An Unparalleled Tech Pavilion: The State-of-the-Art Excentricité at College La Cité

This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Professional Sound

By Andrew King

College La Cité has long boasted a reputation as a hub of innovation and forward thinking, though with its recent unveiling of a new technical marvel in the middle of its main Ottawa campus, the acclaimed applied arts and technology institution may have propelled said reputation to an entirely new plateau.

Officially opened on Sept. 7, 2018, Excentricité is a one-of-a-kind educational facility – a $30 million, 34,000-sq.-ft. immersive technology and entrepreneurship pavilion designed to spur interdisciplinary learning, collaboration, entrepreneurship, and idea sharing in infinite capacities.

The central element of Excentricité, both literally and figuratively, is The Studio – a 4,000-sq.-ft. main space that can be reconfigured for a wide variety of applications, including fully immersive multimedia experiences thanks to its 360-degree projection capabilities and other state-of-the-art audiovisual technologies.

“Excentricité was born of an idea from our President and CEO, Lise Bourgeois, as a place where we could bring different disciplines and people and ideas together – technology and art, students and entrepreneurs – to generate creativity in one place that can then extend to other parts of the college and into the world,” says Suzanne Gibault, the executive director of La Cité’s Office of Ideation and Creativity.

Her colleague Yves Bourgeois, the college’s technical expert, took charge on the initial concept drawing of what would become The Studio based on input from the various stakeholders on how they envisioned the project coming together.

The idea, Gibault continues, was to make it a space unlike any other, which aligns with the college’s reputation for innovation, and that’s not just in terms of its physical makeup and facilities. It’s also the underlying idea of uniting people – students, faculty, entrepreneurs, and other partners from the external community – and fostering a culture of creativity and forward thinking.

To achieve that, she and her team work closely with Réjean Thibault, the VP of business development and student affairs, and support his community and business outreach efforts.

One partnership she cites as an example is the onsite media server from Montreal startup Immersive Design Studio. “The server is named Canvas,” Gibault explains. “It’s loaded with Unreal Engine, which gives us the potential to create things like never before – events and experiential learning with a gaming engine.”

Bourgeois, whose background is mainly in IT, is equally impressed with the technology. “The quality of the graphics and things we can do with it, it’s just awesome,” he enthuses. “We’re doing things I wouldn’t have imagined just a few years ago.”

“We’re preparing our students for jobs and opportunities that might not even exist yet,” Gibault adds. “It’s a very different approach to teaching, and we know it’s going to take the college in a new dimensional space.”

In fact, it has already started to do just that, and that’s in large part due to some of the audiovisual technologies occupying the space.

Lawrence St-Onge is a senior consultant with Engineering Harmonics, the reputable Toronto-rooted audiovisual consulting firm with offices in major centres across the country. He was regularly interfacing with different vendors in choosing the right AV components to facilitate all of the space’s desired functions, working in close collaboration with Yves Bourgeois and his team.

With Bourgeois’ background being primarily in IT, he and St-Onge travelled to AV-focused events like the NAB Show and InfoComm at the outset of the process to get better acquainted with some of the potential solutions for Excentricité. “We had lots of back-and-forth communication throughout the process,” St-Onge notes.

In addition to his work with Engineering Harmonics, St-Onge also operates LSO Consulting Inc., his own media technologies consulting firm. As such, he has taken on some significant projection-based projects, including the TIFF Bell Lightbox, arguably the epicentre of cinema in Canada, as well as a number of immersive and virtual reality applications, and thus brought a wealth of previous experience with these types of technologies to Excentricité – which he can now add to his list of credits.

He offers praise to Patrick Roy and his team at CBCI Telecom Ottawa, including Sales Engineer Gaetan Laniel and Project Manager Bianca Saumier, for their unwavering support and dedication throughout the process. CBCI Telecom was tasked with the AV systems integration while the project was underway and dove right in, offering plenty of input on the various system designs and the solutions that would best suit the intended applications. “They were a big help in providing the expertise we needed to get this done on time, with a lot of moving parts,” says St-Onge.

With offices across Canada, CBCI Telecom is a leader in the design and integration of unified communications and collaboration technology. The company’s Ottawa office, and Roy in particular, is a long-time partner of La Cité, having collaborated on many projects over the years.

The building itself is essentially a rotunda with plenty of natural light (when desired) thanks to massive windows wrapping much of its façade. It can host over 1,200 guests when used in its most basic configuration as an open concept meeting and gathering space; however, a series of retractable air walls can be deployed in various other configurations for a slew of different educational, social, and collaborative applications – presentations, concerts, galas, film screenings, masterclasses, but most significantly (and impressively), fully immersive multimedia experiences with its 360-degree projection set-up boasting a 252-ft. screen.

