Saudi Arabia pavilion wows Expo 2020 visitors with multimedia spectacular

Integrator Kraftwerk Living Technologies navigated a seemingly impossible brief, using multimedia technology to realise the incredible ideas of architect Boris Micka and bring the Saudi Arabian Pavilion at Expo 2020 to life. Anna Mitchell reports.

After a year’s delay due to Covid-19, Expo 2020 finally opened in Dubai on October 1, 2021. It’s a tough call to stand out among the 200 pavilions on the world fair site but the structure from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) makes a confident bid with a massive rectangular monolith, soaring up to the sky at a gravity-defying angle.

Second in size only to the UAE’s own pavilion (amongst the country pavilions), the KSA’s LEED Platinum rated showpiece is designed by Boris Micka Associates under the theme “Window to the Future”. Through more than 13,000 square metres it tells visitors the story of Saudi Arabia; it’s history, heritage, culture and the future into which it is heading.

“We won the contract in 2018 and from that moment we had four months to develop the project and in February 2019 we started on the site,” says Boris Micka.

Working with officials in Saudi Arabia, Micka started to form an idea of how the country and its people should be presented. “As we met with important people, finally ending up with His Royal Highness Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, we decided that we needed to show the country as open, inviting and fun,” says Micka. “The pavilion says important things about Saudi Arabia’s heritage and future but it’s playful and hopeful. There’s no written text, the ideas are communicated through sensorial experience.

“The population in Saudi Arabia is very young; it’s the most social media oriented country in the world. It’s so modern and to represent it properly you have to use technology.”

When it came to AV, lighting and multimedia, Kraftwerk Living Technologies (KLT) was chosen to turn Micka’s ambitious visions into reality, responsible from concept to completion of weaving the technology seamlessly into the pavilion. The KLT team spent 16 months on site sometimes working in temperatures of 48 degrees Celsius. Every face of the building, inside and out, incorporates elements of AV technology so the KLT team were not just working to tight timescales, but chasing the construction contractors to hit the tough deadlines.  

“I always design something that doesn’t exist and then someone has to invent it,” jokes Micka. And as the building developed it turned out that KLT was breaking new ground in the technologies it was delivering, often resorting to custom built elements.

“Before you even enter the pavilion you’ve witnessed two Guinness World Records,” says Gavin Olivier, sales and business development MEA at KLT.

The first refers to the floor beneath the wedge shape of the building. Studded with more than 8,000 RGB LEDs, concreted into the slab and recessed in the granite floor; the surface that visitors walk over to enter the pavilion is effectively a 50m x 50m, 8K pixel display.

Saudi Arabia pavilion wows Expo 2020 visitors with multimedia spectacular

“We originally planned to use RGBW elements, but since we manufactured these lights from scratch, decided to opt for RGB-IR, effectively turning the floor into a huge infrared grid,” explains Olivier. “The interactivity is delivered by cameras on the underside of the pavilion roof that work with the infrared grid to track people and movement. It’s highly accurate, to the tune of one or two pixels, because we have every single infrared light as a DMX channel.” Brainsalt Media handles tracking and control of the interactive floor, while the videomapping is powered by Madrix lighting control.

Surrounding the floor are a number of granite architectural benches that were built to accommodate visitor pauses. They cleverly conceal all the driver equipment for the LED lights. Actively cooled, they contain 100s of power supplies and DMX splitters without visitors seeing a glimpse of the technology powering the show.

The underside of the roof is a giant mirror that KLT built from 1,336 custom LED panels, each with a mirrored glass face. Reflected above them, visitors will see themselves, the content from the floor and stairs that take you down to the belly of the building, which is the entrance to the pavilion. It also offers different perspectives according to where you are. Standing back, you see the whole view of all elements – physical and digital – coming together. Standing directly beneath, your outlook is more localised.

The mirror is where the second World Record comes in; at 1,336 sq m it’s the world’s largest mirrored display thanks to KLT’s efforts in creating a custom mirrored LED surface. With a pixel pitch of 31mm it was initially intended to show abstract designs but, says Oliver, “when Boris [Micka] saw content running on the display, he adjusted his approach to higher resolution designs and it looks great.”

