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Sun 15 Nov 2009 04:00 AM

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Qatar rising

The tiny Gulf state of Qatar is fast developing a reputation for world-class sporting, education and cultural venues housing cutting-edge AV technology and infrastructure. Aaron Greenwood reports from Doha.

Qatar rising
Qatar rising
American School of Doha’s theatre is equipped with a 52-channel Soundcraft mixing desk.
Qatar rising
Doha’s impressive Museum of Islamic Art.
Qatar rising
Qatar Cultural Village’s new outdoor amphitheatre is due for completion in Q1, 2010.
Qatar rising
Qatar hosted the Asian Games in 2006.
Qatar rising
TechnoQ executive director Abdulla Alansari.

The tiny Gulf state of Qatar is fast developing a reputation for world-class sporting, education and cultural venues housing cutting-edge AV technology and infrastructure. Aaron Greenwood reports from Doha.

With a rapidly growing population of just over 1.2 million, the second-highest GDP in the world and the third-largest natural gas reserves, Qatar is one of the wealthiest and fastest developing countries in the GCC.

The tiny Gulf state has taken an arguably more measured approach to development, investing billions in establishing world-class sporting, education and cultural facilities in a bid to carve its own niche in the region.

Qatar houses more higher education institutions per head of population than any other country in the Middle East, many of which are satellite campuses of prestigious American universities including Georgetown, Northwestern and Weill Cornell Medical College.

The drive to transform Qatar into a knowledge-based society is spearheaded by the Qatar Foundation, a non-profit institution founded in 1995 by the Qatar government to develop world-class scientific, training and higher education facilities in Doha.

The Qatar Foundation is responsible for a sprawling area in ‘New Doha' that houses the major universities, Qatar Science and Technology Park and upcoming Qatar Convention Centre, which is set to be one of the largest exhibition venues in the Middle East when it is completed in 2010. The government's commitment to positioning Qatar as a leader in scientific and cultural pursuits is reflected in its ambitious approach to ensuring these facilities boast the latest cutting-edge AV and IT technologies and infrastructure.

Qatar Foundation Education City-based Texas A&M University and Georgetown University are but two of these facilities to have implemented the latest AV technologies across classrooms, lecture halls and other areas within their respective campuses.

Cutting-edge videoconferencing technologies are standout features of both AV installs, completed by leading Qatari systems integrator, TechnoQ.

The Georgetown University School of Foreign Service is the first organisation in the Middle East to install a Polycom RealPresence Experience (RPX HD) high-definition videoconferencing system.

In practice, the remarkable technology enables Georgetown students in Qatar and Washington DC to interact in real-time in a ‘virtual environment'. In terms of interior design, both classrooms are mirror-images of the other, even down to the physical placement of desks, seating rows and the dimensions of each classroom. The system also enables lecturers to display supporting content on the respective plasma screens at both locations concurrently.

"Polycom sells the entire package to clients and completes the install," explains Rob Tognoli, senior quality control engineer for TechnoQ.

"They've pretty much got it down to an exact science, in terms of configuring the rooms. The installation takes about a week, but the end result is brilliant."

The technology enables professors and other class leaders to make virtual eye-contact with students in the remote location, thanks to strategically placed microphones and a unique twin-lens camera system, which blends and processes the resulting images in a panoramic environment.

The system also employs HDX audio processors with the signals handled via DSP, separate to the codec. It operates over IP ensuring zero latency.


Showcase installation: Qatar Cultural VillageThe 32 building mixed-use development includes grand ballrooms, a variety of entertainment complexes and an impressive outdoor amphitheatre.

Each building in the precinct is linked via a MediaMatrix nework to a centralised broadcast studio, while the amphitheatre includes two locations for outside-broadcasting facilities. Qatar's new Symphony Orchestra will also call the venue home.

Showcase installation: Qatar University

With 7,000 registered students and a faculty community of 700 members, Qatar University is the country's largest and oldest higher education institution.

Having suffered the burden of outdated AV technology throughout much of the last decade, the university made a major commitment to upgrading more than 100 classrooms and 75 ‘smartrooms' with the latest AV technologies, including videoconferencing capabilities.

The project, which was completed in March 2008, included the installation of Creston control systems, Extron AV switchers and audio amplifiers, and Polycom videoconferencing technologies.

The rooms are also equipped with multimedia projectors, motorised screens and loudspeakers. Each room can be remote controlled and monitored via the university's local area network (LAN), linked back to a centralised IT department.

A further 25 rooms are equipped with multimedia projectors and presentation screens supplied by Panasonic.