For these types of presentations, the air walls enclose the centre of The Studio in a square, leaving two semi-circular spaces surrounding that square open as lobbies or gathering spaces. What’s more, the main presentation space has retractable bleacher-style seating that can be deployed as desired.

Considering the seemingly limitless number of configurations and applications, Engineering Harmonics and, later, CBCI Telecom faced a significant challenge with designing the various audiovisual systems occupying The Studio.

In addition to a line array-based performance PA system, the space actually hosts two separate but equally elaborate and specialized audio systems with different intended uses, though components of those two systems can operate in tandem.

Technologies from d&b audiotechnik comprise both a straightforward mobile performance system based on its Y- and V-Series loudspeakers in addition to an elaborate immersive system of point source cabinets working with the company’s new Soundscape toolkit for fully enveloping sound object-oriented experiences.

The left-right performance system features main arrays of d&b Y-Series compact two-way passive cabinets – six Y8s atop a single Y12 at the bottom – and V-GSUB subwoofers. None of these components are permanently fixed, allowing for the entire package to be deployed virtually anywhere else on campus as needed.

Roy and Bourgeois had connected with d&b audiotechnik Canada’s Francois Corbin at a trade event when they were scouting potential solutions for the space. Having a good idea of what La Cité was looking to achieve with the pavilion, Corbin gave them a preview of d&b’s latest innovation: Soundscape.

Corbin was invited to the college to demo Soundscape and its capabilities, essentially pitching a partnership whereby La Cité would have the first installed Soundscape system for a 360-degree application in Canada and could be used as something of a showcase and training system for the company going forward.

Unlike the d&b performance system, much of the package of loudspeakers supporting the Soundscape experience is permanently installed in The Studio.

At the “front” of the immersive theatre are five d&b V10P point source cabinets flown as the “mains,” supported by an array of nine V-GSUBs beneath them. If the subs are in use with the performance system, they’d typically deploy eight – one two-high by two-wide stack per side or in a sub array configuration; for Soundscape applications, they’re aligned as an array of nine with a d&b E6 point source cabinet atop each.

Rounding out the Soundscape rig are 24 10S-D wide-dispersion loudspeakers – eight along the back and sides of the 360 theatre – plus a complement of five Y10Ps as a delay line to cover the upper level of the retractable seating when in use.

All of the individual loudspeakers are loaded into Soundscape as single outputs, with a DS10 Dante-to-AES bridge offering compatibility with the DS100.

The DS100 signal engine, a network-driven and Dante-enabled DSP platform, is at the core of Soundscape’s functionality. It enables the creation of a matrix as large as 64 x 64, with level and delay adjustments at every crosspoint in addition to EQ, gain, delay, and polarity processing.

The DS100 and En-Scene object-based signal management software are OSC-controllable, so Bourgeois and his team are using Figure 53’s QLab cue-based playback software to run Soundscape applications.

Drew Levy, an application support specialist from d&b’s New York office, travelled to Ottawa to assist CBCI Telecom and his Canadian colleagues with the implementation. Ultimately, the system enables La Cité to show – and create – fully immersive content, whereby the sound follows assigned objects with great detail as they move throughout the space.

The other system occupying The Studio is comprised of a series of Renkus-Heinz loudspeakers and was designed to offer consistent and seamless audio reinforcement throughout the majority of the space, regardless of its configuration. That was made possible through the company’s digitally-steerable column array technology, which enables detailed control of directivity for coverage precisely where it’s desired and, more importantly, none where it’s not.

Both Roy and St-Onge had enjoyed positive previous experiences with Renkus-Heinz products, specifically the company’s flagship Iconyx series. They were in touch with Bill Coons, the owner and principal of Renkus-Heinz’s exclusive Canadian distributor, Contact Distribution, to discuss a potential solution for The Studio and were introduced to the IC Live Series.

CBCI Telecom and Contact also arranged a demo with Bourgeois and some of his technicians in the spring of 2017 to give them an idea of how a system could perform in the space considering its unique makeup and intended applications – not to mention its many hard reflective surfaces.

Four fifth-generation Iconyx ICL-F-DUAL RD columns – one in each corner of the enclosed immersive theatre – are suspended about 9 ft. off of the floor behind the screen corners. An IC215S dual 15-in. self-powered subwoofer is positioned at the catwalk level above each one for low-end reinforcement. A pair of smaller Iconyx ICL-F-RD columns are suspended at the same height as the corner columns on the “side walls” between the front and back corners with an RH CA112 sub above each one at the catwalk level. An additional two ICL-F-RDs are suspended above the ICF-LDUAL RD columns in the rear corners for use when the retractable bleachers are in position.

These six “immersive column arrays” comprise the main reinforcement for the theatre in its 360-degree configuration. Because the speakers sit discreetly behind the wrap-around projection masking screen, strips of a custom perforated projection surface were designed for the four corners and two sides, and CBCI and St-Onge consulted with Renkus-Heinz engineers about the optimal EQ settings to compensate for the sonic obstruction.