Around the edge of the mirror display is a discreet “tech channel” where the audio equipment and the cameras for the interactive floor are concealed. Audio is delivered by a mix of Meyer Sound Ultra X40, UPQ-D3 and L750-LFC cabinets controlled by a Q-SYS Core in fully redundant set up. Twenty-four Robe iPointe IP65 moving heads are also installed here on motorised lifts  - custom built by KLT and automated by Beckhoff controllers - so they can be completely concealed when not in use.

The side of the building integrates 686m of 16mm Infiled LED in customised cabinets, designed for text and graphics. There are 700 photovoltaic panels on the roof integrated with 1,548m of Martin Pixline 20 LED strips and 203 Martin Exterior Linear 300 LED cove washlights, mapped to a Martin P3-050 system controller.

Saudi Arabia pavilion wows Expo 2020 visitors with multimedia spectacular

All elements from the surface of the roof down to the interactive floor are synchronised and come together with audio each evening. Every 15 minutes there is a different short presentation on Saudi Arabia with a dedicated piece of music that Micka describes as a “screensaver”. This culminates in a daily seven minute-long multimedia show where visuals, sound system and lighting are combined in a spectacular display.

“It’s all coordinated, running synchronously; that’s quite a feat,” remarks Olivier. “Running frame accurate sync across such vastly different display types, shapes and sizes is nowhere near as simple as it may appear and required numerous live tests. Doing the heavy lifting here is a Brainsalt Media system, handling the media, show control and timeline synchronisation.”

The sound system delivers a thundering eight-channel soundtrack that is part of a composition created specifically for the KSA Pavilion. Particular care had to be taken during design phase to achieve the required SPL within the guest zone, without exceeding levels in the adjacent public areas and pavilions.

“I think audio is sometimes more important than video,” says Micka. “We worked with Spanish composer Victor Reyes who composed every piece as symphony orchestra music. Every area has its own piece of the music with a leitmotif that runs through the whole pavilion. Music was absolutely essential.” Audio is delivered throughout the pavilion using more than 160 digital audio channels.

The soundtrack is used for one of the games programmed for visitors to take part in, powered by the interactive floor. The separate parts of an orchestra playing the track have been recorded. When this game plays, visitors can trigger parts of the orchestra by standing on specific areas of the floor. If enough people come together all parts are played so visitors create the full orchestral rendition.

To accommodate the daily shows, the KLT team have patch-in points on the plaza floor and a mobile FOH setup is wheeled out in the evenings. This includes a digital Allen & Heath audio console, a ChamSys lighting desk and a barrage of peripherals to accommodate the live show requirements including stage boxes, microphones and foldback monitors.

Micka says there are “small notes” incorporated into the pavilion design and the first is in the visible structure of the pavilion itself that’s at a 24 degree angle with a nod to the latitude of both Riyadh and the Expo site.

There are other reasons to the soaring structure. Micka says: “You have the site which allows you a certain area in which you can build. If you build it straight, you don’t have anything different to what anyone else is doing. We are reaching to the sky.

“Furthermore, if you live in the UAE, you realise that shadow is important,” continues Micka. “As you come in to the pavilion you go from the sun to the shade and then you descend the ramp to a huge programmable water feature which cools you even more. You are progressively dropping from 40 degrees [Celsius] to 24 degrees over a period of four to five minutes. You already feel like something good is happening.”

As well as offering a cooling entrance, the curtain of water acts as visitor control; the left, right and centre can be individually controlled to manage the groups entering the space. Through the curtain visitors can see the welcome LED display.

Saudi Arabia pavilion wows Expo 2020 visitors with multimedia spectacular

This 22m long, 2.6mm pixel pitch Gloshine LED screen, fed and controlled by Brainsalt Media servers and control, shows a simple, looping video that depicts the natural attractions of Saudi Arabia.  QSC handles audio and a Shure Axient Digital wireless microphone system is available. This space is used to gather and orient visitors before they take their first ascent up and through the Heritage section of the pavilion.

Escalators bring visitors up through multi-storey scenic setworks, built on either side showing buildings and archaeological features that depict the heritage of Saudi Arabia. Projection mapping using 12 Barco F80 WU units is used to highlight and animate parts of the structures and the soundtrack is delivered via a multi-channel audio system consisting of a mix of QSC and K-Array speakers and powered by a QSC Core.

