How SACO’s Custom LED Display Tech Is Driving The World’s Biggest Displays

April 6, 2022 by Dave Haynes

Montreal’s SACO Technologies doesn’t have anywhere near the mindshare of the largest LED display manufacturers in the pro AV industry, but it’s nonetheless the supplier behind some of the biggest and most interesting display jobs lighting up these days.

That is SACO’s LED light stick technology cladding the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa in Dubai – and turning it into a colossal media display that can do everything from mood lighting and still images to motion ads for movies, like this recent spot for the new Batman blockbuster.

While the other major players in big direct view LED displays work with pro AV consultants and integrators, and media owners, SACO engages with architects and building engineers to fully integrate active, addressable LED lighting into the facades of buildings and, in some cases, the overall structure of the building. For example, the home grounds of the new MLS team in Cincinnati designed active, changeable lighting into the entire stadium exterior, as opposed to bolting a big conventional display to its side.

That huge low-rez LED display on the top of SoFi Stadium in LA – where the Super Bowl was just held – that’s SACO, too.

The back-story of SACO is super-interesting and super-different. The company’s roots are in supplying the blinking indicator lights you’d see in old school control rooms, like the walls in power plants. Back in the mid-90s, one of SACO’s founders wondered if the colored LEDs could be put together and controlled to create a video display. A small reference design proved the concept, and within a couple of years, SACO was providing a massive version as a digital backdrop for U2’s PopMart tour.

That led to more concert tours, and by the mid-2000s, the company was also a major player for large format stadium and arena displays.

These days, much of SACO’s work is custom and specialized, and not the kind of work suited to the more mainstream, high-volume LED guys.

I had a really interesting chat about SACO with Co-CEO Jonathan Labbee.

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Jonathan, thank you for joining me. Can you describe what SACO as a company does and how long has the company been at it? 

Jonathan Labbee: Yes, absolutely. SACO was founded 1987 by the Jalbout brothers, Fred and Bassam Jalbout, and originally started off as a company that specialized in nuclear controlled room equipment. So SACO actually stands for Systems Automation Control, a very far cry from what we’re doing today, but essentially if you’ve watched a Steven Seagal movie and you see these big control room panels on these oil rigs and all that kind of stuff, that’s the type of stuff that SACO used to do. And in those panels are a lot of little tiny blinking indicator lights, and some other control equipment that SACO used to manufacture, and eventually they started experimenting with LED technology, and one of the brothers, Bassam, came up with the idea of creating a display using these solid state lights.

At the time it was only red and green and eventually was working with one of the premier LED manufacturers still to this day, and when they invented the blue LED, they provided that to the team back in Montreal, and essentially created the very first video display on earth. It was a small little sample. It was maybe like a one foot by two foot sample. It was quite small, but it was able to demonstrate the capabilities of putting up an image and eventually a moving image, and this caught the eye of certain advertising companies and more importantly at the time a rock band, and we got a challenge from the band U2 to create this 50 foot by 150 foot wide video stage, a backdrop to replace Sony jumbotron that they were planning on putting on PopMart. And we took up the challenge, designed and built this thing and deployed it with success on the PopMart tour, started in Las Vegas, and then we toured with U2, essentially showing off these new capabilities. 

This was in 1997. 

Wow. So that first reference design that you talked about, was that 97 or a little bit before then obviously? 

Jonathan Labbee: The reference design was in 93, that’s when the blue LED was invented. We had, at that time, already created a red, green display as a prototype. But then eventually we did build a red, green and blue version. So an RGB version, a full color version and I think we met the band maybe like the end of 1994. 

That’s quite a transition from doing a control room to working with Bono. 

Jonathan Labbee: It completely changed the company. At the time we called the technology, smart vision. We did a tour with success and picked up a bunch of other bands and then eventually started doing permanent installations, like the Baltimore Ravens stadium and Washington Arena and so on.

And then if we fast forward a little bit, we end up in 1999 when we built the very first NASDAQ screen in Times Square. 

So the sort of curved one with the knockouts for all the windows, that’s you guys? 

