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Why is Projection so hard?


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Hi all, this partly a request for help, and chance to vent about a subject that seems to be easy to the man on the street (or me before I was forced into getting it working) but in experience is a minefield of complexity, things that don't work as advertised and differing standards.

All I need is a laptop in a control booth, with an hdmi cable running to a TV screen in the auditorium, with the video controls on the laptop, and the output video to play to the TV, with a black screen on the TV when it is not playing. Simple eh?

Issues I've had:

Choice of software to play the video, tried SCS, Windows media player, settled on VLC.

Tried 2 projectors before hitting the credit card and buying a TV and mount. Projector issues - not bright enough, vga can't run the distance, projector lamps availability - loss of remote makes projector unusable (!), etc, etc. Two more items to the landfill.

After much googling, I selected VLC as there is a blog explaining how to set up VLC to have the controls on the laptop, and the output on the TV. Great!

Only it doesnt' work! Select screen 2, extend desktop, switch off all sleep functions (but it still goes to sleep - !!), and video still plays on the laptop.

Found a comment from someone else about this, suggesting to make the TV the main screen and success! Only have to drag all the icons from the TV to the laptop, (tricky to grab a window or click a dialog when the TV is 15 metres away). And this worked great. For the opening night.

In the second night - all tested ok before house open, during act one VLC crashed, and all the dialog boxes opened on the TV, too far away for the crew to see what to do, and so we had an awkward moment on stage with the cast reacting to video that no-one could see. Luckily the audio still worked.

Reset everything at the interval, all working fine. Tonight's performance is still out there in a game of chance.

So what to do? Am I missing something here? Why doesn't VLC work as advertised? Is there an alternative program that just works as required - controls on the laptop, laptop as main screen, TV as the source of video? Shirley I'm missing something here, as everyone else doesn't seem to have this issue.

Awaiting everyones' thoughts or suggestions.

Thanks! Ian


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You want proper playout software, not VLC. VLC can just about be made to bodge it, but it's never ideal. QLab is the standard, until you get to big toys like Disguise/Hippo/Ai and all the others. You'll need a mac for QLab though.

I'd always keep my control screen as the main screen. If you need to stay with Windows then ProPresenter is a fully featured setup, ScreenMonkey is good at the cheap end. For really simple stuff even just using powerpoint works. 

Slide 1 - black
Slide 2 - video (set to autostart rather than click to start)
Slide 3 - black

Projectors can work very well, but cheap/old projectors are solely a means to provide frustration and waste money. Network control rather than IR remote is fairly standard, or some IR remotes can be extended using minijack cables - adapt this to XLR and you're away.

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Thanks - I used to use screenmonkey successfully when I was in Hong Kong, but downloading a few days ago - I just can't get it to work now.

When I load a video on a tile - and try to play it - I get a 'exception thrown by invocation' error - and it won't play. The Live Monitor on the laptop also will not work. 

Tried looking at the support and forums - no response from a FB message. Gave up on it after a few hours trying to get it to work.

I've looked at ProPresenter. (I don't have a Mac) - but it's high cost will sadly preclude this choice.

Thanks for the suggestions.

Edited by Ian_P
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This is looking like it could be an issue with the laptop, rather than the TV/cable/playback software. The fact you've had two different players crash reinforces the idea it could be the laptop.

I'd suggest trying a different laptop...

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Hi - sorry - I was not clear, screenmonkey won't run on my home laptop under testing, so it never made it to the theatre laptop. VLC worked great on the theatre laptop for a while - but crashed during the performance and as the crew couldn't see the dialog boxes - we're not clear what the issue is. 

Screenmonkey not working on the home laptop and VLC crashing on the theatre laptop are not pointing to a hardware issue.

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There is a lot to unpack in your post.

Video is definitely an area where the golden triangle comes into play - Cheap, Reliable/Quality, Quick... if you imagine 1 at each corner of the triangle, and your solution is at a point inside that triangle.. the closer you get to one, the further you are from the other two.

IF you install good quality cable (for video, shielded Cat6A), use a decent brand extender, use a decent laptop and decent software, with a professional panel you can achieve an extremely reliable, repeatable system that you don't need to futz with.