This ascent takes visitors to the Land and People part of the exhibition within the building mezzanine. A large curved 2.5mm Gloshine LED display covering 266 sq m acts as a large backdrop to the space. In the centre of the room visitors look down to a true concave 3mm Lopu LED display that represents the land part of the exhibition. It’s a powerful visual and an unusual format for LED. “It was unique when it was planned,” says Olivier. “Two years ago, when it was conceived, people weren’t commonly using complex curve LED in this way or scale.”

Saudi Arabia pavilion wows Expo 2020 visitors with multimedia spectacular

The handrail around the display cleverly conceals K-Array loudspeakers and subwoofers. The two displays work in tandem controlled by Brainsalt Media, accompanied by a powerful soundtrack that is additionally supported by QSC speakers overhead and controlled by QSC Core.

To tackle the Future portion of the exhibition, Micka’s design takes visitors on a journey back down through the building. The ceiling here is adorned with 2,030 hand blown crystals from a Czech chandelier manufacturer and lit with RGBW profiles tucked out of sight within the structure. This is another of Micka’s “notes”, representing Vision 2030 and this area shows visitors a glimpse into the future Saudi Arabia is heading into.

Saudi Arabia pavilion wows Expo 2020 visitors with multimedia spectacular

The big multichannel soundscape - requiring a very specific design resulting in a combination of QSC, JBL and K-array loudspeakers and controlled by a QSC Core - continues through this area. Massive custom curved screen surfaces from Showtex on either side show content produced by Micka’s team and approved at the highest level in Saudi Arabia as a representation of the plans they have for the country. Thirty-one F80-Q12 Barco projectors are used to display a landscape showing modern buildings and parks, people from multiple cultures and in various styles of dress. Futuristic technology is a crucial part of this vision with modern transportation and futuristic wheelchairs, prams and hoverboards in the scene. KLT again deployed Brainsalt Media servers and show control here, with Brainsalt also handling auto alignment of the projectors and lighting control. The steel structure of the pavilion is visible and frames the visuals. It’s a deliberate move demonstrating how building is a central part of Saudi Arabia’s vision for the future.

From Future visitors are brought to Vision containing one of the most significant and spectacular visual elements of the pavilion. Walking into this area, visitors are confronted with a huge floating sphere that appears at a virtual diameter of 36m in front of them. The effect is produced by a huge Kaleidoscope: four mirrors, each 14m wide, are incorporated in a squared off conical shape. Two Barco F80-4K12 projectors fire onto a spherical inflated centre-screen to create the illusion of the enormous sphere.

Saudi Arabia pavilion wows Expo 2020 visitors with multimedia spectacular

The floor is also an interactive projection surface. Using 14 Barco F80 4K12 projectors, KLT delivered a system that runs synchronously with the sphere, but with interactive layers that react to visitor movements. The server cluster, auto alignment and tracking system were all sourced from Brainsalt Media. The content here was created through collaborations with four Saudi Arabian artists who were actively involved with how to represent their work on the sphere and through the interactive elements.

A combination of Meyer Sound Ultra X40 loudspeakers and 750-LFC subwoofers deliver the inspiring 10 channel soundtrack with processing delivered by a QSC Core.

Behind the Vision space is a VIP area, separated by a glass curtain wall, angled to avoid reflections. The room can be lit by natural daylight from additional windows facing the gardens. A powerful show for distinguished guests starts with the windows being covered as automated curtains close and lights dim. Curtains on the other side of the room then open to reveal a view of the huge projected sphere. As this happens the in-room sound fades across to the show soundtrack from Vision so the VIPs feel fully linked to the space.

Saudi Arabia pavilion wows Expo 2020 visitors with multimedia spectacular

After Vision visitors can leave or enter one of two gardens, one reserved for VIPs. Audio continues with a QSC sound system and Shure Axient Digital wireless microphone systems are available in all areas via a network of antennas. Leading off the gardens is one final area that people can choose to enter. The Discovery Centre is specifically designed to provide a deeper level of information on Saudi Arabia.

A large table measuring 14m across and built in the shape of Saudi Arabia dominates the centre of the room. KLT ceiling mounted 20 4K Barco F870-4K6 projectors to fire futuristic CGI animations down on to the table and 54 people can simultaneously look up details on topics such as tourism, commerce and culture via user interface zones placed around the perimeter.