Jonathan Labbee: That’s us, and that’s actually a really interesting story. Already making a curve was going to be a big deal, no one had ever seen a curved video screen of that magnitude, and then we had gotten the project. It was a full display at the time, and then the client, NASDAQ came to us and told us that the main tenant in the building was no longer willing to have their windows covered. So we created his knockouts and everybody was worried about how it would look, I guess it would look odd with these holes in it. With a little bit of convincing, everybody went with it, and the very first piece of content that we put on there for testing was Pac-Man. 

Which makes sense, because it would work around the hole.

Jonathan Labbee: Exactly.

Interesting. So you started out doing, I guess, almost like mesh LED curtains, and then the NASDAQ’s display was quasi conventional LED cabinets, although albeit a little bit curved and all that, and in the past seven years, really, all these other LED companies have come on the market with their own cabinets on all that and you guys haven’t really stayed in the conventional LED cabinet business. You’ve gone in other directions, right? 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, that’s correct. We still have some “standard” type products. Although they’re really more there to support some of the iconic projects that we’re doing, and some of the more complex projects that we’re doing.

So for example, if we have a client that wants to do this kind of nighttime identity thing on their building, that highlights the architecture, and so on, like some of the projects like FC Cincinnati, in some cases, they may require some video screens down at the bottom on the marquee or inside and stuff like that and so we do have offerings to be able to support them with it. 

So is a lot of what you do custom then? 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah. I would say most of what we’re doing today is highly customized, not full custom, but highly customized, and there’s a difference there, in the sense that our product is really the technology itself and then how we package it is the customized portion of it for the client.

A lot of the reason that you get attention, I gather at least, is that unlike the vast majority of the companies who are selling “conventional LED products”, they’re working with AV integrators, whereas you guys, by the looks of it, at least tend to work with architects. 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, that’s a very good observation. So our main drive is really with architects. We have seven architects on staff here at SACO. We have mechanical engineers, of course, electronics engineers, but also structural engineers. So when we go into a project and usually the earlier, the better, because we’re able to detail down to the level of the building and at the same time, we’re able to influence how things get integrated, because we know how we can make things. 

We’re able to work with the architects to integrate the product in the building facade or wherever it’s supposed to go where it looks integrated and not bolted on, and that subtle difference makes all the difference in the world.

It also makes a difference in terms of the engineering, right? Because even though the individual light rods probably aren’t all that heavy, if you have thousands of them, it adds weight to a building, right? 

Jonathan Labbee: It does, and so if we were to come on, say after a building’s already up, we would normally be adding not just a product but we’ll be adding, like the bracketing and whatever else that we’re doing. If we’re there early enough in the early stage, maybe the extrusion for the window will be designed differently to accommodate the product. 

So there’s some savings in terms of weight and potential costs, but also the final look is very different. 

Going back in the past decade or so, you started to see signature buildings in a landscape that would be lit at night for different purposes. They might have a certain kind of baseline set of colors that they use. But if like right now there would be buildings that are in blue and yellow because of the situation Ukraine has. 

That seemed to be the way things were being done for quite some time now, but with the Burj in Dubai, that’s more than just a sort of ambient lighting. It’s a media facade. Was there a moment when it changed and you’re able to do that or has that always been possible and it just hadn’t been done? 

Jonathan Labbee: We’ve always been able to do that. I think that the market and the clients, as they evolve and they see things and they have ideas and then we start exploring ideas with the clients, then I think that’s truly when things get revealed, right? 

So we may have the capability to do something, but then you also need to get the client that has a vision that allows that to happen. 

Okay. So with the Burj, the world’s tallest building, at least I think it still is, but with that one, you’ve got your product on at least one side of the building. Is it just on the one side kind of facing the mall and all that, and that goes from top to bottom, was it built in or was it added after the fact?

