Simon Austin

With broad experience in the performing arts industry, Simon Austin, the newest Senior ICT / AV Consultant, is an exciting addition to the Melbourne ICT team. Read below as he reflects on his career and what it means to give life to performing arts spaces.

What inspired you to join Umow Lai (a member of Integral Group)?
I have appreciated Umow Lai’s work over the years and recently worked with the team on the Ruyton Girls School project. It was one of the best project experiences – highly collaborative, innovative, and aimed at enabling the school and the architect’s vision. When my friend and colleague, Greg Long, suggested I join Umow Lai, I was excited to be part of that energy.

For 30 years, you have worked in the performing arts industry both on live productions and buildings and infrastructure. What do you find interesting about working on each?
In live performances, the work is very complex, and the time pressures are absolute, the curtain will go up. If everyone does their work well, there will be happy audiences, artists, and staff. Buildings and infrastructure are similar except the timescale for them  is years rather than days. Both are very satisfying work.

What has been the biggest technological advancement in the performing arts? How does that inform the design and build of performance spaces?
Starting in the 1980s, computerized audio-visual controls allowed creatives to realize more complex and entertaining production ideas at far less cost in almost any kind of space. We can now design spaces using these advanced controls, networks, and infrastructure to support a wider range of production approaches.

What are some technologies designed into theatrical spaces that an average theatergoer would not expect?
The unique bubble characteristics of theatres create a painstaking design process, routing the services around the open spaces. The most eye-opening, but rarely seen, system for theatergoers is Power Flying Systems – the stage machinery that makes scenery fly in and out effortlessly.

Are there any specific technologies or trends you see the industry or clients seeking?
Any technology that can save production costs while enabling more creativity and audience engagement is warmly welcomed. Full duplex wireless backstage intercom systems allow technical staff to stay in constant communication, enabling the show to run seamlessly. With smaller power loads and less costly power systems, LED performance lighting is quickly becoming popular with schools, houses of worship, and small companies who get more razzle-dazzle for their investment.

Is Artificial Intelligence (AI) becoming more prominent in performing arts buildings? How much can we automate?
AI already has a presence in larger performing arts buildings – for Building Management Systems (BMS) management, such as people counting. On a subroutine level, there is automation, for instance triggering a lighting sequence, but the human unpredictability inherent in performance means that humans generally must manually manage the systems. I love thinking about the possibilities of automation in our field, but it is hard to make broad predictions. I look forward to having this conversation with anyone interested.

Is mobile interaction technology likely to integrate well into performing arts spaces?
For many performance types, mobile devices are, understandably, still a big no-no (like the person using WhatsApp next to me at Harry Potter!)  However, at sporting events, everyone is watching the event on their phones, and that seems ok for them. Having said that, theatre operators are looking to incorporate everything from audience voting and pre-buying your interval drink to full VR/AR/MR experiences on devices. This means lots of high-bandwidth WiFi or 5G and beyond.

Do you have a philosophy or quote to live by?
The show must go on!

Interested in discussing Technology in Performing Spaces or ICT with Simon? Get in touch.