Projection, plus mapping

When you have some level of control over lighting conditions, projection is a cost-effective way to display large imagery. That’s why projectors used in movie theaters (and why movies are shown in darkened rooms, or at night outdoors.) In fact, in most situations where you want a lot of people to see something, projection is the only viable option. And if what you want them to see is a movie or some other content well suited to regular screens then it doesn’t take much to erect a big screen or to project onto a flat surface like the side of a building or your living room wall.

But what if you want to project onto something that’s not flat? Like maybe you want your display to include not just one wall but two and the floor as well. Or perhaps the side of your building has windows and doors or even columns and cornices. Maybe you want to project onto a huge curved surface like the roofs of the Sydney Opera House or the O2 Arena. Or maybe onto something small like a car or a shoe?

For all of these situations (and more) what you need is projection mapping. Projection mapping (also referred to as video mapping, 3D mapping and spatial AR) has the ability to transform anything from a tall skyscraper or sprawling factory to a small tabletop or tiny display case into a projection canvas, of sorts. The exciting thing is that the surface need not be flat. It can be an object with an irregular shape or with complex curves and corners. The technique of projection mapping allows creators to transform the target object and to employ all manner of visual tricks and illusions.

In order to create these optical illusions, we first create a 3D model (the “map”) of the projection surface. Then we can fit the projection to it, using the map to emphasize, or in turn to hide, specific features of the target surface. To create these optical illusions, projectors cast video, animations, and other graphics onto the target objects to imbue them with color, shape, texture, and movement to bring them to life. That also means that each projection has to be specifically tailored to the surface it’s being projected onto. There’s actually a lot of complexity to that process, but we’ve now got some incredibly powerful software that makes it all possible.

The end result is both alluring and mesmerizing, not to mention eye-catching for passersby. Whether the focus is architectural, artistic, or for increasing brand awareness, it’s hard not to leave an impression on those who see these installations. As our cities reopen, this presents an opportunity for brands to create experiences that are truly engaging for consumers.

In the beginning

The Imagineers of Disney are credited with the first use of projection mapping way back in 1969, with the opening of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride. They filmed live singers on 16mm film then projected that back onto blank busts cast from the singers. The result was an eerie illusion of Grim Grinning Ghosts singing the ride’s theme song. This first use of the technique was so successful that it is still running in Disneyland today.

It was a clever use of the technique, and one that continues to inspire. A more recent project called Shogyo Mugo, originally created by the artists Josh Harker and Bart Kresa for Burning Man, similarly used projection mapping onto a 12-foot sculpture of a skull to great effect.

Disney itself has also continued utilizing the technology. Their parks around the world run shows nightly to large audiences, incorporating projection onto their iconic castles, as well as fireworks and other elements. To celebrate its 5th anniversary (and their post-pandemic reopening), Disney’s Shanghai Resort updated their nightly show with a new one called “ILLUMINATE! A Nighttime Celebration,” which even incorporates many of the brand’s beloved characters into the projection. While there are pyrotechnics, fountains, and lasers to augment the experience, the central focus is the massive Enchanted Storybook Castle that is projection mapped onto the park’s central castle.

Bright lights, big cities

Most people familiar with projection mapping know it from high-profile building projections and other municipal projects that transform the urban landscape from time to time. We’ve done many such projects ourselves. These immersive light displays can make a landmark come alive at night, and dazzle viewers from great distances. Often they can tell stories of a place or a people across space and time. One such example is the urban projection project Yekpare, which told the 8,500 year history of the city of Istanbul using the side of the city’s Haydarpaşa Train Station.

Sydney’s architecturally unique landmarks have also seen their fair share of complex projection mapping installations during their annual Vivid Sydney festival. The sails of the Sydney Opera House provide a unique opportunity for creating a seamless display of light and motion, and they’ve been turned into everything from a kaleidoscopic pinball machine to a turntable. Lighting the Sails works so well that the projectors have long since been permanently installed. But Vivid also routinely features projection mapping onto Customs House, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Cadmans Cottage.