Jonathan Labbee: So this was added after the fact, and actually what happened there is that the client had tried something, they had acquired some products, I don’t know exactly where and had put it up. So they had this idea of wanting to do this. I believe it was a DMX based system. It did what it was supposed to do, but the problem is that I don’t believe that it lasted as long as they needed it to. So a year and a half in or something, we connected with them and then we designed for them a system that would fully integrate with the fin, we have these really beautiful stainless steel fins on the building. That’s what gives it shine during the day. 

So we wanted to respect that, but it was also the perfect area to attach these things. So we designed this kind of fin, like a nose piece for the fin that integrated the product, all the cabling and everything, and then we installed that at the end of 2007. 

Okay. So with that building, as huge as it is, you can actually do a full motion ad, like the recent one for the new Batman movie from street level, all the way to the top, right?

Jonathan Labbee: Oh, absolutely. Everything that we do is basically either a full video screen or a deconstructed video screen, and in the case of Burj Khalifa, it is what we would refer to as a deconstructed video screen. So it has a twenty five millimeter pixel on the height, but then a meter and a half on the width. So it goes in between the windows and obviously with distance and so on, your brain is able to put the image together. 

It’s interesting, in the past four or five years with LED marketing, it’s all been about finding pitch pixel pitch, and it’s 0.9 versus 1.2, and oh my God, 1.2 is awful by comparison, and you’re talking about a meter and a half pixel pitch. 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah. Everything has to do with distance and contrast, at the end of the day it can be broken down as that. It’s in the distance and contrast. 

So what’s involved in putting up something like that? God knows, I wouldn’t want to be one of the technicians who told me to go up to the 110th floor and go outside and put this on.

Jonathan Labbee: It’s a really interesting process and much like other projects that we’ve done, it was the first time that we were doing something. Like this and by like this, I mean, at that height with no cranes and difficult to access and so on, the building itself is almost a kilometer tall. Everything is done with rope access people. 

And then the other complexity that comes into play is time. So between when we got the contract and we turned the screen on, It was seven months. So that’s not a lot of time to design a new product. We actually had to design a new product for this project, did the engineering, the testing validation, certifications. So essentially what we did is, we had our factory in Montreal. We design and manufacture everything in Montreal by the way, and then we replicated a portion of our factory in Dubai, and we did a lot of final assembly and insulation within the extrusion pieces and so on, and the cabling, everything we did there in Dubai. 

The client was very instrumental in helping us set up all of that capability there, and then we just staged everything everywhere that we could in every empty space of the building, and then started deploying these via rope access team, and obviously part of it is a hotel, part of it is are residences. So you are very limited in the amount of time that you can spend. At night, you can’t be in front of the hotel portion, during the day, you can’t be in front of the residences. So we needed to plan across a whole building how to get these things in place. 

And is it set up in such a way that if you’re in one of these residences, you don’t see the light emitting from these fins that it’s just pointing out? 

Jonathan Labbee: Correct, so you have no idea if you’re inside the residence that there’s actually lighting on the building.

Which is a problem for some of the media facades I’ve seen that are just mesh LEDs because you’re now looking through this grid system to see outside. You’ve still got your view, but it’s compromised. 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, exactly, and that’s actually one of the reasons why the horizontal pixel pitch had to remain at one and a half meters was because we didn’t want, nor our client, didn’t want anything in front of the windows. 

These media facades on buildings seem to be a thing certainly in China, but I’m starting to wonder when we’ll start to see more of them in North America. Are you seeing the demand there to do this? 

Jonathan Labbee: Yes, absolutely. Although things have shifted, I think that with the introduction of the Burj, FC Cincinnati, SoFi Stadium on the roof, I think clients and architects are realizing that a media facade doesn’t need to be just a rectangular or square video that takes up all their front real estate. They’re starting to look at it more as a way to enhance the architecture that can also do media, and being able to prove that you don’t have to have the same pixel pitch on the vertical and horizontal. You can do different things and it just makes it more unique and interesting to the building while you’re still communicating the message that you want to from the advertiser or from whatever you’re trying to communicate. 

Is it your control system as well for the software that’s driving it? 

