High End Systems: In Profile
Austin based high end systems is a key, global player in the entertainment lighting market and has recently launched a control desk that got the whole industry talking. Kelly Murray visited the company at its texas base to talk innovation, its relationship with barco and the response to the hog 4 six months on.
High End Systems’ Chief Inventor and co-founder, Richard Belliveu is a notable character. Long blonde hair poking out of a baseball cap and a t-shirt revealing several tattoos denotes a man who is still comfortable with and encouraging creativity after almost four decades in the business. The self-proclaimed ‘mad scientist’ kid naturally fell into music as a teenager and it was while working as a DJ that he got the bug for entertainment electronics before going on to design lighting and audio equipment.
High End Systems itself began life in the early ‘70s as Blackstone Audio Visual, a sound, lighting and video design and installation company. Back then, co-founder Belliveu designed and manufactured a line of pro audio sound systems, whereas his partner at that time - Lowell Fowler - specialised in multimedia slide projector systems used for entertainment. “In the early ‘80s we even used Barco’s entertainment projectors in some reference installations! But too often our quality reputation was threatened by the weak quality of the lighting products we integrated and hence we set out redesigning existing ones. I really felt like other install companies would benefit from our equipment in their own installs, but that they might be concerned about the purchase of that equipment from a competitive install company. So High End Systems was created as a way to distribute entertainment electronics worldwide,” he noted.
“High End’s first remote controlled lighting product was the Laser Chorus, a remote controlled laser scanner system that could be operated with 12 multi-coloured low powered lasers.” Laser Chorus was the first intelligent lighting product, followed by Colorpro, both pivotal in High End Systems being cemented into the industry. Colorpro used an additive dichroic combining system that allowed a red, blue and green light source to be combined to a single output. Colour deviation is highly perceivable to the human eye, especially when operating lights side by side. High End Systems has led change from metal gobo type lights to lithography (full colour glass gobos) in the mid ‘90s. Now High End Systems leads the way with patterns projected by light valve technology.
For design inspiration these days, Belliveu looks at fashion, automotive design and architecture. “I try to use those trends when designing new products. For example, the paint scheme we have on the Hog 4 took us almost a year to get the characteristics right. I have to keep in touch with current trends, and we appreciate innovative customers.” Flagship models today include the DL3 for digital lighting, the automated Intelespot and the new Hog 4, which by all accounts, they can’t build quick enough after receiving three fold the amount of orders expected after its launch.
The Hog 4 has both software and hardware features that haven’t been turned on yet, so in the next couple of years, the market will see the desk really grow and develop.
Lighting Designer, Oli Metcalfe, used the Hog 4 in its beta testing phase on Muse’s recent tour, The 2nd Law. He noted: “The Hog 4 is a bit larger than a Full Boar, and I think that suits it. There’s such a big acreage of touch screen space, but it’s still got that familiar layout and feel that everybody knows and loves. It has the playback with the shadow keys at the bottom, and that nice responsiveness as well as positive contact of those buttons, and at the same time there’s a really ergonomic programming area to the right, which is very important to me, as I work predominantly in the bottom right corner of the console. It was crucial that the syntax was retained; I think that’s going to be key for a lot of users. They’ll be able to jump straight on it, load their shows and off you go; that’s a big deal!”
THE NEW FLAGSHIP
The Hog 4 is High End Systems’ flagship product and the entire line was launched at LDI in October 2012. “At LDI, the response was excellent. As we had hoped, we are not only appealing to our existing user base, but also gaining new customers across all markets and early indications are that this is happening on a worldwide basis,” Director of Product Management, Chris Ferrante explained.
Hog 4 was followed by Full Boar 4, Road Hog 4 and the Nano Hog 4 plus there are two wings; Playback Wing 4 and Master Wing 4 as well as Hog 4PC. The idea behind the design of the Hog4 family is longevity. “From a user perspective, they don’t want to have to buy new hardware every year or even every other year and we have ensured this will not be the case.
“The products are intuitive, robust, flexible, fast, competitive and is essentially a whole family of products. Now we have a new platform that is stable and tested which operates at an order-of-magnitude faster in terms of programming or loading a show.
“We have always been very keen to keep our platforms as user friendly as possible, therefore while always improving designs and adding to them, the core elements remain unchanged. This means that a user who is fluent on the Wholehog III series can walk up to a Hog 4 console and immediately feel at home.
“It is already performing on touring shows such as Muse and Trans Siberian Orchestra, as well as having lit this year’s Brit Awards, among others,” he added.
THE BARCO EFFECT
A decade ago High End Systems recruited Bill Morris in the role of VP of Worldwide Marketing for HES. Morris’s background in the corporate computer world - Dell to be exact - certainly helped with the crossover, “From a technology stand point, it wasn’t that much of a stretch, but this industry seemed to be a lot more fun! I think we’ve always been a company that values fun. Entertainment technology is one of the most fun industries around. We want our employees to have fun coming to work every day knowing that can deliver - with pride - our products to the industry. It’s very important to us. I can tell you that having worked in a more corporate sector, having fun isn’t on a lot director’s minds!”
And the fun certainly seems to pay off as HES has an average employee tenure of 16 years. Perhaps it’s the fun, but company’s history of genuine innovation is a key attraction. “We want to continue to lead the industry that way,” said Morris. “We have more than 90 patents crossing the realms from control to automated and digital lighting and a lot of this innovation is seen as intriguing by the rest of the industry. The 575 Series F Spots have been in the industry for 15 years and they’re still being used today. We pushed the envelope with LED early on, not everything is a winner but we work under the philosophy that if you keep innovation going, you’ll get your share of winning products.”
Today, Morris is the lighting manufacturer’s CEO and has helped steer the company into the successful business it is today. “I ran sales and marketing and helped put the package together to sell High End Systems to Barco five years ago. I thought I was leaving at that point, but Barco asked me to stay and run their entertainment group for North America. Then they decided to roll HES out as a subsidiary of its own, to work with its own focus and management team. Two years ago I came back to run this company,” explained Morris.
“Barco and High End learnt a lot during that acquisition. There is certainly a lot of synergy between Barco’s video and projection business and a lot of overlap with the lighting and lighting control business at HES. There’s actually around a 40% client overlap,” Morris continued.
Rumours that have been circulating in the last couple of years include the notion that High End Systems is up for sale. A rumour, which seems to be just that. “It’s worked very well having the company run as a wholly owned subsidiary, we are a division of a public company and one thing you realise as part of a public company is that you’re always for sale. That said, Barco has not put HES on the market. Although there is a lot of crossover, High End now has a group of focused people to work on the lighting technologies and sales.”
Potentially, this rumour was something for industry gossips to discuss before the Hog 4 was launched. Yet the Hog is not doubt something Barco is very pleased about. Continued Morris: “We still get all the advantages of being in Barco’s worldwide organisation; we’re linked to a company which is number one in projection on a worldwide basis, number one in LED and video processing and technology, all on a worldwide basis. So as a division, we’ll still be able to talk about the future of the industry from a business stand point and keep learning from each other. Today, our controllers do much more with video than they ever did in the past because now we’ve been part of Barco those synergies continue to grow.”
When Barco bought High End Systems five years ago, the idea was that the client would have a one-stop shop for whatever they need; LED, data processing, projection. The difference today is that as a subsidiary, High End has its own specific, dedicated lighting specialist sales team and three parallel product developments going on at any one time; the Hog line of products, digital media servers and automated luminaries. Although the company is going to continue developing in all three areas, it’s the latest addition to the Hog family, the Hog 4, which has caught the lighting world’s attention.