Immersive entertainment: why projection holds the key to shared experiences

Pandemic fatigue has people wanting to get out and be wowed. Tim Kridel explores how projection is meeting that demand with immersive experiences enabled by cutting-edge technologies.

In July, National Galleries of Scotland discovered a new self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh while X-raying “Head of a Peasant Woman with a White Cap,” one of his paintings in the museum’s collection. Hidden under layers of glue and cardboard on the back of the painting, the self-portrait is the result of his practice of reusing canvases to save money.

It’s not the first such discovery and probably won’t be the last, which is good news for all of the immersive van Gogh exhibits. In 2021, there were at least a half dozen separately run touring exhibits in Dubai, the US, the UK and other countries — enough to warrant an entire Wikipedia entry devoted to the genre.

Whether they’re touring or permanent, van Gogh or not, immersive art exhibits are one of several booming markets for AV firms that specialise in projection systems.

“Since the beginning of the year, we've really seen the market re-engage across the board,” says Joel St-Denis, senior product manager at Christie, whose non-cinema sectors include themed entertainment, megachurches and large-scale projection mapping such as building façades. “We didn't know if people were going to be cautious for the next couple of years or so.

“We were pleasantly surprised that it's been the opposite. People are coming to us with large projects with money in hand and wanting products with commitments to certain dates.”

Additional business is coming from clients that stuck with projects begun before the pandemic rather than abandoning or postponing them.

“We do a lot of business with entertainment theme parks globally,” St-Denis says. “Even during the pandemic, they didn't completely stop because a lot of these projects are multi-year. They'll start like three years before, and they'll be basically telling us what they're looking at, spitballing ideas, seeing what's possible. Through the pandemic, we were able to continue working with our customers in that space because they were working from budgets from three years ago to push this forward.”


Sharing immersed experiences

Virtual reality (VR) headsets are another way to provide immersive experiences. But in some cases, projection has a competitive edge thanks to the pandemic.

“Creating large and seamless panoramic presentation via softedging and similar approaches is not in itself a new development,” says Hans Christian Stucken, AV Stumpfl global marketing advisor. “But if the Covid pandemic has demonstrated one thing, it is that most people crave shared live experiences and that sometimes bigger is just better. At this point, headset-based VR applications may be absolutely amazing when done right, but they don’t feel like shared experiences in the same way that visually being in the same space as your friends and family do.”

Digital Projection is hearing the same thing from its integrator partners.

“People want to be immersed even more in the environments that they're in, but they don't want to be closed off with head-mounted displays,” says Mark Wadsworth, vice president of global marketing. “A while ago, we developed ultra-high frame rate — 350 frames per second — which we now teamed up with 3D glasses. You can have three people all staring at the same screen, but they each see something completely different. That's because we can track the users and deliver different images to them.

“That technology can be used on dark [theme park] rides like an immersive tunnel. The people on the left-hand side see something completely different than the people on the right-hand side whilst wearing 3D glasses. So you can still see the environment around you, and you can interact with whoever you're on the ride with or whoever you're viewing an exhibit with. But you're not locked off in in your own little world of a head-mounted display.”


Paying a premium for premium experiences

Besides shared experiences, consumers also want to be wowed. That’s prompting clients to spend extra on projection technologies capable of delivering lifelike experiences at a time when everyone is just grateful to be alive.

“Whilst [projection] feels at times commoditised, RGB laser for us has been the most recent exciting thing,” says Matt Roberts, founder of Portal Devices, which specialises in projection system design for venues such as theme parks, museums and planetariums. “RGB laser re-energised us a bit.

“[In] one experience, we upgraded from a lamp-based 4K projector to the same specification but RGB laser equivalent. The image looked like it had been digitally remastered. It was a step change in quality. On the face of it, it should have the same resolution, same brightness but a wider colour gamut. But that wider colour gamut gave it a hell of a punch.”

Wadsworth is seeing the same trend.

Ryoji Ikeda’s Data-verse trilogy used Digital Projection projectors to visualise vast data sets conducted by NASA and the Human Genome Project to explore DNA sequences, galactic coordinates and quantum physics

“The company I was speaking to today said they're no longer that interested in traditional laser phosphor or lamp-based projection,” he says. “They're talking predominantly about RGB laser because the colour gamut is so far beyond what is currently available and was previously available. That's all they're really interested in now.

“That kind of took us by surprise because there's also premium attached to that, but we're seeing more and more demand for that unbeatable colour accuracy and colour gamut. I think that's something that's going to continue well into the future, where we'll see colour being more and more important.”

Visual quality also helps clients compete with other venues and technologies.