Jonathan Labbee: So we do everything up to the video processor. So the video processor, what takes a signal and then we work with a variety of companies like Disguise or Seventh Sense depending on the type of project. But anything that has a very complex geometry, we usually work with this Disguise. 

Yeah, you’re not going to get a setting out of the box for a client or a building. 

Jonathan Labbee: No, not all, however, our team does produce all of the 3d coordinates for the software to understand it. So you don’t have to have a human sitting there trying to figure out the map, because we already have the map created with a tool set that allows us to take the map and turn it into the coordinates for the systems that we work with.

So mapping a building is actually fairly simple, and if you were to change something or you had to adjust something in your final drawing sets, you can just re-upload that file to the server, and the server will change the pathways for the video image.

image. Now, when you’re working with a giant scale surface like that, because the pixels are a meter and a half apart, at least in that job, does that limit the amount of light that’s coming out?

One of the things I wonder about with city bylaws and all that is, if you tried to do something like this on a building in New York or Montreal, what would be the citizen reaction? Would they say, “We can’t tolerate this. It’s going to blind us. It’s going to feel like a tanning salon in our house”?

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, actually a very valid point. We went through that exercise just recently with a client, and that really becomes more about being a responsible corporate citizen. That onus falls on the client, but also on us to provide the tool set to their client for that. But again, if you remember what I was talking about contrast earlier, if something’s too bright anyway, then I’m sure you’ve driven on the highway and seen digital signs for where their brightness wasn’t turned down at night and it hurts your eyes. So I bet you don’t remember the ad that was on that screen because your brain was too busy hurting.

So in any case, to be able to show off the very best of that building and what you’re trying to show, you have to have the right level of contrast. So if it’s very bright outside, obviously it could be just light pollution, then you’d want to pump up the power, but if you don’t have a lot of competing lights, you would want to j, drop the power down and then the brightness. So we can do it in a few ways. Obviously we can set levels based on time of day and with light sensors and so on which we do for several clients, or there’s just just bypass where the client can select it or at night it’s just that level.

The Burj is a special case, but if there were other tall buildings in major cities that wanted to do this sort of thing, would they be looking to do it as a media model or do they see it as a way to distinguish their building with ambient lighting that’s interesting to look at? 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, that really depends on the client. I think that some clients go in with the idea of wanting to create a media building. So if you look at the Hard Rock hotel, for example, like the Guitar hotel in Hollywood, Florida, their intent was clear of what you want it to do. It is media focused from the very beginning. 

Some of our other clients, I’m thinking of one of the embassies that we did in New York, for example, originally started off as a way to highlight the building. So there was more kind of a highlight on the edge of the building. But when they saw us testing, they realized, wow, I think there’s more capability here, and I think that each client goes through a level of evolution on how to utilize the product. 

And I guess there’s a delicate balance that they have to reach as well that you were saying earlier, you can be good corporate citizens and do something visually interesting with your building, but then you can cross the line and start selling mortgage broker services 

Jonathan Labbee: You could do that or you could strobe and there’s a lot of things that you could do that you wouldn’t necessarily want to do and some of the clients, obviously we have some very sophisticated clients that have a media strategy for that, and they have a team, but some of the other clients just want to do something beautiful, and when that happens, we have a division inside of SACO called the Media Collective, with a Creative Director and so on, and we usually put together a base package for them, just to be able to kinda understand how to utilize your building. 

Is the Media Collective in-house designers, or is it a collective of people who have the skill sets and experience to work with your technology?

Jonathan Labbee: So we have some animators in-house but the whole reason we have a media collective is really to build a collective of external firms that we work with because we actually get a lot of work through design firms. So we don’t want to end up competing with them so if we do end up having a project that requires some content, Burj was a perfect example. In the beginning, we built a bunch of content for them. So we directed the whole thing, but we had, I think, six firms that worked with us to provide different flavors. 

When you have a specialized project, somebody like another Montreal company, Moment Factory might come to you guys and say, “Hey, we need to do something on this monumental surface. Can you help us?” 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, correct. Actually Moment Factory, there are several projects where we’ve collaborated together. One of them being the AT&T project in Texas. We have our product inside of the A looking thing. 

