Hacker Heroism: Building Your Way Out of AV Hell

Many years ago, in a rainy concrete jungle on the west coast of Australia, I worked for a medium-sized enterprise doing a variety of office-based tasks. Somehow, I found myself caught up in planning a product launch event outside the official remit of my position. We got through it, but not before the audiovisual (AV) setup of the event turned into one giant hack.

The initial planning stages went remarkably smoothly until less than a month out from the big day when three weeks of frantic changes and revisions to the presentation rained down. These were some of the hardest days of my working life to date, as it seemed that we would lock in a new arrangement, only to tear it up days later as some new vital criteria came to light, throwing everything back into disarray.

Things came to a head on the night before the event. Working with two different AV teams we had planned for four projection screens and five flat screen televisions spread throughout the venue and controlled from the central AV desk. But somewhere in all those changes the televisions were set up to all display a still image, or nothing at all. I needed to show different videos on each and have the ability to black them all out.

It was at this point I realized we were screwed. The production team simply didn’t have the hardware to drive another five screens, but they could source it — for the sum of $5000. Management were furious, and were under the impression, like myself that this was what we had asked and paid for already. I was at an impasse, and beginning to wonder if I’d have a job come Monday. I wandered off to a corner to curse, and more importantly, think. After all, I’m a hacker — I can get through this.

That Sinking Feeling of Defeat

Generally, there’s a few options available in any crisis. One would have been to run around screaming but I suspected that wasn’t going to net me a result. At this point, my brain was running a mile a minute, alternately seething with frustration and trying to piece together solutions. The definition of the problem was simple. I had five televisions, spread across a room. I needed to be able to trigger video with accurate timing, and blank the screen as well, to meet the theatrical requirements of the big reveal on the night. The show was approximately 23 hours away, and I had a budget of maybe a few hundred dollars to get things running.

My first thought was to do it all manually. Hook a laptop up to each screen, and have stagehands hiding behind the screens dressed all in black, triggering the videos at the right moment. I almost instantly discounted this solution, however. The layout of the room prevented effectively hiding the stagehands, and worse, I didn’t actually have any. I also doubted that I could train five people off the street to accurately trigger the videos at the right moment in the reveal sequence, even if I could find them in such a short time.

If Only There Were a Method of Connecting Multiple Computers Together

This then led me to realise that if I could instead remotely control the laptops myself, I might be able to pull things together. Cogs began to turn as I contemplated if this was actually possible. I’d need to dredge up five laptops capable of playing 1080p footage, get them all on a network, and find some way of remotely controlling them reliably to both start the videos and blank the screens.

To the untrained eye, they may be just a simple switch and router, but to me, they’re heroes.

With a glimmer of hope, I ran back to the office and started digging through piles of old IT gear. The first obstacle I wanted to tackle was the network. There was no WiFi at the event location so I’d have to build something from scratch. Thankfully, I found the old 24 port HP switch I was looking for and started lacing it up to a couple of the office computers. My hopes were temporarily dashed when everything failed to talk, until I realised the switch wasn’t giving out DHCP leases. Luck then saw fit to provide me with an old TP-Link home router and suddenly, with it plugged into the switch, lights were flickering and I was beginning to wonder if I could pull this off.

Next I had to find a way to run video on the remote machines as seamlessly as possible, and retain the possibility of blanking the screens as well. Once more, luck was in my favour. The company had purchased Dameware remote admin software, which is a slick and powerful tool for controlling other computers remotely. Combining this with VLC on the remote PC, and I could take control over the network, press the spacebar, and start a video playing. By making sure the first few frames and last frames were completely black, I could maximise VLC and ensure the screen was blank until it was time to trigger the video. There was a risk of the controls popping up at the bottom of the screen from time to time, but it was a minor irritation given how far I’d found myself up a certain effluent creek without a viable form of propulsion.

Every available laptop was pressed into service.

Hurdles still remained. Where would I source five laptops? The A/V company was again of little help, as their computers were all locked down with no way of installing the Dameware client for remote control. This being a major launch, however, gave me a small gift — the entire remote sales force was in town. Emails were sent, frantic phone calls were made, and every laptop available was requisitioned and pressed into service.

Give Me All the Cat5 You’ve Got!

The only thing left to figure out was the network. I could have run it all off the TP-Link wireless router, but given the time sensitive nature of the production, I wasn’t comfortable running on WiFi. It had to be wired if at all possible. With the clock now striking 10 PM, I gave instructions to some colleagues to raid the stores first thing in the morning for as many 25m Cat5 cables as they could, and put in calls to friends and family looking for more. As it neared 11, I retired to my bed for a few hours sleep, preparing for the uphill battle in the morning.

We had four of these rather awesome short-throw projectors. Very impressive from an optical standpoint.

I rose at 5:30 after an uneasy sleep. I threw everything I thought I could possibly need into the car and made my way to the site. The night’s rest had granted me one favour — I realised that the same system I was building to control the screens could also control the four projectors I’d been pretending didn’t exist. I just needed another four laptops. Easy, right?

As I showed up to work, the site was a haven of activity. Network cables began to land on my desk from stores across town and even good old Dad came by to drop off a laptop, some Cat5 and a bundle of assorted video cables. After all, it’s better to have it, and not need it, then need it, and not have it. All that was left to do was build the system, and pray it worked. I was apprehensive, it’s true — somewhere in the back of my mind, I wasn’t quite sure that any remote network software was really built to control 9 separate computers at once.

We began laying power and network cables and getting everything hooked together. It might sound trivial, but wiring up a big event like this is wildly different from having some friends over for a LAN party circa 2004. Attention has to be paid to make sure you’re not creating trip hazards everywhere, and the stakes are higher when your livelihood is involved. There were some minor scares over the length of some video cables, but by and large we persevered. The screens and projectors were mounted 2 meters up, so a couple of laptops ended up sitting on cardboard boxes on the end of a 1.5 meter VGA cable. We cleaned things up as best we could and at 2PM, we were ready to test.

I sat down at the AV desk with the production team, and began slowly logging into each remote machine. I arranged the nine windows across my screen, ensuring I had the correct video loaded on each one, arranging them so I could trigger each one in succession. The first rehearsal went well. I mixed up a couple of triggers, and everything was a second or two out, but nothing that would spoil the illusion. It was in no way perfect, but it was good enough.

I spent the following hours of the day seeing to a series of menial tasks, as well as making sure as many little details were as perfect as possible. I changed all the laptop power settings to make sure they’d never switch off or run a screensaver, and doubled down by checking everything was still on and ready to go every half hour.

The dilligence paid off. Zero hour came, the music played, and the curtain dropped — and five flatscreens and four projectors joined the dance. Each video triggered in sequence and each screen blanked out when its job was done. The audience applauded, the products were launched, and my career lived to see another day.

When the Plan Is Less than Perfect, Have Faith in the Hackers

All in all it was a highly difficult experience, and one which taught me a few good lessons. Absolute clarity in communication is important, and a wildly changing plan creates a lot of pain and will greatly increase the likelihood of mistakes being made. Fundamentally though, I left that night feeling a great deal of love for that HP switch that brought it all together, and every other piece of hardware and software that made this fix possible. Lacking just one of those key components would have made this fix impossible. It’s always handy to know just what’s lurking in the depths of the server room. You never know when it’ll save you.

Is an epic infrastructure save part of your own backstory? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

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