Exam day: rediscovering Linux

Yesterday was the grand opening of the exhibition for which we have built a Linux-based interactive movie theater system.

Having a crowd of bigwigs and media people watch a big video screen where your software runs live for the first time felt a lot like an exam day: you know you’ve done everything you could, so you just go for it prepared for either success or failure. It was mostly a success with minor glitches which have been invisible for 99% of the audience. It will take a few days before I’m relaxed about it, but it looks good.

We’ve been taking risks technically, going for direct replay of DV video for the best picture quality: the results are very good but it took a lot of sweat to find a hardware and software configuration which works reliably.

On the software side we’re running java code, small components glued with BeanShell and a Flash front end (see here).

While creating this system I have rediscovered the toolbox aspect of Linux: although it took a lot of experimentation and tests to create the right configuration, it is great to come up with a user’s manual consisting of “turn power on to start, pull the plug to stop”. This is basically an embedded system, only with 200-Gig drives to hold the video (raw DV – these files are big!).

We use the exact same config for all PCs in the exhibition, with USB keys to select a particular role, making PCs interchangeable for testing and troubleshooting, and cleanly separating what changes from what doesn’t.

Closed systems would not cut it: transparency is required to find out how to tune the system to one’s needs and to be able to validate the results. Having been a unix fan and user since 1986, I realize today the huge amount of wisdom that has gone into the design of unix-like systems. Eric Raymond’s book has helped reinforce the feeling: the unix way of doing things definitely resonates here.

Working with a very diverse (and somewhat chaotic) team of filmmakers, graphic artists, room designers and project managers has been a great experience, it will be hard to go back to business-as-usual stuff after this. Maybe I should talk with Carsten about setting up this fireworks and laser show company ;-)

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