“One reason why RGB laser and other advanced projection technologies with a premium price tag have become more relevant has to do with the strong visual competition in the form of high-definition LED displays,” says AV Stumpfl’s Stucken. “Your average audience member probably does not care too much about what technologies are being used for a certain project. But they will subconsciously have gotten used to more and more tight-pitched LED display walls in the last few years and will compare that to any projection they will encounter.

“We are also seeing more interest in premium quality solutions when it comes to the projection screens being used. The growing popularity of our borderless Fullwhite screen systems [is] a case in point.”


Installation flexibility and savings

Projection design firms also are gravitating toward systems that provide more installation flexibility.

“We're very much looking at modular sort of subsystems,” says Portal Design’s Roberts. “We’ve started quite a few chats about that recently [and] the additional benefit that is coming in more and more compact units. Christie have their M 4K25 series, which is a delightfully small projector which I think is going to be an absolute knockout. And then we've just been delighted working with Digital Projection on their modular satellite system.

“This is solving real problems for us. We cluster projectors near people. The last place you want the projector is near the guest, but we’re asked to do more compact and more demanding display designs, and that [close proximity] is one outcome.”

In addition to ultra-compact, whisper-quiet units, Portal Design also is using fisheye lenses and wide-angle projection.

“We've mastered those with our own modelling and test capabilities,” Roberts says. “Our goal was to be 100% confident in a design from the concept phase, and that's required a lot of investment at our end.”

Part of the payoff is reducing the client’s total cost of ownership (TCO). Although there’s a willingness to pay a premium for technologies that will wow audiences, that doesn’t mean clients have unlimited budgets. As in the past, TCO can still be a major factor in winning a project.

“A major peacock project started off with seven or eight projectors,” Roberts says. “We got that down to five. The cost saving became substantial for that customer. So it's far, far outmatched the cost of the design work. Then we have a higher reliability system by having fewer projectors, less realignment work, less complexity and such.”


Content is king

Although cutting-edge technologies give designers and integrators more options than ever, compelling content ultimately is what attracts consumers to an event. For permanent installations such as a building façade, it’s critical to have a long-term content strategy that includes periodic refreshes.

“If it's the same content over and over, they might come a couple times and then they just don't,” says Christie’s St-Denis. “There's no reason for them to really come back unless they're bringing friends to show them or something like that. But if you have a content strategy and you're changing it, say, once a quarter, that keeps it engaging, and your shows are busy year ’round.”

Another example is theme park rides with immersive projection.

“Maybe the next time you come, you're like: ‘I don't feel like lining up for that. We've seen it a couple times,’” St-Denis says. “But if you know there's going to be something new, then you're going to go back. I think theme parks have got that nailed pretty good.”

Consumer expectations also are based on what they’re experiencing elsewhere.

“Consumers are being subjected to an unprecedented amount of ultra-high-resolution animated content, which obviously has an influence on their expectations and what they consider acceptable,” says AV Stumpfl’s Stucken. “Real-time graphics tools like Notch and the Unreal Engine, and more ultra-high-resolution content in general, are pushing the possibilities on the content creation side, which in turn influences audience expectations to expect better and better picture quality.”

The Deep Fakes: Art and its Double exhibition in Switzerland used Digital Projection’s Satellite MLS system with Multi-View 3D projection technology to reconstruct a Unesco world heritage site.

These tools also can breathe new life into centuries-old content.

“It’s interesting to see how recently these technologies have come to be used more regularly not just for popular entertainment, but also with regards to what one could call classical high art,” Stucken says. “You can see more and more immersive exhibitions using works from old masters and presenting them in innovative ways, featuring projection mapping technology to sometimes create ingenious new approaches to presenting art to a wider audience. The flexibility of next-gen media server systems like our Pixera product range allow on-the-fly flexibility when it comes to combining pre-rendered content with live camera feeds and real-time tools like Notch and/or Unreal.

Artificial intelligence (AI) also is emerging as another way to help create content and then freshen it.

“A lot of content designers are currently experimenting with AI-based content creation,” Stucken says. “But since this is a relatively new field, one really has to define clearly what is meant by AI in a particular context and what exactly it is being used for. To our knowledge, there are as of yet no standard workflows being widely used that incorporate AI.”

About five years ago, a Christie demo at InfoComm showed how AI could modify source material.

“Let's say you take a van Gogh painting and feed it into some sort of AI system and give it a couple parameters,” St-Denis says. “Then it would take the circles, squares and colours you had and merge all of those to create some content that looks kind of like a van Gogh, but it's a little bit different. Or it could be animated. That could be one way that you can help create content that isn’t stagnant, especially for an art exhibit, where it can be a little bit more abstract.”

Image credits: 
©Ryoji Ikeda - data verse, 180 Studios, 2021. Picture Jack Hems
Monet & Klimt, Ocubo, 2020
Alain Herzog

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