BLENDZ By WookiesoftOct 01, 2021
Article written by Omar Colom and Laura Massas
“Techs are very good at showing ‘toys and tools’ that they have.”
Exactly what we were thinking here at AVE and why we started our Article series in the first place. Darren Alexander is the mastermind behind the BlendZ and we were very excited to chat with him. I have to admit, I am a little biased towards BlendZ since I am a user of this app to save myself time on the planning phase. I myself had to prove I could do that math prior to even knowing about the app from one of my mentors.
However with all that said, I am more biased toward the app because the developer not only works for a company I highly respect, you can read through his words and get a sense of what a genuinely good natured person he must really be. I also learned very quickly he also created another app that I have been using over the years. I have to let the article here speak for itself since everything from the app to the developer is just amazing!
Check out the interview below.
Responses provided by: Darren Alexander
Q: What drove you to create the app?
A: It was a combination of things. I was working on getting the technical specs together for a client for a large projection show with a multi projector screen, and the size of the screen kept changing. It seemed every few hours they were redesigning their set and the screen kept growing, but every time we were told that the screen was bigger they wanted us to update the requirements for the projection: how many projectors and their placement on the truss, weights, and specs for the content creation, the usual thing back when projection was the only way to do very large screens.
I was, back then, using a calculator and a notepad to work out the math needed for the projectors and the blend regions, and then closer to the time of delivering the show a media grid to line up the projectors. I had recently started programming again, something I used to do when I was a lot younger, so I decided to write something that would speed things up for me.
Q: What other apps have you developed?
A: I have written several apps to help speed things up and a few that are just plain silly, but tools for AV techs are:
FidoLED- a calculator that tells you information about a given LED screen, so the number of pixels, weights, number of tiles, size of the wall and power requirements, as well as drawing a media grid for you.
GridZ- a free form grid generator, so think BlendZ but you already know the blend information, or you just want to generate a grid of a certain pixel count.
LEDGridZ- another freeform LED grid generator which was me stripping out the database function of FidoLED so that a grid for any tile could be drawn. There are some other unique features of this app over FidoLED as it allows for a grid to be drawn where there is a regular repeat of negative pixel spaces, which was a request by someone for a one off project they had.
M2 Calculator- another calculator, this one is unique for the Brompton Processors that our LED tiles use. It lets you know how many processors (M2, T1, S4, SX40's) are needed for a given LED screen.
Network noodle, Squirt, and Reboot Notifier are all network tools.
Network noodle just tells you the IP address of your computer, the public IP of the network you are on, and where in the world your computer thinks it is.
Squirt was written for my IT tech that was on Auto Shows with me. He got fed up constantly having to dip into the Windows network settings to change his IP address on shows with lots of networks on, so I wrote this quick app for him to change his IP address from a small window really quickly.
Reboot Notifier is a small app that I wrote that would tell me when a computer was rebooted by sending me an email message along with its current public IP address, handy for when you have servers in your apartment that sometimes reboot because of random crashes!
Q: Who are your target users?
A: It’s mainly people in the AV industry around the globe. BlendZ and FidoLED by far have reached the most users around the globe. Project Managers and Techs have used my tools to save them time and that was the reason I wrote these apps to begin with.
Q:Do you work in the industry, if so, what sector and what’s your technical background?
A: I do work in the industry, I have been in the AV industry since 1991 when I first entered with a small AV Rental company that used to hang projectors at the BBC studios in London. Amongst other things, I was doing Scenic projection. From there, I learned video wall projection cubes and monitors, as well as camera systems and vision switchers. Back then, LED never existed. It was all projectors, and not very bright ones at that. I was one of the few people that could operate the GE Talaria 3LV, a dinosaur that is long gone!
From there, I moved to a larger AV company that had a single office in Wandsworth in London called Creative Technology. There, and still working as a projection tech, I learned new camera systems, flypacks, and also got to work with their Outside Broadcast truck. I moved up and became a vision engineer, and eventually a systems engineer before eventually somehow becoming a project manager. In 2003, I was transferred to one of the US offices where I have been ever since. Today I still work every now and then as a tech on site, but mostly I am on site as project manager who is also responsible with training the new generation of techs.
Q:What was the process for you to code and test this app?
A: BlendZ started as a simple calculator: you knew the desired width and height of the projection surface, you knew the resolution of the projectors, so it was a case of just working out the overlap. At first, I wrote a quick Excel spreadsheet so that I could quickly punch numbers into it and get the results I wanted. Eventually I wrote the first version of this app that did the same thing, more because I was on site working a show and a little bored and had just started programming again. So, I made a 'down and dirty' version of the app. Because it's simple maths, the app didn't really need much testing. Eventually I added the ability to draw the grids and this was again to save me time from having to open Photoshop to make grids there.
Q: What was the process to unveil and launch to the public?
