Since June of 2008 Philadelphia list of must-see attractions enriched itself with a digital wizardry of Comcast Experience. Unbelievable installation of 10 megapixel LED video wall with sound and graphics graces the lobby of a 297-meter high Comcast Center building. Meant as a gift to Philadelphia from both Comcast and Liberty, which is the developer of the building, the installation turned public transportation hub into a stunning art project. Orchestrating 10 million pixels of visual artistry is a sophisticated system created by David Niles and his team.
“With the challenge of creating not just another lobby decoration and not just a corporate billboard, Niles Creative Group has set out to develop virtual architecture rooted in a theatrical vision,”- explained David Niles, the company’s Founder and Creative Producer.
To fulfill the project, Niles set for himself and his team demanding criteria. First, the viewing experience on the wall had to be as much photorealistic so that it would approach reality. Second, the content displayed should be unique and ever-changing. Third, the content delivery system should operate maintenance-free mostly on its own.
The first challenge was to select visual technology competent enough to cope with the task. Having tried products from few manufacturers, Niles eventually opted for Barco NX-4 LED tiles that met all his requirements. The screen that is 25m wide by 7.7m high is composed of 6,771 LED modules with 4mm pixel pitch. The display’s exceptional clarity that is ought to its specification makes people think they are looking at a live show, not on a screen. Each LED module provides a 4000:1 contrast ratio and has a light output of over 2,000 Nits. The display’s brightness is continuously adjusted to ensure photorealistic vision at any time of day starting from 200 Nits at night and increasing up to 1200 Nits in the afternoon. The heat generated by LEDs as a result of these consumption power variances is dissipated using eight air-conditioning fingers that run down the back of the screen.
Even considering the lightweight design of NX panels the screen weight is nearly 13 tons. Carrying this massive weight is a huge header beam bolted to the under panels of the floor above, which the wall is suspended from. The holdfasts attached to the building’s concrete core secure the wall from the backside but also eliminate rear access to the modules’ electronics proving useful of Barco NX-series front serviceability option.
“It was a pretty extensive evaluation process,” - said Steve Scorse, who was then vice president of events at Barco. “With no rear access, everything had to be serviced from the front of the wall. Nobody had ever hung a video wall this size before, and we were scaling the project up from a 100-tile demonstration to a custom 800-tile installation with a latent support structure that has to hold up to 28,000lbs of LED modules. Fortunately, Barco's depth of engineering experience was extensive enough to handle the challenge.”
Niles wanted to create an ever-changing content to prevent viewers from getting accustomed to it. As part of the public art project the content was meant to stimulate employees of the Comcast Center and entertain passersby. So the idea of commercial videos was discarded initially. Niles determined that the wall's imagery would exist in four different worlds: “behind the screen”, as the display mimics the surrounding walls and can be made to look invisible; the flat world on the screen itself; the world “in front of the screen”, e.g. visual space that is seemingly within 1m in front of the wall where all the characters perform; special Christmas 3D display on holiday season.
Within those four worlds exist 12 different types of content. The easiest to work with regarding the immense 10 million pixels canvas were extraordinarily high-resolution NASA images obtained from the Hubble space telescope. For nature and life sequence images, Niles and his team designed a panoramic camera rig with three high-definition cameras. The technique called, “Eagle Eye Camera Panorama” allows to make spectacular footage retaining its native resolution. The other scenarios feature combinations of computer-generated images at 10 million pixels with live action video shot in high definition.
Playing on top of background images are life-sized human characters presented as “Philadelphia everyman doing extraordinary things”. For the shooting of actors, acrobats, and dancers the team used Panasonic’s AJ-HPX3000 native 1080p one-piece P2 HD camcorder. Niles calculated that 2 million pixels would be enough for his life-sized characters to appear photorealistic on the screen. Therefore, the 2.2-megapixel resolution of the HPX3000's CCDs provided a 1:1-pixel ratio for his human characters.
After shooting the video, material underwent an elaborate post-production process. First, the footage had its resolution decreased to an HD canvas to be edited with the Apple Final Cut Pro. Then all the data of where elements go in and out and where they are positioned went into a second stage where there was a 10-million pixel model created through Adobe After Effects. Then, all of the parameters Niles established in his edit room were rendered out into six 1920×1080 segments that were exported to the servers.
"Each time you see a picture on the screen, you see six full-resolution HD pictures," -commented Niles. "Each scenario is composed of six separate images coming together. Once we established a workflow, it was not hard to do, but intense."
The wall is always on displaying different types of content 18 hours a day, from 6 a.m. till 12 a.m. Even when the system appears to be off, it mimics wood-paneled interior walls serving as a virtual architecture feature.
Content Delivery System
The content delivery system is a smart and powerful tool designed to operate without human interaction. The artificial intelligence paradigm ensures no identical scenarios are being repeated.
24 HD servers contain imagery database for three content delivery systems, from Barco, Dataton (programmed by Bill Lyons) and Electrosonic. Each server has a dedicated RAID storage and a backup.
The system features eight Dataton WATCHOUT servers six of which play back to the six segments of the wall to form its 10-megapixel resolution. The servers, which contain hundreds of clips of material, construct the original scenarios that can be combined and played out in an ever-changing sequence. Ten Electrosonic MS9200P HD players source the HD video content and feed a Barco Encore system routing images to the wall. Six additional MS9200Ps play out some scenarios and serve as standby and backup systems. Controlling the whole of elements is Medialon scheduling software that was programmed by Alan Anderson.
A masterpiece of David Niles, a noted authority on HDTV production, the Comcast Experience is initially a public art project. Performed at the crossroads of art, technology and architecture, it pushes the boundaries of digital signage: “What we want the industry to react to and say is that this could be the beginning of a whole new way of looking at the public environment, the digital signage world, and say let's approach it a different way, a softer way. It is time to get rid of the Flash animations and the Times Square style and look at this as more of an art form”- concluded David Niles.