3-D Projection Mapping: How to Turn Any Surface Into a Dynamic Video Display

The latest trend in projections allows the industry to turn flat surfaces into three-dimensional visuals.

By Mitra Sorrells March 13, 2012, 12:00 PM EDT

Photo: Courtesy of Obscura Digital

The concept of projecting an image onto the side of a building isn’t new, but what is relatively new are the advancements in software and projectors that allow the two to be used in tandem to produce images that create a trompe l’oeil effect. The software allows designers to create videos that reconstruct three-dimensional points to a two-dimensional plane, while the projectors have become much brighter and able to throw light for hundreds, even thousands, of feet. The result: Buildings can be made to look like they are crumbling, or the interior walls of a ballroom can be transformed into a realistic-looking tropical rainforest. But the surface does not have to be a building—production company the Media Merchants has projected videos onto a car and large cubes. “It’s about making any physical object a medium that you can put imagery on,” says Anthony Diehl, the company’s technical director.

While these custom videos are not cheap to produce, they do provide substantial bang for the buck, demanding the attention of anyone within sight of the projection and often garnering continued attention after the event, as videos of the displays are shared online.

Tips to Consider
Choose the right surface. “You want to look for nonreflective architecture that has interesting details so there is some quality to the form itself,” says Travis Threlkel, founder and co-C.E.O. of Obscura Digital.

Allow enough lead time. A four-minute video takes about four to six weeks to produce and involves decisions about objectives, content, and visual and audio components.

Consider the cost. It can cost about $10,000 to produce one minute of a 3-D projection mapping video. Add to that several thousand dollars to rent a media server, a hard drive, and projectors the day of the event. “It’s not for everyone, but it blows away just about any other style of lighting and video,” says Felix Pike, production manager at Media Stage. “This is the cost of impressing people now.”

Incorporate audio effectively. Whether it directly corresponds to the video (for example, the sound of bricks falling as a building appears to crumble) or just complements it (a track of music), audio can be a powerful component.

Share the product. Extend the life of a projection mapping project by creating a behind-the-scenes video showing the project from setup to finish, then share it online.

What’s Next
Costs will drop. As with all technology, industry insiders agree the cost of projection mapping will continue to drop each year. Pat Sechrist, executive producer at BMG, says that means more events will use projection mapping in lieu of traditional scenic backdrops and draping. “Instead of bringing in decor and props [for events], one of the new trends will be that they can be projected into the room,” he says.

The audience will interact with the video. “The next layer to it [is that] the audience gets active with the projection, like motion tracking of people tied in to mobile devices so they contribute to the artwork,” Threlkel says. Another option could be to allow people in the audience to select what they see by sending a text message to a specified number.

They’ll get on stage. Three-dimensional objects will replace large, flat LED screens in set designs to create a more visually interesting display. For the Gospel Music Association’s Covenant Awards in October, the Media Merchants projected videos onto three cubes—six, eight, and 12 feet in size—on the stage. “Instead of having one screen, we had nine screen surfaces,” Diehl says. “It was appealing to get away from a big rectangle so you can have titling and bumpers and branding that can go anywhere.”

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