A complement of six IC8-RDs, the fifth-generation of the original Iconyx offering, are deployed to cover the two semicircular outer lobby spaces when the air walls are in place. These feature eight identical 4-in. coaxial drivers with triple tweeter arrays on each driver for optimal beam steer ing consistency. Three are installed on pillars in the two areas for pre-function activities, or to be creatively incorporated with the show in the main room without the air walls in place.

The team was after a narrow low-frequency cabinet with a smaller footprint than a regular 12-in. woofer to accompany the IC8s on their pillars and benefitted from some very fortunate timing. Engineers at Renkus-Heinz had recently created a custom solution for a U.S.-based application based on their existing TX/TA82 two-way complex conic loudspeaker system, replacing its central horn with a third 8-in. low frequency driver. Subsequently, six TA82-RD-SP1030s sit just below the IC8s on the pillars.

St-Onge says it was clear very early on that having any and all audio components on a Dante network would be ideal. The “RD” designation in the Renkus-Heinz model numbers denotes that the speakers are loaded with Dante input modules, with the new class D SA Series amplifiers offering Dante functionality as an option.

The various components can operate together to fully cover the space, or in individual zones to complement the various room configurations. Enhancing their performance is the fact that the beams are specifically aimed and articulated to optimize coverage within the space.

A fresh-to-the-market Yamaha Rivage PM7 console anchors The Studio’s main audio systems, which St-Onge says was selected because it’s a Dante-based solution in addition to having all of the features and functionality they needed. A pair of Rio I/O units – a Rio 3224-D and 1608-D – accompanies the desk and enables the creation of elaborate matrixes for the immersive content.

The video is relayed by a series of Barco projectors – a single UDX-4K32, which would be the go-to for more typical, single-projector applications – plus 12 UDX-W22s to cover the rest of the 360-degree surface with seamless edge blending.

CBCI Telecom also worked closely with Joliette, QC-based manufacturer Strong MDI to customize a new generation of electric screens. The modular motorized screens were custom manufactured for this project in sizes ranging from 24 to 56 ft., all including additional safety features like redundant cabling and double brakes.

For general control over all of the AV systems occupying Excentricité, Bourgeois and CBCI Telecom are finishing the programming of a Creston system. Ultimately, the Creston solution will control everything from the projection screens to lighting features to the audio systems in The Studio as well as the distributed system through the rest of the building, based on QSC’s Q-Sys platform and predominantly comprised of in-ceiling speakers. The goal was to keep operation basic for the operators, considering there are so many AV components interacting in the space.

CBCI Telecom tapped Quebec City-based consultant Pierre-Paul Gignac to oversee the Dante functionality across the various systems, and he later became a permanent part of the team, assisting with the implementation and programming of the various systems.

One of the major challenges the team faced throughout the design that extends to Roy and his team at CBCI Telecom’s integration work was fitting the sheer number of technological components into the ceiling space above The Studio. In addition to the Soundscape system and projectors, there’s also a considerable complement of performance lighting fixtures, and all had to coexist without obscuring any others. That meant a lot of time spent in AutoCAD for CBCI Telecom, Engineering Harmonics, and MCLD.

“Excentricité is a truly incredible facility,” shares Roy. “The scope and sophistication of the various AV systems meant we had our work cut out for us, especially with the tight timeline, but it was a team effort between everyone. We worked very closely together adapting the design to ensure it met everybody’s needs and expectations and then bringing it all to life in time.”

While Excentricité celebrated its grand opening in early September, the college foundation’s annual Bal Vert et Blanc (Green and White Ball) on Oct. 20th offered its guests a more robust preview of The Studio’s unique capabilities.

Over 300 guests experienced the various audio systems as a flamenco guitarist moved around the room, with different audio mixes from different components for different sections of the space. Of course, a preview of some fully-immersive 360 content was on the agenda, and everyone involved – designers, integrators, and La Cité staff and administrators – was proud to showcase the results of their work. “The ‘wow factor’ when the immersive sound and video came on was great,” recalls Roy, “and a reminder of how special this facility is.”

Excentricité is a remarkably powerful teaching tool, though its capabilities extend to countless other applications. In addition to enhancing the institution’s various existing programs, it also offers new learning opportunities in itself, with potential to train students and outside visitors on the sophisticated technologies within it.

“This new creative space will … contribute to the economic and socio-cultural development of the entire community and to the promotion of Francophone talents ready to change tomorrow, here in the province and elsewhere on the planet,” said Lise Bourgeois, president and CEO of La Cité, to the gathered guests.

It’s a lofty goal, to be sure, but so was the conception, design, and realization of this one-of-a-kind pavilion, and suffice it to say, it more than makes the grade.

END

Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief of Professional Sound.