Display technologies for the largest of canvases

As the pandemic wanes, Tim Kridel explores the renewed interest in large-scale, outdoor AV experiences using drones, projection mapping and LED façades.

With medical experts still urging social distancing, are in-your-face shared experiences with thousands of people really a good idea? Apparently so, judging by the surge of renewed interest in large-scale, outdoor displays using LED façades, projection mapping and drone light shows.

Some of the places where that interest maps to actual implementation are countries that are faring better against Covid-19.

“China was the first to be hit hard by Covid,” says Joel St-Denis, Christie senior product manager. “They also were quick to recover. We’ve seen some pretty large installations [such as for] the Chinese New Year.”

This year of the ox also shows how such applications have mustered on even in places where lockdowns and other rules still limit mass gatherings. The London Chinatown Chinese Association used projection mapping on the Nelson's Column and fountains in Trafalgar Square.

“Given the current climate where people are still having to adhere to social distancing guidelines, mapping onto the façade of buildings is proving to be a great way of engaging with audiences without contravening guidelines,” says Mark Wadsworth, Digital Projection vice president of global marketing. “We have seen cultural venues use mapping with great success in a time where they have to interact with visitors differently than in the past.

“For example, our Titan Laser projectors were used for ‘Kunstareal Connects’ in Germany [pictured at top of page]. The area consists of 18 museums and exhibition spaces, internationally renowned universities and a multitude of cultural institutions. By effectively using mapping, visitors are encouraged to discover the diverse cultural offerings of the Kunstareal for themselves.”

Sometimes TV, YouTube and social media help make the business case. Organisers know that although few people are willing or able to see a display in person, there are still plenty of other ways to catch it. That will continue to be the case long after the pandemic is over — such as a drone light show at a major, sold-out sporting event — which highlights the bright future for large-scale, outdoor displays.

“Staying at home meant the opportunity to see large-scale mapping in person was virtually non-existent,” says Aleksandr Istomin, Dreamlaser co-founder and technical director. “Instead, municipal and governmental organisations made online broadcasts of shows possible to spread information and celebrate various events regardless.”

One example is the “Light of the Great Victory” show in Volgorad and at the Day of Russia at the Nizhny Novgorod Fair. Dreamlaser used 16 Christie D4K40-RGB laser projectors to map the show to the 87-metre-tall “The Motherland Calls” monument [pictured below].

“Both mapping shows existed in an online format,” Istomin says. “And since it was a shoot, we added augmented reality (AR) to get the perfect ethereal composition. It is worth noting that the quality, brightness and contrast of the image when projected by the Christie D4K40-RGB perfectly combines with AR graphics. In general, during the pandemic, we felt an increase in demand for AR and virtual reality (VR) services.”

Theme parks also are major users of projection mapping, including the smaller ones that Bartkresa studio often works with.

“They don’t have intellectual property that we have to match with,” says Bart Kresa. “[Unlike] with Universal or Disney, we don’t have to recreate Mickey Mouse or some other character. There’s more room for [creative] freedom.

“We are in communication with Skypark in Skyforest, California, to add a projection show at their park so that they could extend the hours of operation. Projection mapping is good for introducing something new. By the end of the day, the guests would want to stay for a new night show.”

Picture: Bartkresa studio began exploring 360-degree projection-mapped sculptures with Shogyo Mujo, a 12-ft-tall skull 

LED scales up and curves

Some LED façades use 3D effects to grab attention. One example is “Public Media Art #3 'Soft Body,'” whose title describes how the cartoonish bodies of people and animals float around on the Samsung 8K LED curved videowall. Installed in SMTown Coex Atrium in Seoul, the also shows other types of content, such as waves that appear to come splashing out.  

 LED façades remain a popular choice for applications where a permanent installation is okay or preferred.   

“Typically customers making this level of investment are looking for an ROI over, at the very least, five to seven years and oftentimes ten years,” says Sarah Irish, Samsung Electronics project manager for professional displays. “Outdoor LED really had its presence in the stadium and digital out-of-home markets over the past 10 years.

“The interesting shift over the past three years has been the growing adoption of outdoor LED by retail and theme parks. The enabler to this has been the smaller pitch outdoor LED, enabling smaller displays to be effective, and the rapidly decreasing price of these outdoor LEDs.”

Technology advances also enable ever-larger displays to provide the kind of eye-catching effect that advertisers covet.

“Their sheer size and how it can be seamlessly integrated into the physical space creates the opportunity for some truly creative ideas around content,” says Matt Cole, Visualab Media creative director. “Whether it mimics the space with a magical digital overlay, enhances the environment by creating whole new spaces or simply becomes a window to another world, the opportunities are endless.” 

 

Droning on

The pandemic also hasn’t grounded the drone market.

