Vista Projection Maps the Bentonville Square

One of the hottest trends in production these days is a technique called “projection mapping”. It is a visual effect created by taking one or more high-powered projectors and shooting them onto a surface, then manipulating that surface with different types of video. It’s an extremely eye-catching and effective tool that we have in our arsenal at Vista, and the possibilities for it are endless.

‘Projection mapping,’ also referred to as ‘Video Mapping,’ was – until recently – referred to as ‘Spatial Augmented Reality’.  Always a progenitor in visual artistry, Disney was actually the first group to utilize this concept, projecting 16mm images of scary faces onto fake, blank, disembodied heads to give their Haunted Mansion ride the illusion of reality.  In the early 80’s the concept popped up again in installation art, filmed and projected by (then) MIT’s Michael Naimark, who would eventually lend his talents to Atari, Apple, and Lucasfilm. By the beginning of this century, visual artists had begun utilizing not only standard projection to bring life and motion to their work, but also pre-warping and masking their video and still images to be projected on pre-built objects.

In many situations, projection mapping is used to manipulate large buildings like cathedrals and hotels (this has become very popular in large cities and in Europe). However, it can be used for a multitude of settings and venues. Using a little bit of ingenuity and imagination, one could easily change multiple surfaces within a large or even small room. Making one wall the ocean, one wall the sky, and one wall the beach. Beyond that, set pieces for a stage could be designed to act as the surfaces for the various video parts, letting a speaker have their Power Point be seen in the shape of a spear, or perhaps their company logo.

The software environment is the key:  We can now take multiple, concerted streams of video and feed them into Video Mapping software.  This includes recorded video, motion graphics, 3D wireframes rendered in any way the imagination allows, live camera feeds, still photos, etc.  All these video sources are piped into the Video Mapping software.  Inside this software, virtual ‘surfaces’ are created.  These surfaces may be masked, warped and manipulated in a 3-Dimensional space.

As with all technology, there are limitations. However, the environment or the physical aspects of the surfaces chosen are usually to blame. One is the amount of light hitting the surface during a presentation. It has to be a generally dark setting, at night or within a room that has good lighting control. That’s not to say that projection mapping cannot be utilized in spaces that have a lot of light; it just has to be controlled so that the light doesn’t hit projection surfaces (we use it with stage wash lighting and effect lighting all the time.)

The second limitation is the brightness and reflectiveness of the surface. It’s best to work with a non-reflective, white or lightly colored surface. There is a reason that old churches and cathedrals in Europe were the first places this was used: because white stone is perfect to project onto. Trying to manipulate something dark and reflective (such as a black window,) would prove to be problematic.

Here’s the trick… when a video is warped in 3 dimensions, to match the dimensions and angles of the surface it’s being projected on, the human eye thinks it’s being projected from a perpendicular angle, directly (and correctly) on to the surface viewed.  And the real kicker is that, with this software, as many surfaces and individual, unique video streams may be sent from a single projector, as the graphics processor will maintain!  So from a single source, a single projector, we can individually light, animate and bring to life multiple surfaces at differing angles and physical positions, and to the beholder it appears that there are as many projectors as surfaces!  The practical truth of the matter is that the viewer is simply immersed in a world where ubiquitous, inanimate objects come to life.  Now multiply the effects of all this by feeding multiple projectors!  Now we’re talking about many more surfaces and much brighter visual reception.

Oh yeah – and the entire presentation can be locked into time and beat with a soundtrack, completing the immersive, entertaining experience!

A concert ceases to be a 2-dimensional experience, as surfaces of all angles become part of the show.  Bland, uninteresting buildings become four-story, fully animated billboards without need for printing or construction permits.  Trade-show displays become the visually arresting tools they are meant to be.

Corporate Events become robust, immersive, intriguing experiences replete with uniquely shaped set pieces, staging and room surfaces that completely draw in the attendee, leaving no part of the environment untouched.

That being said, the effectiveness of projection mapping and it’s “wow” factor far outweigh any limitations that is comes with. It is so versatile, and has been developed so well over the last few years that it is certainly not going anywhere, and will soon be seen in meetings and shows of all shapes and sizes. Projection mapping is an amazing tool that Vista is proud to offer.

– Sam McDonald and Eric Halsell

ProjectionMappingVideo from Vista Productions on Vimeo.