Cheap gear, free software etc can bring the price down, but it is usually a tradeoff for a lot of human-hours of fiddling, tweaking and finessing to get it reliable and potentially significantly reduce reliability. Free software typically comes with minimal (or community only) support and minimal testing outside of certain use cases etc

Edited by mac.calder
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I recently had to reboot the neurons which know about PowerPoint. I think it's been 15 years since I had to give a presentation! Anyway, after much struggling with crashes and unpredictable behaviour I couldn't believe the difference made by adding an extra memory card to my laptop to bring it to its maximum.

I realise this is a totally unsophisticated, layman's suggestion, worthy of the "have you tried turning it off and back on again" school of tech support, but it would be worth making sure your computer is as good as it can be before chasing other, more obscure issues.

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Video support (in terms for formats which will play reliably) is much better in PowerPoint 2019 and subsequent Office 365 versions than anything previous. I agree that PowerPoint is a solid way of doing linear "change when I tell you" content (certainly better for the job than VLC and less trouble than OBS). Credit is due to Microsoft that I've not had issues with it crashing either (sometimes stutter and lags, but no outright crash / error dialogue).

In my experience 2019-onwards PowerPoint will play H264 video / AAC audio in an MP4 container fine (which is the de facto compatible standard on the web at the moment). If you need to use an older version then my "compatibility" conversion (for PowerPoint 2010 onwards) was XviD (MPEG-4) video and MP3 audio in an AVI container. At the time I found that whilst PowerPoint would scale video, it did so on the CPU not the GPU, which was very CPU intensive. As a result playback was more reliable if I scaled videos to the native resolution of the projector output (or the usable part if the aspect ratio didn't fit) when converting, even if that meant upscaling the picture when re-encoding.

As well as setting the video slide to auto start in PowerPoint, tick the "play back in full screen" box (rather than dragging the video to fill the slide). Make sure the slide show background (for all slides) is set to black (in View > Slide Master). Needless to say, use Slide Show settings to get Presenter View on your laptop and the presentation on the external TV at the correct resolution. Once PowerPoint is in a presentation Microsoft are fairly good at turning off screen blanking etc. (but you should so in the Windows settings anyway). In a similar vein I would set a black desktop background so the extended desktop shows black with no programs running, just in case ...

Be aware that if something steals focus from PowerPoint it will instantly stop video playback - so don't be tempted to fiddle on the Laptop monitor whilst it is running! This means you have to get the audio etc. set right before you start.

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Thanks all - I knew there would be some solid ideas and suggestions to solve this. We carried on with VLC for the final performance on Saturday, as it worked reliably on all tests. 

However, I have taken your suggestions on board, I'll be bringing the theatre laptop back home to load Office on, and then prepare powerpoint as the method for the next show that needs it.

Thanks again.


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I use vMix for all my projection stuff. It handles a variety of inputs - videos, live cameras, PowerPoint, images, audio, anything you can think off really.

It can output to multiple displays, graphics card depending, so you can have different things outputting on different displays.

Controll can be from the pc or Web interface, I tend so setup all the shortcuts I need on a streamdeck for handy controll

Also does live streaming similar to OBS when required.

Very reliable and great support.

(I do not work for vmix or any reseller!)

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  • 1 month later...

I work in a college with A-Level drama and dance students. I have been using two old MacBook Pros, each with 8GB RAM (just successfully Capital bid for £4K for a new one!): 

For exam shows drama teachers play back the projections in Powerpoint (including slides with videos with sound) from one MBP. Mini Dp-to HDMI wireless link to Dell 7760 projector on grid. I agree with Richardash 1981 re: Powerpoint for simple linear projection shows. Set up as he describes it just works. 

I do lights (hitting Go button on ETC Ion) with the left hand and sound from Qlab on the other MBP with the right. 

I know all three could be combined in Qlab, but the way things come together here, with amateur performers / scripwriters and cue changes right up to performance time, this is the best system for smaller, exam, shows. When we do the annual major production we use Qlab for video instead because of all the additional functions. 

Never had a crash in 20 years. 

Reading technician-v2's comment I might look at vMix next...

Edited by the rectifier
Other member's name I try to insert keeps getting autocorrected to technician-v2, including here. .
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