Comcast Experience Opens a Window to the World

June 17, 2009

Its tapered profile has been likened to a flash drive – and, certainly, Philadelphia’s newly constructed Comcast Center plugs into the wizardry of digital imagery with an acumen befitting its namesake tenant.

Just as its reflective-glass façade holds a mirror to the surrounding city, a 2,100-square-foot megapixel display in its 7-story atrium mirrors the aspirations of its citizenry, as evinced by music, architecture, dance, sports, and acrobatics. At once window and wall, the assembly variously incorporates panoramic vistas of Philadelphia and life-size features of jittery, jitterbugging youth – and with clarity five times that of high-definition TV.

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That’s just for starters. As a result of artificial intelligence of the highest order, images of baseball and basketball players, and those of land, sea, and sky, combine and recombine in seemingly infinite varieties. At times, the imagery literally fades into the woodwork as display tiles assume the patina of the maple veneer on surrounding walls. 

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a pair of dancers spring forth, followed by a second pair and a third – each as lifelike as the 10,000 commuters streaming in from a train station located just beneath the center.

If the 58-story structure, Philadelphia’s tallest, takes its cues from contemporary European-style office towers, as its New York City-based design architect Robert AM Stern notes, the display’s imagery is as American as the Liberty Bell. It is Comcast’s gift, says CEO Brian Roberts, to the people of Philadelphia.

It comes by way of New York City-based Niles Creative Group, which achieved similar verisimilitude at Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall, Macy’s Herald Square, and Madison Square Garden. For the so-called Comcast Experience, director David Niles wished to maintain a sense of surprise by presenting spectators with ever-changing content – a challenge he met by layering images of 22 performers (10 of them native Philadelphians) atop assorted background images, or “content buckets,” as Niles came to regard them. The result, he says, is “the Philadelphia everyman doing extraordinary things.”

The display itself is a feat of extraordinary engineering, a response to Niles’ desire for “photorealism approaching realism,” as well as more mundane concerns, including the continual presence of daylight in the atrium, a condition that precluded use of front or rear projection. “They wouldn’t have generated the requisite amount of light,” says Niles.

LEDs, on the other hand, would – assuming that the technology could be adapted to achieve the desired level of photorealism. “At the time, 4-millimeter resolution was widely available,” Niles recalls. “We needed 6 millimeter.”

Enter Barco NV, a Belgian supplier specializing in the manufacture of LED display hardware. As installed, Niles’ images play on an 800-tile LED wall comprised of 6,771 Barco NX LED modules. Enveloping three entryways to an adjacent elevator bank, it’s the world’s largest 4- millimeter LED wall, with 10 million pixels mounted in a flat, seamless array.

Products Used

Barco, Dataton, Electrosonic, Medialon

Resulting imagery is “completely self perpetuated,” says Niles, explaining that a series of servers allow the screen to “create its own content, albeit within parameters.” Tableaus, he says, typically unfold in one of 12 ways, though permutations for each presentation number in the millions. 

Scenarios are constructed from servers that are progressively composited to provide maximum flexibility, as directed by a Medallion scheduler. “The servers function like jukeboxes,” Niles says, "holding hundreds of clips that can be combined and played in ever-changing sequences.”

To accommodate varying amounts of daylight, the wall emits as few as 200 nits of illumination at night and as many as 2,000 in the afternoon. A series of eight air-conditioning “fingers” extending down a plenum on the wall’s backside respond to corresponding variances in heat, maintaining the temperatures required to prevent panels from expanding and contracting. 

The same concern guided the development of a separate structural system for the display. “Loading wasn’t a concern – the wall is relatively lightweight,” says Niles. “However, we needed to ensure that temperature changes didn’t prompt the panels to expand and contract in concert with other structural elements.”

Hence, the wall is suspended from a massive, steel box header beam bolted to the underside of the floor above, with tiebacks extending from the back of the wall to the center’s concrete core to provide vertical stabilization. Tiebacks notwithstanding, “The display is completely independent of the building,” says Niles. 

The wall is framed by a custom carbon-fiber structure that’s stronger, lighter, and less prone to deformation than more customary metal box structures. Rather than screws, neodymium magnets affix modules to the frame.

Project Team Award Winners

Robert AM Stern, Niles Creative Group

For the most part, footage for the display was shot, edited, and scored in Niles’ studio, with actors, acrobats, and the like performing against a backdrop of blue, much as actors in CGI-based presentations do. Likewise, Niles tested the LED modules in New York to establish uniformity, brightness, and performance continuity prior to shipping the system to Philadelphia. Once it arrived, contractors hired by Barco worked from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. for a period of 3 months to ensure that construction of the wall didn’t interfere with ongoing construction of the building.

Now that it’s completed, the display provides access to worlds within worlds – four in all, according to Niles. The first allows images to burst forth from a plane behind the faux maple screen. The second, which exists onscreen, is a “flat world,” while the third exists in a “visual space” seemingly 4 feet in front of the wall. The fourth extends further than that, or at least appears to.

Illusory or no, Niles’ worlds stand worlds apart, even as they celebrate the world that lies just outside the window.

John Gregerson is a freelance writer living in Chicago.

Entertaining and inspiring the thousands of employees entering the lobby each day, The Comcast Experience videowall is a 25- by 80-foot LED screen with 10 million pixels. The screen blends into existing architecture and has the ability to create its own content. The 2,100-square-foot videowall brings spectacular original programming to visitors for 18 hours each day, and is viewable in broad daylight.

Credits: The webinar for this project is approved by AIA for earning one AIA/CES Learning Unit, and InfoComm for earning one RU unit.

Presented by:
Niles Creative Group

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