that “just arriving in the marketplace will be a disruptor, moving easily from North America into other parts of the world. Because we can monitor the technology from anywhere, we can work remotely and monitor, and ship a new part easily, pre-configured, so it’s just plug and play.”

In the Middle East markets, Kent observed that “the new modern museums and interactive displays are more open to the technology. Because they are newly built museums, the new tech can be built into their architecture. In Europe, the wireless nature of QuickSilver immediately lends itself to existing and historical buildings, as QuickSilver’s infrastructure needs are minimal.”

Ultimately, Kent simply sees opportunity. “The markets are all promising markets. There are a lot of museums and galleries with temporary exhibitions and flexible exhibitions that will find this technology truly useful. Grid-based or solar, our systems allow clients to put technologies where they couldn’t before. At historic sites where you can’t put in new infrastructure, we can help them interpret more of the space. All you need is a power source.”

Mad adds Baggley, and new engineers
Darryl Baggley Project Manager

Darryl Baggley joined Mad Systems this year as Projects Manager and will remain based in the Toronto area. He brings a substantial background in museums and exhibit design. “Darryl adds significant experience to the team in a couple of different fields, specifically when it comes to fabrication,” says Rodriguez. “That connection to fabrication companies will help us to streamline not only our interface when it comes to traditional technology, but also to optimize QSEQ®, the QuickSilver Equalizer program that was developed specifically to make installations more efficient, cost-effective, and profitable for fabricators. A Canadian presence also helps us provide a higher level of support and service outside the USA.”

For Baggley, who was familiar with the company via numerous past projects, joining Mad Systems “was a no-brainer. When the opportunity arose, I took it.” Beyond the attraction of technical expertise and numerous innovations, he observes, “Mad Systems consistently delivers on the promise of the quality of the project and the commitment to the relationship with its clients.”

Relationships is a key term to Baggley. “Maris and I have many mutual relationships in the industry. It’s a small industry, really, and although my main role is as Projects Manager, I will also help contribute to business development.”

Baggley notes that the operative term when it comes to Mad Systems is “growth” – inevitable growth. “With the development of AV++, and in particular QuickSilver and what that brings to the market, the growth is inevitable, and it will come exponentially.”

Mad Systems has also expanded its engineering team. “Our workload has increased significantly, and is still increasing, both in the area of traditional AV and when looking at our new technologies,” says Ensing. “We will continue to grow our team accordingly.”

The magic of experiences

This article began by discussing the “quiet revolution” – that man-behind-the-curtain trope and the irony that remarkable innovations quickly become the norm: invisible, and invisibly raising the bar of expectation. From Maris Ensing’s perspective, the end user taking these accomplishments for granted is, in fact, the goal. “As with all magic, there is not usually a need for those who experience it to understand how we got there,” he says. “Whenever we talk about what we do, most of those we talk with have no idea that companies like Mad Systems even exist, and that is mostly how it should be. We exist to create experiences that create memories.”

The videowall at the Missouri Botanical Garden is situated in a bright, light-filled atrium, yet successfully handles the direct sunlight with ease. Photo courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden

Ensing continues, “I had a very interesting conversation with someone a while ago where he asked if we remembered what we got for Christmas last year, or the year before – and when we had to scratch our heads, he then asked if we remembered any experiences we’d enjoyed over the last year. Just think about it. This immediately shows just how important the magic that we create truly is. You probably won’t remember that last Christmas present, but you’ll most certainly remember that really cool experience, where it was, what was special, and who you were with. People want the magic of experiences, as that is what creates long-term memories and bonds between people.”

Perhaps Ensing is simply channeling John Keats, expressing in a very different language that “heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.” • • •

Recognition Technology

Another major innovation developed by Mad Systems is its patented recognition technology – facial recognition perhaps being the most well- known. [See “Leveraging the magic,” InPark issue #89.] This technology works hand-in-hand with QuickSilver® (and other systems) to provide the client and the customer a seamless media delivery experience. The mantra here is that “one size does not fit all.” The technology allows operators to better serve guests with a focus on personalized media delivery.

Facial recognition in this area may be described as a one-way form of vector encryption, designed to protect the user’s privacy while helping operators reach wider audiences with their messaging. A museum patron, for example, who has preregistered online for their visit may include in that process a photo of themselves and information about their language needs, special interests and any disability, all of which are incorporated into an encrypted vector diagram.

It’s also a rapid delivery system. One of the issues with third-party recognition systems is the lag between seeing a person and having their media running; existing systems may have lag times from 5-15 seconds or more which is unacceptable in visitor attraction markets. Mad reports that its recognition technology has reduced lag time to an average of half a second, and that is the time from when the system’s cameras “see” the visitor to the time when their personalized media or interactive is onscreen.


QuickSilver®, Mad Systems’ IT-based AV ++® technology represents a leap forward in AV systems builds. It may be best understood by first considering what it is not: it is not an AV system that requires control rooms, racks, conduit or cable, cable terminations, signal extenders, or HVAC systems to keep it all cool. [See “Mad Systems: Systems simplified” by Maris Ensing, the IPM Guide to AV, February 2020] QuickSilver is described by its makers as “a complete AV ecosystem,” an IT equipment-based AV system equipped with “a revolutionary set of elements that includes media servers, interactive servers, I/O devices, RFID/ Barcode/NFC/QR code options, immersive video and audio solutions, ADA options, touchless interfaces, and user interface options based on non-proprietary hardware, which means that spares will be available for a long time into the future.” The new toolkit that comes with QuickSilver allows for new technologies to turn off equipment when there are no visitors in any given area, automated remote system checking and monitoring, simple technician- level access to control and monitor individual elements, and soon even semi-automated system design.

Additionally, its plug-and-play structure and the method used for media delivery mean that the system and its content are easily and infinitely upgradeable. QuickSilver can be implemented as a wired or wireless system. Compared to the standard AV system, with its racks and cooling rooms, QuickSilver is touted as a space- and power- saver, and given its ability to use non-proprietary hardware, a money-saver as well. (Note: Mad Systems has initiated a program they call QSEQ® [QuickSilver Equalizer], an implementation method that allows other firms to install pre-configured AV systems using QuickSilver tools. Mad Systems will pre-configure and pre-program the system, and then verify the configuration, perform final programming and training once installed.)

A light sensing set-up dynamically changes the brightness of the new videowall depending on the actual light in the space and on the videowall itself at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Photo by Tony Miceli
Michael Oliver
Michael Oliver
Contributing writer Michael Oliver comes to us by way of academia, as a retired literature and philosophy professor whose teaching career lasted some 28 years. Prior to the classroom, his early training and work were in engineering, which took him from nuclear missile silos in North Dakota to the Rhine River, where he worked as a ship’s engineer. Michael brings his dual background and range of experience to write about technology and other subjects for InPark.

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