"We are currently tendering for a new auditorium and classroom facility at Qatar University. We've already installed technology into 300 classrooms there and we have another 90 to work on," says Aftab Ahmed, head of design for TechnoQ.

"Qatar University has traditionally lagged behind some of the universities based in the Qatar Foundation in terms of embracing videoconferencing technology, but things are changing in this respect."

The university uses the facility on a daily basis, explains Cheong Eng Siong, Georgetown University's audio-visual manager.

"Most afternoons you can't get a slot," he says. "It's definitely proven its value. In addition to working with our main Washington campus, we also regularly link up with universities in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"It is difficult in terms of securing quality broadband links within these markets, but quite often we'll try and locate satellite links to ensure we don't have any drop-outs. Ideally, we'll run a 4Mb/s line."

Siong believes videoconferencing technologies such as the RPX system could force a seismic shift in the higher education system in the Middle East.

"Students here are collaborating with their peers based in the US on tutorials, and receiving lectures from US-based professors all in a real-time virtual environment," he says.

"With this type of technology available locally, it means Qatari students are provided access to the same standards of training and education as they would if they relocated overseas for their studies."

Another cutting-edge AV installation is housed within the Texas A&M University. Situated adjacent to the Georgetown campus, the university features a fully linked AV network that can be accessed via touchscreen interfaces located within each lecture hall and classroom.

Lecturers can upload course work to the network and log-in regardless of which classroom they're working from.

"Every room is equipped with a touch panel and a processor," says Tognoli. "The system provides for a fair amount of complexity, but we've found that most lecturers don't really exploit some of its more advanced features. They'll plug in their computers and away they'll go. There's also room for upgrades in future, depending on what the university requires."

The commitment to cutting-edge AV technologies is not restricted to university campuses in Qatar, with high schools such as the American School of Doha also leading the way.

The private high school was radically redeveloped in 2007 with the installation of a new wing housing a 630-seat theatre, library, 22 classrooms and 25-metre swimming pool. The highlight of the redevelopment is a fully-equipped, state-of-the-art performance theatre, which ranks as one of the best in Doha.

A central control room features a 52-channel Soundcraft Vi5 mixing desk, projector and full broadcast control capabilities. The venue's lighting system includes 150 dimmable overhead and theatre fixtures fielded by profiles, fresnels and intelligent moving heads.

TechnoQ's Tognoli, who oversaw the AV installation, describes the theatre as one of the best school-based facilities he's come across anywhere in the world.

"Video-wise, the theatre's equipped with a digital projector and a huge screen that can be lowered for video presentations," he explains. "There are also three broadcast-spec Panasonic cameras which are joystick controlled and can record live events staged at the theatre."

The venue is fully kitted out for surround-sound audio and also features a comprehensive JBL speaker installation.

Sporting chance

Qatar's drive to position itself as the region's premier host nation for international sporting events dwarfs the efforts of rival GCC countries, including the UAE.


Qatar’s top five AV infrastructure projects

1. New Doha International Airport

Value: $11 billion

Completion date: Q1, 2011.

The airport covers a land area in excess of 22km² and will handle around 50 million passengers, 2 million tonnes of cargo, and 320,000 aircraft landings and takeoffs each year. Over 100 hectares alongside the new airport have been reserved for commercial development, including a free trade zone, offices, hotels and retail malls. Arinc and Thales are responsible for integrating the IT, telecommunication and security systems.

2. Education City

Value: $8.25 billion

Completion date: First phase opened 2008, final phase 2011+.

Education City covers 14km² and houses educational facilities from schools to research level and branch campuses of some of the world's leading universities, including Northwestern, Georgetown and College of North Atlantic.

3. The Pearl Qatar

Value: $5 billion

Completion date: First phase opened 2008, final phase 2011.

The Pearl Qatar is a mega project located on 4 million m² of reclaimed land. The development will ultimately accommodate more than 40,000 residents. The island is divided into various districts and will include three 5-star luxury hotels with a total room capacity of 800, four marinas and retail space.

4. Al Wa'ab City Development

Value: $3.2 billion

Completion date: Q4, 2010.

Al Wa'ab City Development in Doha covers an area of 1.25 million m². The city will include mixed-use residential and apartment units housing around 8000 people and low-rise office space.

The heart of the city is Barahat Al Wa'ab - a 44,000m² yard, which will become a central urban gathering space for tourists and residents of the city.

Barahat Al Wa'ab will also be anchored by a 200-room 5-star luxury hotel.

5. Qatar Entertainment City

Value: $3 billion

Completion date: First phase 2010, final phase 2015.