A: Funnily enough, I actually kept it to myself for quite a while. It was a tool I had written to save myself some time, and eventually one of our projection techs saw me use it while he was trying to figure out the new blends for a show we were working on. Back then figuring this stuff out was a bit of a dark art, but like everything it's easy when you know how. So, once he proved to me he knew how to do the math I gave him a copy of it. I had already shared this app with a few people within the company, mainly a few Project Managers that were constantly writing projection quotes.
The app didn't really go public until a good friend of mine, Bruno Farre, wrote a similar app and showed me his. I thought his GUI was big and clumsy, so I made my one available publicly.
Q: How long did the total process of creating your app take?
A: This application is fairly simple. The first iteration was just maths with no fancy grid generation and no nice print outs, so it was only about 2 or 3 days to have something. Then, over time the rest of the stuff came along. The generating of the grid took about 4 or 5 days to figure out and the writing of the PDF file was about 3 days.
Q: How did you get the word out there about your app once you launched?
A: To be honest, I didn't. I made it available to a few techs we have and some PM's, and then some freelancers asked about it and it went from there. When I eventually wrote it for the Android phone, I put it in the play store and just let it be. Eventually when I was forced into writing applications for iOS, I wrote this app first for iOS as it was an easy first iOS project.
For me, Word of Mouth seems to work. Techs are very good at showing "toys and tools" that they have and so I think that is what has helped this application spread.
Q: What’s your approach to user experience and design principles?
A: In my opinion, applications should be really simple to use. There should not be anything that makes you have to read instructions to know how it works. For this calculator I wanted it to be really easy, so easy a child could use it and so my son Merlin became my beta tester. I would give him my applications to use and to see if he could break them. He had a knack of pressing button combinations or entering something no user would try to do, and if he broke it I would fix it.
For the layout, I like things that are simple so I would show the layouts to my wife. She has a background in design and aesthetics, and so would tell me if things looked messy or overly complicated and I would refine the design. She hates some of my colour choices. ;)
Q: Does your app work offline?
A: Yes, across all platforms the application installs so that it can work offline with no internet needed.
Q: Is your app the same thing from when you first created it or has the idea evolved?
A: Sort of, the very first version as mentioned before didn't generate a grid or the print out. It just did the math for you, then came the print out, and finally the grid generation. The grid generation engine has evolved over various releases, adding things that people have asked for like a line of a certain colour around the border or having smaller circles. The desktop versions have the light calculator added to them, something I never bothered putting in the mobile versions for some reason.
Q: What platform is this app on and how should people new to your app be using it?
A: BlendZ is available for Windows, Macs, Android phones and iOS phones. Use as needed!
Q: Can you break down each part of your app and what people can and can’t do with it?
A: On the desktop and Mobile versions, you're greeted with a simple screen where you have the ability to enter the width and height of your projection surface, plus the native resolution of the projector and the number of projector you want to use, then you hit the Calculate button. At this point if you have enough projectors for a blend, then you are shown the results page with the width and height in pixels of the screen, the total overlap in pixels and per screen, overlap in pixels, and finally your cone size (width of the projected image per projector) plus the overlap size. These last two are so you can mark out on the screen where the projector should be hitting.
After that you can print out the information as a PDF, or have it emailed to you if you are using a mobile device. Generate a grid to save, or again email if you are using the mobile version.
Q:How’s the feedback, the audience response, since launching your app?
A: Very positive. People use the app and it saves time, and that is all I can ask for!
Q: What features are being used the most since launch?
A: Probably the generating of grids. These were always a time consuming black hole, especially when the screen size changed a few feet. It always meant completely starting again in photoshop and laying it all out again.
Q: What stands out about your app compared to other options?
A: I think it's straightforward and simple to use. I have not seen many other calculators out there that do this.
Q: How do they buy the app? Are there additional features?
A: The app is free for Mac's and Windows PC's as well as Android Phones. I only charge $0.99 for the iOS version, and this is only because I am required to pay a developer fee every year to keep it listed on the app store. There are no additional features on the mobile versions, but on the desktop versions it will let you figure out how much light is hitting the screen if you need to figure out how bright the screen will be.
Q: What’s next for the app?
A: Probably adding in the light calc if anyone wants it. I have not really done much to the application since I released it. The only thing I keep thinking about is being able to create grids for Array projection, where you’re blending both horizontally and vertically. But, since we (CT) don't do those large projection shows anymore due to the shift to LED I sort of put it on the back burner where it has stayed.
Q: Best advice you could give to someone reading this article?
A: If you have ever wanted an application or tool that would be useful for you, chances are someone else will find it useful. So if you have time, learn to program. There are so many tools out there for learning to code and sometimes it's nice to have a project to keep you busy while you're bored on site waiting for the show to be over so you can load out!
Well AVE community, we hope this has been helpful in introducing this app to you or shedding light on some of the capabilities if it’s something you already use!
Stay tuned for the next app highlight soon!
Have a need that an app may be able to fix? Send us a shout and we may have an app highlight that features exactly what you need!
If you would like to contact the app developer directly, here’s how:
Email [email protected]
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