Here in New York, the Empire State Building served as a compelling canvas for raising awareness of endangered species. People on the streets were captivated by the 350 feet tall and 186 feet wide images of sharks swimming by and bugs climbing up the city’s most iconic building. Several blocks south, celebrities and the press celebrated at a rooftop fundraiser to help aid the cause. 

Cities can be celebrated on a smaller scale as well. For example, Berlin’s landmarks are replicated in miniature at Little BIG City, a unique way to celebrate the 750-year history of the city. Even miniature landmarks can be illuminated via projection mapping to create an immersive show.

Indoor innovations

In recent years, using projection to create seamlessly immersive indoor spaces has also found great popularity. This is clearly evidenced in the rise of immersive art spaces like Artechouse, Miami’s Superblue and the extremely popular traveling Van Gogh Immersive Experience (so popular there seem to be numerous imitators). Similarly, the Singapore Science Center has installed full-wall projections and a central cubic structure that help to immerse visitors in a realistic underwater environment.

Stage productions and arena shows like sporting events can also utilize projection mapping to great effect. The surface of an NHL rink might be flat, but projection shows can make it seem anything but, as the tricks of the projection trade seem to show it breaking apart or flooding with water. Projection can serve as the entire stage and set design for choreographed performances in fantastical environments, such as in the “How To Train Your Dragon” ice show.

Arenas hold all sorts of potential for complex projections, with some flat spaces but other quirky architectural features. The Vancouver Winter Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies were able to stun both live and television audiences without large sets or theatrical props thanks to projection content that leapt out from the floors and ceilings. Projection mapping created an interior space that transported viewers into multiple times and locations.

Small-scale mapping

Projection mapping isn’t only about transforming entire spaces. In fact, the technology can use the geometry of any surface to add depth and movement seamlessly to objects like cars, aircraft, footwear, mannequins and more, for an engaging storytelling experience.

Product launches can take place in any space if the content is projected onto the items themselves. When the Jaguar F-PACE launched at Vivid, a car was placed on a stage and visitors could simply press a button to start an immersive interaction that virtually put the car in motion and highlighted its aesthetics. And when the Volkswagen Golf MARK VII debuted at the New York Auto Show, a 2-minute projection took viewers through the previous incarnations of the vehicle thanks to video projected onto the vehicle as well as the floor underneath and wall behind it. Even something as small as a shoe can also become a canvas for 3D video, as New Balance showed when they projected the evolution of their 996 series onto just one sneaker.

Projection mapping can even take place on a tabletop. The Malaysian restaurant Whimsy held a Cinematic Mapping Dinner in which the dining space did everything from welcome the guests to transfix them in between courses. And guests of all ages have been captivated by Panasonic’s Le Petit Chef program which features a tiny chef walking around the table to prepare their meal.

As the technology has become more sophisticated over the last few years, sensors and hand mapping have been incorporated into projection mapping as well, to add an element of interactivity to these immersive experiences. Tellart’s Terraforming Table is just one example of an activation that allows people to hover above a tabletop and manipulate the 3D images with their hands. And for a truly mind-bending glimpse into what’s possible, it’s always worth taking a look at Bot & Dolly’s “Box” installation, which projects video on moving objects for an even more dynamic effect that blurs the lines between real and digital space. Clearly, the possibilities are endless.

Making memories

Whether it’s done at large or small scale, brands have a great opportunity to engage customers with projection mapping as people head back out to engage with the world. Even those who hesitate to venture indoors can be engaged on the street with large outdoor projections by creative brands that use this immersive technology to help tell their stories.

It’s no secret that galleries, theme parks, trade shows, and cities as a whole that rely on tourist dollars were hit hard by the pandemic, but this technology can easily help draw more people into these spaces. The fact that that so many of these 3D displays and shows are mind-boggling provides brands, institutions and municipalities with the opportunity to create a moment that will live in the viewers’ heads much longer than the activations themselves are around.

The technology is more accessible than ever and people expect brands to be savvy when it comes to building engaging content. And cities are likely to be more receptive than they’ve ever been to partnering with brands to enable activations that can enrich the lives of their residents (and tourists, remember them?) It’s just up to brands to decide how to position their bespoke content to draw as many eyes as possible to their stories.

Featured Image: Lighting the Sails at Vivid Sydney