Organizing your cinema for remote support

October 25, 2018
  • Insights
Written by Tom Bert, Senior Product Manager, Barco
Remote monitoring and remote support are not new things in cinema. From telephone-based helpdesks to network monitoring and big data analysis: very basic and very advanced examples can be found in the field. With a technology renovation wave at hand, we look deeper into how a cinema can organize and optimize itself for even better remote support. What happens if you design the products and their environment from scratch for such use?

In our previous article on “Organizing your cinema for the unattended booth”,  we focused on the operational aspects: technical interventions that are part of day-to-day operations, or at least predictable (e.g. maintenance tasks).
 
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Here we will zoom in on the unpredictable things; things that you want to avoid since they involve troubleshooting and repairing equipment (“service” or “support”). The “remote” aspect remains critical: once the cinema has been designed for unmanned projection; an exhibitor will only fully benefit when also the service and support access are designed to be unmanned. For this kind of troubleshooting, remote connectivity is the standard way of working today: accessing the system from outside the booth, allows fixing things that are in scope of the software functionality.
 
The existing tools are typically centered around (and built for) the person doing the remote fix; in most cases a service technician in a network operations center (NOC). It’s common that this technician works together with other stakeholders to fully resolve the issue. These other stakeholders are typically present on site, complementing the remote technician with eyes, ears, and hands in the field. You understand that, if you rely on someone standing next to the projector, the ambitions of being remote or unmanned is not fulfilled.

In this article we discuss the different roles involved today and see how we can boost the efficiency and effectivity of remote support for all of them.
 
Theater manager

The theater manager oversees the daily operation of the cinema, in the broadest sense. He or she must deal with staffing, planning, stocking… of the site. From their viewpoint, the whole aspect of (helping in) servicing technical equipment is something they want to stay away from as they already have plenty of things on their plate. Given this broad scope of tasks, the theater manager is also not trained in the deep technical details of the equipment in the cinema. If you look at opportunities for product features and behavior for this target group, the info should be sent out intuitively and actionably:

•    Warnings and notifications aimed at the theater manager should not be too detailed, but very interpretable. Don’t say: “Warning #5364: temp too high on AIS” but leave out the clutter and present it in an easy-to-interpret format: “The temperature flowing into the system is 40° whereas it should normally be 30°.”

•    The info you send to the theater manager should be available anywhere, anytime: whether they are driving to the cinema in the morning, refilling the popcorn machine in the basement or sitting at their desk; the notifications should reach them in a transparent way. This means: make sure the equipment can send out data without dependencies on the network/connectivity infrastructure towards the person(s) that consumes it. Leveraging existing standards is always a good thing to enable that. But also make sure that the data is presented consistently across the different end nodes on which it is consumed: a user reading on a 5” smart phone should not interpret them differently than one using a 30” desktop monitor.

•    The messages and warnings sent out to the theater manager should be actionable for them. On the one hand, this means: if it’s not actionable, don’t send it. Smart systems are built to allow the technical users to configure which notifications are sent, or not, to untrained field staff. On the other hand, making it actionable means: embed what the theater manager could/should do to resolve the issue in the message itself. In the example above, don’t stick to “The temperate flowing into the system is 40° whereas normally it should be 30°”, but add “check visually that no object is blocking the air inlets” — with pictures and/or drawings of where to find these air inlets — and “check that the temperature in your booth is less than 35°C and whether your HVAC system is active.”


Theater technician

This is “the chef in the kitchen” from our previous article . They are the in-house experts on how the equipment works, how it’s configured and how it’s optimally operated. They have received basic or in-depth training on how to troubleshoot the devices in their cinema and are responsible to make sure that they are ready to deliver the show in mint condition. The whole aspect of providing support during operational (evening) hours is often not their priority, so here again there are opportunities to raise the bar from current practice. The key takeaways for the theater manager above are, of course, also valid for the technician: readable and actionable data, available from anywhere. Some more specific improvements are listed below:

•    Access to an easy-to-interpret exhaustive overview of the system status and history: state-of-the-art cinema equipment typically consists of different modules working in a certain architecture, other and different systems, and users who are interacting with the equipment. For the theater technician doing remote support, it is important to have an at-a-glance overview of: what’s connected to what? Who did what? Who is doing what? What are the consequences of those actions? What caused the behavior? Typical control and configuration tools should provide this per device, model, or brand. Monitoring tools should provide the overview across devices, models, and brands: that starts with the equipment exposing the required info to a higher level of abstraction.

•    Transparent remote access: for the technician, it shouldn’t matter if they’re standing next to the device to operate it or working from home. The same features, interactivity, and visibility should be presented to them. This means for example that a classic setup with hardware buttons, blinking lights on the device and rotating knobs should be replaced (or at least duplicated) by a software-based web user interface.
 
Service partner or in-house technician
 
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These stakeholders have a different profile and scope than the theater technician because they typically oversee more than one theater, and they usually do this from an external location. If they’re a member of a service partner organization, they are not an employee of the exhibitor that operates the equipment. In-house this is a colleague of the theater manager and theater technician, but typically working out of the corporate headquarters. Their scope of work (unlike the theater technician) is more focused on supporting and troubleshooting equipment; not on the day-to-day preparation and operation. Today, remote service by this user profile is mature and widely deployed in the form of NOC’s. However, we believe there are ways to improve:
 
•    Give this user virtual eyes and ears in the field. Remote connectivity is one thing, and — as with the theater technician — it should not be different than working remotely. But since this user works across sites, serving many different theaters, they must be able to relate to their local situation. It should be straightforward to connect a local camera-and-microphone system to be the eyes and ears in the auditorium. This helps in accurately evaluating the on-screen symptom when doing a root cause analysis, and it also helps validating the effectiveness of a remote fix. And to take the local user out of the mix, it should be possible for the remote service tech to transparently mimic the local user: what user interface do they actually see? What and where on the equipment did they press exactly? What was the situation for them?

•    The equipment should always be accessible for the remote user: a 24/7 organized NOC does not run efficiently when devices are powered down overnight in their local time zone. Coming from analog days, On/Off was a pretty binary thing. With the adoption of more network-based tools and interfaces, having very low power states where the system is accessible but consumes negligible power, has become the new norm — and is finding its way into legislation. This means that true 24/7 accessibility and hence true 24/7 remote support should no longer come at a cost of power consumption or wear-and-tear on the equipment.

Conclusion

The first wave or digitization in cinema was a very successful endeavor. We can, and should, congratulate ourselves for the pace and efficiency with which the whole market was migrated. However, with the second wave  approaching, the full potential of going digital is still to be met. In this article we discussed how to close that gap in the domain of remote service and support for cinema equipment. For all users in the ecosystem — from somewhat technical to top-notch expert — there are improvements possible.

As an exhibitor looking into technical renewal ask yourself: how is my remote support organized today? What works well? What doesn’t meet the expectation?

Don’t hesitate to go out and talk to your equipment suppliers and integration partners about what they have planned and how they can help you in this domain.

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