“In 2020, the supposedly ‘slow year,’ we saw major brands like Disney, Walmart, Netflix and Kia Motors, among others, use drones in spectacular fashion in their marketing outreach,” Dronisos co-founder and CTO Jean-Dominique Lauwereins says in a blog post written in response to Inavate’s interview request.

One reason is that with a viewable range of up to 2 km, a drone light show can reach tens of thousands of people while maintaining social distancing. Another draw is their novelty.

“Drones are still a very new technology and attract a lot of attention whenever they are used,” Lauwereins says. “This leads to a lot of buzz on social media and mainstream media channels.”

In some countries, drone light shows are particularly rare.

“The drone show is not yet very common in Russia, so it is more often preferred in the format ‘we have not done this yet’,” says Dreamlaser’s Istomin.

Drone light shows also keep getting bigger, making them the only AV option for displays that need to be the size of a football pitch. In 2015, the Guinness World Records title was a mere 100 drones. Today it’s 3,281 for a fleet that formed the Hyundai Genesis logo over Shanghai’s skyline on March 29 [pictured below]. That record won’t stand for long.

“The sky is the limit, literally!” says Carlo Ratti, founding partner of an eponymously named design firm. “Projection mapping is always tied to a physical surface, while drones offer higher flexibility, allowing content to reach many miles and a wide audience.”

Fast deployment is another advantage.

“You can take a fleet of devices out from your car and activate it in a short amount of time,” Ratti says. “This is an area we have been working on through the Flying Drone Blanket, a collaboration between CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati and startup Flyfire. It allows multiple drones — up to 10,000 when scaled up — to be deployed at the same time, so that light shows and other outdoor events could be done easily and sleekly.”

 

Content is king

One thing that drone light shows, LED façades and projection mapping have in common is that great content is key. That takes time and expertise.

Two years ago, Inavate explored the steep learning curve for drone light shows. That’s started to flatten. 

“Content generation has become easier thanks to the tools that have been made available to creators,” Ratti says. “For instance, the advancements of software like Blender have allowed artists and animators to collaborate with each other through its open-source platforms, and thus give them a leg up in idea execution for light shows.”

For projection mapping, a 3D model often is the starting point.

“The first thing the content folks are going to ask is whether you have a 3D model they can take into [Adobe] After Effects or whatever product they’re using to basically create a UV map that will be applied to that 3D model,” says Christie’s St-Denis. “One way we differentiate from competitors that make projectors is that we have our own software to bend the light to the 3D object and blend them together to create a seamless image.”

The migration from bulbs to lasers has also provided new content-creation opportunities.

“If we use lamp projectors, we make content with a whole range of restrictions on detail, contrast, and a set of colour palettes,” says Dreamlaser’s Istomin. “But when mapping uses Christie’s D4K40-RGB ‘all-in-one’ 45,000 lumen real laser technology, most of the restrictions on content are removed, and designers create much more efficiently. We value this a lot since now the dynamics of the mapping show can be built by changing the colour, and this is visible to the audience.”

Experience is also key because it enables content creators to understand what’s been done and how to push the envelope.

“The issues that arise when creating a ‘wow’ experience aren’t generally related to the hardware — the projectors — but the content creation,” says Digital Projection’s Wadsworth. “Many people have now seen mapping on a building, so designers are looking for alternatives.

“For example, Woodruff Park in the heart of Atlanta is surrounded by skyscrapers that would be ideal for a traditional mapping. However, the ADID’s Art & Entertainment District team decided to map onto the Peace Fountain — a long, curved, flowing waterfall at the northern end of the park instead — creating something unique to the area.”

With LED façades, content creation increasingly includes unusual shapes.

“For example, we are seeing pharmacies display a digital cross on the outside, not just to be eye catching as a green cross, but to promote certain products at different times of the year,” says Samsung’s Irish. “What is interesting, of course, is the creative challenge designing content for a cross brings. To be effective, the pixel pitch really needs to be sub 4 mm.

“Another interesting form factor that we are seeing is circular LED being erected outside coffee shops for example. Again, the key to the adoption here has been the smaller pixel pitch, which is able to replicate the brand’s logo meaningfully.”

Smaller projectors could enable more applications.

“The race for more lumens has always led to bigger, heavier and more power-hungry devices,” says Digital Projection’s Wadsworth. “However, with the advent of our Satellite Modular Laser System, system designers have access to a variety of flexible, compact building blocks that allow them to customise the brightness and resolution they need.

“By separating the light source [up to 100 m] away from the actual projection head and connecting them via our fibre optic cable, transporting and rigging super-bright projectors becomes a lot faster and easier due to the small size of the heads. These small heads also allow for cheaper and easier installation in climate-controlled boxes for use in harsh outdoor installations. The majority of heat generated by the system is remote from the projection heads, simplifying installation and HVAC considerations.”