Projection mapping covered in glory

Projection mapping provides the wow factor in spades, but with LED looming, where is the market right now? Paul Milligan speaks to those on the inside.

It may not feel part of showbusiness, but the AV world is in the business of putting on a show, even if that ‘show’ is sometimes making sure everyone can hear the CEO at the other end of a video call. One of the most showbusiness elements of the AV world is projection mapping, the technique of being able to wow hundreds, thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people at the same time by projecting images onto shops, ships, parliaments, and royal palaces, to name but a few, has been wowing audiences for a decade now. But with all technology, innovation doesn’t stand still, and other technologies are on the horizon that can replace it, so what is the current state of the projection mapping market, we spoke to a mix of those involved to find out.

The market seems to be healthy at the moment, two industry reports from earlier in the year estimated the global projection mapping market will reach $8 billion (€7.5bn) by 2026 and could hit $12 billion (€11.3bn) by 2027, with the events/festivals segment responsible for 50% of that earnings forecast. You only have to look at the Berlin Light Festival, held in October every year, now in its 19th iteration, it reaches a total audience of 3 million people every year over 10 nights. The demand is there. Tamás Vaspöri, the managing director of Maxin10sity, a projection mapping studio based in Hungary, is a board member of the International Light Festival organisation, which only admits light festivals as members. “Two years ago we had 15 members, now we have 45.” So it’s clear parts of this market are doing well. “We’re finding it pretty buoyant at the moment, and we’ve seen that for the last few years,” says Matt Horwood, director of sales EMEA for Digital Projection. It’s not just being enjoyed at the manufacturer end either, “I think it’s probably the busiest it’s ever been. We’re certainly fielding a lot of calls at the moment,” says Ross Ashton, creative director, The Projection Studio.

Others are exercising some caution, “It’s had a vast growth over the last five years, it’s probably beginning to hit its peak,” says Simon Kentish, co-founder and CTO of Frameless, the largest permanent multi-sensory experience in the UK. “There are more and more immersive experiences popping up using projection mapping all over the world so it’s certainly not stagnating, but I do think it’s flattening out a little bit.”

As it’s grown over the years, the examples that have brought projection mapping into the public consciousness have been the big one-off shows on royal palaces or guerilla marketing on the side of huge public or parliament buildings to create a buzz or make noise. This from Lieven Bertels, segment marketing lead for immersive experiences, Barco, perfectly explains the trajectory of the projection mapping market; “It started out from traditional lighting festivals and video mapping on buildings. Then we saw the development of immersive spaces, and indoor video mapping, which still continues. What we are starting to see now is video mapping being used to amplify marketing campaigns, product launches, and general awareness campaigns.”

Do one-off events still make up the majority of this market or are we seeing a growth in fixed installations, such as the plethora of Van Gogh immersive experiences that have popped up around the world in the past three to four years? “We’re starting to see more permanent or long term installations, something that might be set up for like four to five months at a time to celebrate something. The big one-day or two-day extravaganza, like a 100th anniversary of something still happens, but it seems to be more spread out,” says Joel St-Denis, director of product management, Christie. The bulk of projection mapping projects are still of the one-off, one or two-day variety, but fixed installs are on the rise, and you can see why, there are huge advantages not just for manufacturers or installers of the technology says Ashton, but also for venue owners too. “With purpose-built venues there is a massive advantage as they can be open 24/7, they don’t need to wait for the sun to go down to do their show, they are indoors so you can charge a ticket, and they don’t get stopped by the weather.”

Bertels is also seeing demand for fixed installs in the retail world, “There’s quite a few cities now seeing the benefits of having permanent video mapping on buildings at night, we see a big growth in the Middle East and APAC regions for that because there’s many cities that have a stronger nighttime economy, people go shopping at night, and that’s the ideal backdrop for video mapping.” The nighttime also offers an opportunity for the heritage and museum sector too Bertels points out. “A lot of museums that close at night, even traditional museums such as the British Museum or National Portrait Gallery, it’s only effectively used for eight to ten hours a day for typically six days a week. You have a landmark building you can map on, on which you could actually tell a story for those people who didn’t come to visit during the day.” As well as new avenues, such as fixed outdoor installs in retail and museums, are there any advancements in hardware or software that have made projection mapping easier/faster/ cheaper than before, and are helping to drive this rise in usage? “With ultra short throw lenses we’re able to cover an entire floor with projection without needing 40 projectors, you can do it now with six,” says St-Denis.

