The display engineer redefining the entertainment market

When it comes to immersive displays, it takes a new kind of engineer to deliver something fresh. Reece Webb finds out how Portal Devices can revolutionise the entertainment market.

Creating immersive display designs takes a special, artistic touch to deliver quality results.

Enter specialist Portal Devices, a provider of design and technical services for projection display applications. Portal Devices offers technical breakthroughs not by simply creating a system, but by bringing a personal touch underpinned by its display engineering expertise.

Matt Roberts, founder of the Brighton-based company, explains: “Engineering has been in generations of my family, I’m not sure I had a choice of career after being enticed by the ability to design and make things. I’ve been fortunate to work on projected and immersive displays with some of the industry’s best talents for over 25 years. I originally designed full flight simulators, then specialist projectors, and finally, with expert colleagues, I have developed immersive displays for the attractions market for over ten years now.

“Display engineers are critical to many large projects. Without them you can introduce all sorts of issues which may have severe consequences – image wash out, lens glare, visible blends, impossible lenses, etc. The term ‘display engineer’ can cover a few esoteric disciplines such as video systems and control systems. We’re the optical and mechanical type. We provide design and technical expertise in projected displays, using projectors, lenses, mirrors, masks, alignment and screens. We liaise with master planners, architects, AV and system architect leads, OEMs, fabricators, setworks designers and more.”

One service offered by Portal Devices is immersive display design, where the Portal Devices team works with experience designers to assess the visual experience for guests in the entertainment industry, working to hide the technology and leaving visitors immersed in the scene.

Roberts adds: “We offer consultation, contract design work and specialist products. We’re useful when there is no in-house resource, or if the optical design requires specialist skills and tools. Our unique offering is that we also develop technologies and innovative solutions to longstanding problems. We set goals, such as ‘project anything, from anywhere, onto anything’. 

“We initially developed physicsbased display modelling tools (our proprietary DPX tools, Displays Projection EXpert) which design the projection geometry and analyse the image performance. This means we can provide early confidence on high capex decisions.”

The entertainment industry offers a unique opportunity for Portal Devices to explore immersive experience in a way that very few verticals allow. The world of entertainment relies heavily on the ‘wow factor’ and is always evolving. With that comes a challenge to ensure that technology within this sector keeps pace with the changing times to avoid becoming stale.

Technology can become outdated fast and it takes both ingenuity and imagination to succeed in this market. Roberts says: “Our ability to tell stories and give guests unique encounters through immersive experiences is evolving rapidly. Stunning video content is a key enabler, and we’re working to help unshackle creatives from display technology constraints and put pixels anywhere. Designs are more integrated these days, so we’re often working to hide projection rigs using wide-angle projections and sneaky projector positioning.

He points out that Portal Devices has “expert knowledge of fisheye lenses, and these have proven critical to some designs. Immersive displays are the portal to another world, providing unbounded experiential possibilities through video imagery.

“The use of light and sound to stimulate guests, to let them detach from the ordinary world, that is the goal and it’s part of a booming market. We love to escape into a fantasy world and to even role play in that.“

Roberts says “Our work will always be driven by the vision of content and experience designers, and it’s the stories they tell that keep evolving. Making the guest interact with the experience is key, as is detail and the suspension of reality. We love Salvador Dali’s quote: ‘I try to create fantastic things, magical things, dreamlike things. The world needs more fantasy. Our civilisation is too mechanical. We can make the fantastic real, and then it is more real than that which actually exists.’”

Immersing audiences isn’t as simple as creating stunning visuals and pretty colours. The entertainment industry needs to cater for everybody, meaning inclusivity needs to be baked into a design from the very get go.

Roberts has a few disabled family members and his designs are sometimes influenced by them, “Most impediments to inclusive experiences are unfortunately designed in and are avoidable. Staff training also helps, and some empathy is essential. The goal is to ensure that anyone with disabilities has the same quality of experience as everyone else.”

“The most important message to the market is to seek the advice of disabled user consultation groups, get their feedback and adapt to their needs. In doing this you will enhance everyone’s experience.”

Today, Portal Devices is offering its own products, soft launching its Stellar app: a 3D interface used in conjunction with a Leica pan tilt laser to position, locate and align objects in a 3D space. Roberts explains: “Stellar was initially developed to replace on-screen markers such as laser hedgehog arrays and UV dots or embedded fibre optics. We wanted to leave the screen alone, crush the time consumed by this activity, and be able to tweak the alignment markers in an instant. Stellar drives a Leica pan-tilt laser to draw markers out as 3D templates on any surface. For example, it can be used to draw out projection borders on unreachable screens, mark out screen and structure footprints whilst compensating for uneven floors and walls. We have proved this as an invaluable and cost effective aid for years now It takes command of the full installation and eliminates installation risks and uncertainties.”

Portal Devices has also launched POD, a projector mounting system designed to be a stable and rugged mounting system for large venue attractions, designed to make the lives of installers easier. Roberts says: “We believe projectors should not need frequent realignment by skilled technicians and we strive for fit-and-forget installations.

With immersive displays typically demanding wide-angle and specialist lenses in high footfall venues, we addressed this problem with a super rigid mounting.

Our POD rig optomechanically couples together the ‘optical payloads’ - the projector, lens, masks, mirrors and port windows. It has proven popular with customers who understand its value and who see our displays experience embodied in the design.”

"Display engineers are critical to many large projects. Without them you can introduce all sorts of issues which may have severe consequences." - Matt Roberts, Portal Devices 

Looking to the future, Portal Devices will maintain its path of providing display designs and engineering support to integrators, while making a general offer to provide its Stellar alignment and POD mounting products to the market.

This will enable new projects to bring immersive setups without eyewatering costs.

Roberts closes: “We have recently partnered with an international supply chain logistics provider, which is becoming our new production house, providing ISO 9001 quality and international distribution and warehousing. We’re also exploring exciting projects such as low-cost immersive displays, environmentally friendly shell structures, localised manufacturing, supporting customer’s IP development. There’s a lot to do and we enjoy doing it all!”

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