Yeah, that kind of a spherical walkway thing that kind of leads you to the building? That’s a very cool project. So when you are working with these different companies, are they coming to you directly or does it tend to come through an architect? 

Jonathan Labbee: No, when we’re working with these with design firms, they’ll usually either contact us or again, vice versa, if we have a media request, we’ll contact them. 

There are any number I would imagine of companies out there that have LED light sticks that can do kind of mood lighting for a building. Do you compete with them or their control systems really meant to like, change this block to blue and change this block to yellow so we can have the Ukrainian flag?

Jonathan Labbee: I would say that in certain times, we’ll see them on projects, but those companies are usually DMX based, whereas we’re video based and there’s a really big difference there in the overall approach and also in the ability to display color and bitrate and stuff like that. So just coming from a video background, the type of clients that usually seek us out, or that we seek out have a vision for media, not just for lighting. 

Do they also come to you because of the scale that you’ve done these ginormous projects? 

Jonathan Labbee: Absolutely, because you also have to be game to do this. These challenges are filled with unknowns, and I think that the team at SACO thrive on them. 

Yeah, I’m sure there are all kinds of companies who, if they were approached to do some of these large scale projects, they’d go, sure, and then they’d go back to the engineering team and look at each other and go, okay, now what? 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah. We’ve had a few instances where, let’s call them competitors, in certain spaces that got a project and had no idea how to do it and they came to us and we worked with them. It’s a small industry, so we’re friendly with everybody, 

You mentioned earlier the idea of shape and you worked with FC Cincinnati on this new MLS stadium, right? Could you describe that? 

Jonathan Labbee: The working part or the project part?

The stadium is a curved kind of bowl thing, and the whole outside of it is a bit like the Bayern Munich stadium in that you could eliminate the whole thing.

Jonathan Labbee: Yes, exactly. Here the architect is Populous, a company with whom we worked with in the past, and we have a very good working relationship there. So when they took over that project, I believe it was with a different architect prior, and they came up with this kind of vision of these angled fins where you could see through the building and so on, they created this very light structure which at night needed to be highlighted. 

So when they brought us on board to start taking a look at the designs and giving our ideas and stuff like that, obviously it made a lot of sense to highlight the edge of that. The product is very much recessed inside of the fin. So it’s completely invisible during the day or when it’s not on, and I guess there were several ideas there, but I guess one of the guiding principles there is that it needs to be integrated and needed to highlight the architecture at night and keep that sense of emotion like that whole stadium has this static motion to it. So based on that, we ended up designing a solution for it, and also created the base content for the client and it’s been highly efficient for the client. 

Is it actually less costly to do it the way you’re describing as opposed to doing like a full LED mesh curtain and all that, just because there’s less hardware, fewer LED diodes and so on, or it does balance out because this is custom engineering?

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, I think I think maybe it balances out. It’s probably overall it’s maybe a little cheaper because you’re integrating early but that only happens if you’re integrating early, if you’re retrofitting, it’s usually it usually balances. But the big thing that it does though, is that it does become unique to that property. 

When you just start adding video screens, and again, I’m a big fan of video screens. That’s what we do for a living. But video screens, like what we refer to as traditional video screens, have their place. But on a building, it just ends up looking like advertising, if you just put it up a building, right? So if you really want to enhance the building and kind of blend art and media, I think that’s a highly effective way of getting your message across because then there’s no mistake in if someone takes their Instagram shot or whatever, there’s no mistake in where that is. 

And I’m sure that you spend the time with the clients, for them to understand, look, this is low resolution. This is in a lot of cases meant to be seen from a hundred meters away or further away. If you want to put pricing propositions on the screen, that’s probably not going to work, but logos and things like that’s going to work well. 

Jonathan Labbee: Yep. Exactly. And again and as you approach the building or as you approach a property or as you’re walking through a property, your experience is going to change. So that video element will now become more of a lighting interesting kind of ambient element, but then you’ll have something else in the Causeway or whatever with maybe that has a tighter pixel pitch or something to just continue that whole experience as you walk through the property.