Qatar Entertainment City will feature an internationally licensed theme park, a 1.5km sea canal, a performance theatre, hotels, retail space, a residential community with 4500 housing units and a snow dome.

Following the success of the 2006 Asian Games, Qatar has confirmed its ambition to host the world's largest sporting events - the Summer Olympics and FIFA World Cup - in 2020 and 2022 respectively.

The showpiece of the Asian Games sporting venues, which is housed within the Doha Sports City precinct, is the 50,000-seat Khalifa Stadium.

The stadium features 48 camera points that provide feeds to a full broadcast studio over a MediaMatrix and ControlMatrix system.

Signal routing is managed via CobraNet using a 100Mb Ethernet network infrastructure.

Live audio feeds connect to a 24-channel Soundcraft console before linking with recording devices and to A/D CobraNet converters for processing and routing.

Zone paging, source selection and volume controlling is managed by ControlMatrix. The system also provides inputs for emergency voice-evacuation systems triggered by fire alarm.

A comprehensive sound system consisting of JBL line-arrays and a variety of clusters on the stadium's distinctive twin steel arches provide comprehensive audio fills.

While Khalifa Stadium will play a key role in Qatar's Olympics and World Cup pitches, government authorities have pledged to invest billions in a massive expansion of the Sports City precinct to accommodate the dozens of venues required to host both sporting events.

Also located in the Doha Sports City precinct is Al Shaqab Equestrian Academy. The showpiece of Qatar's ambitious equine sector, Al Shaqab is set to become one of the biggest equestrian facilities of its kind when it is completed in 2010.

Encompassing an area totaling 800,000 square metres, the cutting-edge facility will house multiple performance and presentation venues, a five-level grandstand, conference facilities, a fully-equipped broadcast production centre, and a fully networked multi-million dollar MediaMatrix-based IT/AV infrastructure.

Each area of the venue will feature independent rack-rooms, which are interlinked to a master control room, allowing constant monitoring and system check-up.

In addition to the MediaMatrix processor, key audio technologies include JBL speakers, Crown amplifiers and Shure microphones. Head of design for TechnoQ, Aftab Ahmed, who is involved in the AV systems integration project, says Al Shaqqab Equestrian Academy is "definitely the highlight for us from a technical perspective at the moment".

"It's an absolutely massive project and it's going to become a landmark in Qatar once it's completed," he says.

"We're responsible for supplying the AV technology and performing the systems integration in the facility's conference and training rooms, stables, warm-up, indoor and outdoor areas."

The combined scale and ambition of these and other infrastructure developments including The Pearl and West Bay districts, are further examples of the Qatari government's drive to position the booming peninsula state as a unique and considered alternative to global city aspirants Dubai and to a lesser extent, Abu Dhabi.

The editor travelled to Doha courtesy of TechnoQ.


TechnoQ stakes claim in AV sector

One of the region's leading AV systems integrators, TechnoQ was founded in Doha in 1995 by Zeyad Al Jaidah and Abdulla Alansari as a consumer AV technology installer, before later branching into the commercial AV sector.

The company's rapid growth has mirrored Qatar's emergence as one of the region's most technologically advanced societies.

With more than 200 employees, TechnoQ counts a diverse range of public and private enterprises among its clients, having completed major AV installation projects for organisations ranging from RasGas to the Qatari military intelligence to the W Hotel Doha. The company has been responsible for more than 200 systems integration projects over its 12-year history.

While TechnoQ's success rivals any of the region's biggest AV systems integrators, Alansari, who holds the position of executive director within the company, says the perception that Qatar has mostly bucked the recession is a myth. While agreeing the Gulf state has not been severely impacted by the downturn compared to the likes of Dubai, he says business has eased considerably in the past 12 months.

"Business is slow. A lot of projects have been put on hold or are delayed, particularly hospitality projects in Qatar," he says.

Alansari claims TechnoQ has also faced increased competition from regional rivals for major AV contracts in Qatar.

"More and more companies are trying to secure contracts in Qatar, but from our perspective these organisations don't appreciate local market dynamics. They simply want to come here, make some money and leave."

Lately, TechnoQ has been forced to shelve its own regional expansion plans after abandoning its first office outside Qatar in Dubai earlier this year.

"We established the Dubai office just before the crash," says Alansari. "It was bad timing for us - we've subsequently closed it down but we may reconsider reopening it sometime down the track, if the economic situation improves."

For now, the company plans to continue pursuing opportunities in Qatar's booming higher education and hospitality sectors.

"More than 80% of our current projects are education-based," he says. "We have a number of projects in the works, including a new auditorium and classroom facility at Qatar University. These types of projects are the life force of our business."

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