The Great Wall of Chelsea

July 1, 2008

Creative technology, minds make art at high-res, edge-blended video wall

By C.C. Sullivan

When media magnate Barry Diller, chairman of IAC/InterActiveCorp, enlisted the powerhouse design team of Frank O. Gehry and Bruce Mau to envisage his new Manhattan headquarters, everyone expected fireworks. What few expected, however, was that those pyrotechnics would be on display from inside the gently warped, white fritted-glass building's lobby 24 hours a day.

Yet they are, thanks to what has been billed as the world's largest high-resolution, edge-blended video wall—a technological marvel of display visible to cars whizzing along the West Side Highway.

"Barry Diller and Mau came up with this original idea for the video wall to be part of the streetscape, like a very large light fixture, not only with projection capabilities but also a color wash that could be pure white or any color of the rainbow," says Craig Webb, a partner and project architect with Gehry Partners, Los Angeles. "It would be an ambient presence in the lobby, which we wanted to keep as open and flexible as possible. It would have different modes at various times of day supporting IAC needs and activities, such as presentations during events."

In fact, IAC has gone even further, commissioning artists and programmers—and Bruce Mau Design, too—to create new content that dazzles visitors while supporting the IAC brand.

Fast-track Feats
Even more impressive, the complex, novel video wall was devised and built in only 18 months, amid the chaos and dust of the 10-story office block's construction phase, says Joe Fusaro, project manager for the systems integrator and engineer, McCann Systems, Edison, NJ. The video wall facing the street is 120 feet long and a second, parallel wall facing the interior is 22 feet long; a washroom separates the two.

"The idea was to have a lobby media wall, as large as they could, but that would take up as little room as possible," says Fusaro. The result was to dedicate a mere 5-foot, 7-inch sliver of space for the massive street-side video wall display. That meant a very short distance from the projectors—all 18 of them—to the 11-foot-tall screen.

The project team knew instantly that the screen itself would have to be special. Fortunately, a new glass technology for rear projection had just passed tests for Class-2 safety codes. Strong enough to survive most accidental impacts, the multiple-panel, low-iron, 1-inch-thick screen glass could be brought right down to the floor—an unusual and impressive detail. The optical coating is protected between the glass panels, and unlike tempered glass, the screen does not create optical artifacts or excessive backscatter.

"The glass panels are butted up to each other and the edges are highly polished, so it looks like it has on-purpose seams with an architectural look," says Don Stewart, executive vice president of Stewart Filmscreen, the Torrance, CA-based supplier. "We couldn't do a 120-foot screen without the seams. So if you can't fix it, feature it." Another challenge was the glass sizes, which were too big for U.S. autoclaves. So Stewart shipped the glass sections to Switzerland, where he had found an autoclave large enough to accommodate the 11-foot-tall sheets.

Above (larger image - © ALBERT VECERKA/ESTO) & Below (larger image - COURTESY OF STEWART FILMSCREEN):The video wall facing the street is 120 feet long, served by 18 projectors hidden in a 5-foot-deep space behind the partition. The 11-foot-tall screen is made of low-iron glass panels that resist impact.

Squeezing in Projection
The narrow projection space demanded a few tricks to get crisp, bright images on every square foot of the specialized glass panels, says Fusaro. "We used a mirror system with a double bounce and optically rotated the images 90 degrees because we couldn't get 11 feet high with a wide image," he explains, adding that optical rotation was preferred over turning the 18 projectors on their sides, which can shorten lamp life. With the edges blended by means of 11 PCs running Dataton Watchout software for synchronizing computer images, the projector array works as one unified pixel space—like a giant TV.

Adds says Jeff Schneider, sales manager with the projector manufacturer Digital Projection, Kennesaw, GA, "We then tried to figure out the best, most cost-effective projection method, rather than using an LED screen, for example, which wouldn't provide true colors and would be too bright to stand close to. Projection gave us better resolution, contrast, and seamless blending, which you can view from a foot away." The team determined that the light output from the screen would stand up to the strong daylight in the west-facing, glass-enclosed lobby.