It’s not just lenses that have changed things, “With our satellite system (which separates the projection ‘head’ from the light source via cables up to 100m long) it means bright projectors can be placed in areas where they couldn't previously be placed, whether it was a space confinement or a cooling issue, or they just couldn’t have an enclosure that big,” says Horwood. The biggest development has been the growth in the power of projectors says Ashton, “Because then you need less units which means you need less channels of media servers.” Vaspöri has seen a huge jump in colours and brightness, and more power equals less units which means less cost. “When we made our first show in 2014 we used 104 20k projectors to project onto the Parliament of Bucharest, now we would use 40 50K projectors. From a speed point of view if you have less projectors, the installation takes much less time and is much less work. From the server side, with a disguise server or (AV Stumpfl) Pixera server, it makes everything much easier than it was.”

Vaspöri’s point was echoed by others, and advancements in media servers and software is having a huge impact too. “Real-time software like Unreal (Engine) allows you to create content in real time i.e. you can move a logo to another wall or change the colour of the logo in real-time rather than having to go away and re-render for hours and then push the image out again. That’s quite a transformation in the way we can deliver bespoke events for clients,” explains Kentish.

The move from lamp to laser projection has been huge for this sector says Bertels. “It not only lets you project for longer, but it also makes it way more robust. With lamp projectors you had to have a cool off period or protect it when it was cooling off or risk breaking the lamp, that has all gone now. Also, the temperature we can operate a projector in has grown considerably, our projectors have been used in environments from freezing temperatures to the deserts of Abu Dhabi.”

Modern projectors are not just more powerful and more robust, they are thankfully also far lighter in weight, which is great news for anyone that has had the pleasure of trying to move a 20K projector in the past. “Our M4k25, a pure RGB projector is 25,000 lumens and weighs under 100lbs, if you look back at our Roadie models that were 25,000 lumens 10 years ago, they weighed 250lbs. This has allowed people to put projectors in spaces where they couldn’t have before when they needed high brightness,” says St-Denis.

Because the vast scale of many projection mapping projects is so impressive, this has led agencies/clients to demand more, with requests that are physically impossible, is this still happening? “Once a year I get somebody wanting to project onto the moon,” says Ashton with a wry smile. Another recent proposal he received was from a client who wanted to project a newly launched movie into the sky over London so that those on the International Space Station could watch it as they flew passed. “How do you even start? How many billions have you got? The space station travels at 17,000 miles an hour so they’re not over London for more than a few seconds anyway.” That crazy example aside, things are getting better in this respect says St-Denis, “I think more people are now educated on what’s achievable. You still have people wanting to do projection mapping underwater for instance, and projecting on moving surfaces is still a very challenging thing to do.” Whilst it may be easy to concentrate on the technology, it’s only part of the equation here, and a critical aspect of projection mapping is content, which can play a huge part in determining success or failure. “You need to be able to have a fresh content strategy that keeps people coming back. Some of the longer-term projection mapping things I’ve seen that haven’t lasted as long as expected was because they didn’t have the budget or content strategy to keep it fresh, and it got stale, and then eventually got decommissioned,” says St-Denis.

We have established technology has progressed to make things easier, the basic technique is still the same. This being the technology sector, someone is always trying to push things forward. The Sphere venue in Las Vegas has garnered a huge amount of hype in a short time. Traditionally to achieve the effect of covering a dome, inside and out, with video and images would have been a job for projection mapping, instead The Sphere is using LED. So is this a sign of things to come, could LED eventually replace projection mapping? No says Ashton, “Because no one’s ever going to let you clad Buckingham Palace in LED. My market is mostly heritage or listed buildings, they are never going to allow you to just clad it in LED and leave it there.” Others disagree, such as Simon Kentish from Frameless, “Absolutely LED can replace it, but the thing that holds it back is the pure sheer cost of it. It’s a huge return so you’ve got to be sure you’ve got the market for it. The huge advantage is that you can use external of The Sphere to advertise in the brightest time of day, where you just can’t do that even with the most powerful projectors.” Final word on this and the whole topic goes to Christie’s Joel St-Denis, “For those who can afford it many will go to LED. But I still think projection mapping using projectors is very healthy and will be for quite some time.”

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