Saudi Arabia pavilion wows Expo 2020 visitors with multimedia spectacular

These interactive zones use 432 capacitive sensors, managed via a Beckhoff network that delivers touch data to the interactive server cluster. “We chose the capacitive sensor route over foils or cameras due to simplicity and robustness,” says Olivier. “The UI is designed to be quick and easy in order to keep people moving, so we could design the technology accordingly”. The video, audio and content management servers were sourced from Brainsalt Media, along with auto alignment for the projectors. A mirror array over the table allows visitors further back to gain a perspective of the table shape and content.

KLT installed a mix of K-Array loudspeakers over the table and QSC loudspeakers in peripheral zones, as well as a QSC Core to deliver audio.

Around the edge of the room are six “pods”. Each incorporates a projected display using a Barco F80-4K7 with media switching delivered with a combination of Extron and Atlona kit. Each pod is manned by a specialist who can talk about six areas of focus: Economy & Investment, Society & Nation, Kingdom of Art & Culture, Nature & Tourism, Energy and Transformation. These specialists carry tablets that allow them to switch the pod to any of the subjects and to easily swipe through the information as they explain to small audience groups.

Also contained within the Discovery area is a separate cinema. A Barco F80-4K12 projector fires onto an AV Stumpfl full white projection screen, while nine QSC Cinema series loudspeakers and Core processing handles the audio. In addition to the Brainsalt Media 4K Server, the users are able to wirelessly connect devices for impromptu presentation use.

Control of the systems throughout the Pavilion is complex. The backbone of this is a fully redundant network which carries control, content management and digital audio. All automation is managed via multiple Crestron CP4s for redundancy, handling all AV related power circuits via custom switching cabinets in the many electrical rooms. Crestron also takes care of the Start/End-of-day sequencing, technical overrides, architectural lighting and fault logging via a series of operator stations throughout the pavilion, coupled with numerous button panels and wireless tablets on a dedicated meshed wireless network. All timeline based show control is courtesy of Brainsalt Media, using its Conductor and Playmaker software.

Micka’s team was responsible for the full production of all content used in the pavilion. “We travelled 12,000km around the Kingdom in four months to shoot footage,” he says. “We shot 8K with drones, the first flown in the country.” Through this process, the team had to navigate sensitive areas, working with the military and obtaining permits to capture exactly what was needed to deliver the vision. 

When the Expo opened the KSA Pavilion was an instant hit and after watching visitors interact and react with the building and content, Micka is already coming up with new ideas to push the concept further. The pavilion was designed as a permanent structure and will remain after Expo 2020 so he may well have that opportunity. It goes to show that Vision is not a static concept and the ever-changing and even developing pavilion represents that perfectly.

Photos: Alec Building Excellence


Project credits

Main Client – Saudi Aramco
Architect, Designer and Content Producer – Boris Micka Associates
Main Contractor – ALEC Engineering and Contracting
Fitout Contractor – ALEC Fitout
Client Representative – Philip Hartley Associates in conjunction with 767 AV Consultants



Allen & Heath audio console
JBL loudspeakers
K-Array loudspeakers
Meyer Sound Ultra-X40 and UPQ-D3 loudspeakers and 750-LFC subwoofers
QSC loudspeakers, Q-Sys amplification and QSC Core audio processing
Shure Axient Digital wireless microphone systems

Control and automation
Atlona switchers and wall interfaces
Beckhoff automation PLC and sensor control
Brainsalt Media show control software and interactive tracking
Crestron CP4 control processors and power switching modules
Extron switchers and wall interfaces

Brainsalt Media DMX and sACN lighting control
ChamSys lighting desk
Crestron DALI and BACnet architectural lighting control
Madrix pixel mapping server and DMX Nodes
Martin Pixline 20 LED strips, Exterior Linear 300 cove washlights and P3-050 system controller
Robe iPointe IP65 moving heads

AV Stumpfl projection screen
Brainsalt Media uncompressed video servers, interactive servers, content management systems and auto alignment
Barco F80 WU, F870-4K6, F80-4K12, F80-4K7 and F80-Q12 projectors
Gloshine 2.5mm LED
Infiled 16mm LED
Lopu 3mm LED
Showtex projection screens