While not used as display pixels, LEDs do serve another purpose for the wall, notes Webb: When the projectors are off, 167 LED fixtures take over to illuminate the screen, letting the projectors rest. "So the wall also serves as a vibrant color wash, an ambient presence in the lobby," he explains.

This was closer to Mau's and Diller's original concept: Rather than full-motion video, they imagined a wall of colors and shapes to reinforce the IAC company brand. The concept took on new life, however, when the McCann Systems team recommended that full-motion, high-definition video was not only feasible but also practical. It could be used for any purpose, from corporate presentations to commissioned art video.

A Digital Canvas Unfurled
The timely, effective integration of Mau's luminous wall concept, however, required some special planning. Gehry Partners conceived the IAC building in 2003, but McCann Systems wasn't engaged until the middle of 2004. On-site work for the video wall started in early 2006, with a planned completion date only a year later.

To boost effectiveness, McCann Systems employed a time-management software to forecast scheduling and resource needs, improving communication among the installers and contractors. This was especially important as delicate instruments and machinery were installed during construction, says Fusaro.

Bruce Mau and Barry Diller designed the IAC wall to be part of the streetscape, like a very large light fixture with projection capabilities and a color wash that can be white or any other color. (larger image) COURTESY OF STEWART FILMSCREEN

The screen's huge size and high definition requirements demanded colossal computing power; among the installed systems are seven head-end AV racks holding, among other gear, 30 high-speed video server PCs by Polywell and Show Sage, 10 real-time Spyder video processors by Vista Systems, large-scale video routing equipment by Extron, Opticomm, and AMX, and data switches by Cisco. "We installed the apparatus to support the mirrors and projectors first, and then later installed the mirrors and projectors and commissioned them, which took a month to make sure everything was working and fluid," says Fusaro.

By the time of its ribbon-cutting, the IAC building had already made a big splash, with critical acclaim and even praise from neighbors. The video wall became a new urban attraction in New York's Chelsea neighborhood—and a canvas for work by artists and even Bruce Mau himself.

"We just produced a new video for the wall to accompany the New Yorker conference held in May," notes Milena Vujanovic, creative director for Bruce Mau Design, Toronto. "It's an incredibly complex, massive system, yet there are lots of things you can program on the fly. Beyond still graphics and text, you can do animation and video with a level of detail you usually don't see unless you're doing IMAX- or Hollywood-style work."

The project team installed 167 Color Kinetics Color Blaster fixtures to allow the flexibility of running the projectors, then switching to colorful collage lighting. (larger image) COURTESY OF STEWART FILMSCREEN 

The integration of the wall with Gehry's architecture—and the interior design by STUDIOS Architecture—adds another level of interest for the video creators, adds Vujanovic. "When you're interacting with a wall surface, you experience the architecture and also see the tiniest little detail within the images. So you can have a very intimate experience with a building occupant one-on-one, or the viewer can step back and enjoy the holistic experience of the imagery."

Programming the Video Wall

Because one of the main uses of the video wall is to create moving backgrounds, AV integrator McCann Systems recommended the use of Dataton's "Watchout" multiple-display software, which allows computer images to synchronize together for one big image across a large surface.

Eleven PCs running the program feed the west-facing, 120-foot wall. Their outputs are fed into the video processors, which spread the outputs across that entire wall, creating a seamless moving image that was custom-built for that aspect ratio, yielding true pixel-to-pixel aspect ratio content.

According to project manager Joe Fusaro, "Everything runs on a web tablet, a laptop that is touch-sensitive." The tablet controllers can be used to call up the DVD players, all the LED lighting controls, and other AV equipment - and even have a built-in time clock feature.

C.C. Sullivan ([email protected]) is an author and communications consultant specializing in design and construction.

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