Do you strictly work with outdoor products or are you doing anything indoor? 

Jonathan Labbee: Oh no, we do lots of indoor stuff. 

Is that more conventional, like LED modules, cabinets, that sort of thing? 

Jonathan Labbee: Yes, actually, in its construction, I would say yes but in its deployment oftentimes it’s different. We did this art piece, which is actually a media piece with Jenny Holzer, which sits inside of the Comcast headquarters in Philadelphia, and there are custom tiles that are 6.32 millimeter pixel pitch at the exact 8 inches wide, and they needed to fit in between these wood slabs on the ceiling and the entire ceiling has video strips going right through it, right through the escalator and everything. 

Oh, so is this tied in with the big LED wall it’s already in the lobby there? 

Jonathan Labbee: The LED wall is in the other building. 

Gotcha. The other building is fantastic, what they’ve done there. 

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, exactly. So we’ll also deploy, like we have a project right now going on, I can’t really say what it is yet, but it has a bunch of really high res stuff, and these kinds of monuments in a curved fashion, all interactive. So high res video screen type stuff that we do a lot, and we do a lot of touring also. All tier one, so the Paul McCartney’s of the world and Lady Gaga’s utilize a lot of SACO equipment on their tours. 

And these again, would be stuff that you can put up and take down pretty quickly. They’re lightweight and there’s a pastor, so you can see it and behind it, all that?

Jonathan Labbee: Yeah, exactly. So what we do for touring is actually use our frames called Fast Frames and they’re very fast to set up and rugged. And, in touring speed is extremely important because time is money there, as you’re loading and unloading, others are waiting on you. So we came up with this system that’s very fast. 

I’ll give you an example. When we came up with this new product called the S series. One of our very first clients was Bruno Mars, and this is obviously through some partners, rental partners, and it was a 50 foot wide video screen by 20 feet tall and that took 13 minutes and 13 seconds to set up, from the carts to image on. We actually made t-shirts that said 13:13. 

Yeah. That’s a good thing. Cause somebody’s going to ask, what does that mean? And then you’re immediately pitching, 

Jonathan Labbee: Well, exactly, and also touring does allow us to have a customer base there that is always hungry for the latest in things. Although we have more standard products there that can do their main elements, we’ll build a lot of custom stuff for touring as well, and so on the Taylor Swift tour, for example, we had a bunch of 12 millimeters and some 9 millimeters, but because the thing went up like a half pipe in certain areas. We designed these custom triangular tiles to fill in the gap to provide a monolithic look and so on.

So we have clients that are willing to try new things there, and then we take all of that knowledge and then we apply it to our more permanent projects afterwards. 

You’re obviously pretty well known in the live events community and I guess in architectural design, not really in the digital signage or LED display community or at least the conventional side of that. Does that matter, or are you quite happy with just stealthily building up your business? 

Jonathan Labbee: Very good question. I would say that in the beginning more, more on like the 2000s stuff, we were doing a lot of arenas and stadiums, like the traditional center hongs or ribbon boards, we were heavily heavily involved there. But when so many companies came out with offerings, there were some differentiators of course, between what we offered and what other people offer, but the cost just kept getting driven down and down, and all of a sudden, you’re now operating in a commodity based business.

That’s not where we necessarily like to be, we’re innovators at heart, so we like to focus on areas where our talents can be fully exploited, and so as soon as you introduce a little bit of complexity and there’s a lot of clients that want something complex and context could be something as simple as a curve, an angle, a shape, an installation, we ended up finding ourselves almost alone. 

Yeah. Interesting. I know there’s a big project that you’re not able to talk about yet but I’m sure maybe we’ll get back together in a year or so when you’re allowed to talk about this thing running and it’s amazing, and unfortunately we can’t talk about it at the moment.

Jonathan Labbee: No, but I’ll be happy to speak with you when we can. 

Absolutely. All right. Thank you very much for spending some time with me. That was terrific.

Jonathan Labbee: It was a pleasure.

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