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  Aug.26.14 Front Pictures' Multimedia Renaissance: Pushing the Limits of High-Performance


Front Pictures studio has always aimed at expanding horizons in advanced media technologies. A year ago we became acquainted with the studio and wrote about the Fulldome environments and experiences they had been developing and perfecting. They continue to impress not only with the scope and revolutionary approaches they bring to their projects but also in their commitment to make these solutions affordable and realizable.

When a new shopping center "Art Mall" was planned to open in Kiev, Front Pictures was invited to participate as a studio of innovative technologies. The mall concept involved an art installation as the primary content for shopping space.

What the team conceived and then produced for the 1400 sq-m space raises the stakes on 'high performance' across the spectrum, leaving most of us asking variously-phrased versions of "How in the world was this achieved?!"

Here is the story then of the astounding "Renaissance – The Age of Genius" exhibition as it came to life on the walls of the Art Mall A-Gallery as told by its creators.

All images above: Art Mall Gallery

The Concept
We developed a couple of interactive installations but found them to be lacking something really outstanding and large-scale. We then proposed to transform a 1400 m2 gallery located in the shopping center into a multimedia art space. As proof of concept we illuminated one wall of the gallery with 8 projectors to produce a small demo.

Engineering & Optimization
The idea was enthusiastically accepted and we began to develop the project documentation. We aimed to map the walls and columns of the gallery with the maximum resolution and brightness possible while keeping cost-effectiveness in mind. We already had experience in creating large-scale multimedia installations using a multi-projecter setup, but this particular project raised the bar. The projection was intended to cover an area of 200 m in width and 3.4 m in height resulting in the extreme resolution of 47344x800 px with a video aspect ratio 60:1.

60:1 Video Aspect Ratio Please eEnlarge for optimal viewing)

Furthermore, the pixel density had to be much higher than in outdoor mappings. Preliminary calculations showed that we might need 50-55 projectors.

Projectors' Layout
Normally such a large number of projectors would require the use of at least 5 powerful media servers. Prior to this project however, we had already gained experience connecting up to 32 projectors to a single media server using our proprietary Screenberry technology. We decided to push it further.

Our engineers started looking for a solution to connect all of the projectors to a single computer. At first we designed a server architecture which would support up to 64 projectors. We assembled a powerful server with 6-core Intel processor, 32 GB RAM, SSD RAID array (3GB per second, yes we mean 3 gigabytes) and 2 nVidia Quadro K6000 video cards.

Performance Experiments
8 Output video cables connected to 2 graphics cards
GPUs were synchronized with the help of nVidia Quadro Sync board. We modified display wall controllers to distribute video signal from 2 powerful video cards (with 8 outputs) to all 52 projectors.

Project Setup in TouchDesigner
The next challenge was to make TouchDesigner playback files at such an extreme resolution. Just imagine, the video that we wanted to play had 6,848x6,848 px (46,9 Mpx) resolution, and the output image should have been 15,360x4,800 px (73,7Mpx). We were unsure if TouchDesigner, being a versatile software, would be able to handle it. To the best of our knowledge, no one had done this before. We installed the latest release of TouchDesigner088 which supports 64-bit systems and started experimenting with it. The TouchDesigner support team at Derivative was prompt and effective at helping us with the issues that were arising.

The next step was to configure video cards. To achieve maximum performance and smooth video playback we had to go through numerous combinations of settings and parameters. The output module in TouchDesigner was also reworked several times to achieve target performance. We made heavy use of Python which had been added in latest version of TouchDesigner, in order to program logic of the playback and calibration modules.

Geometry slices for projection in the network editor
Geometry slices for projection

To achieve perfect projector alignment the output pipeline included not only video playback, but also geometric distortion, blend effects and color correction which were applied to the video stream in real time. After 2 months of fine-tuning and a number of experiments we had achieved a fully synchronized and smooth playback.

TouchDesigner UI mapped on the walls
Using the TouchOSC app on an iPad we designed an intuitive UI to control calibration and playback.

TouchOSC panel screenshot
Hardware setup.
In this project we used ultra-short throw projectors with a 0.49 ratio so that visitors would not cast shadows on the walls. However as wide-angle lenses do not have zoom or lens shift capabilities each projector had to be mounted with centimeter-level precision. Exact technical drawings allowed us to hang the truss and mount the projectors in the right way.
Projectors' Mount
Also video cables were laid out such a way, so that power cables would not cause interference. The total length of the cables exceeded 1800 meters.

Content Creation.
Another stage of production was to create a template for the video designers. Based on our projection layout tech drawing we created a UV map where the exact position of each pixel on the map corresponded to the projected pixel on the wall. The UM map (or frame) had an extreme resolution of 6848x6848 px, or 46.9 Mpx for each frame. Also, the total length of the video was 43 minutes or 64,500 frames, thus we had to upgrade our file server adding 20Tb of disk space and 10Gbit cards to server and workstations to ensure effective workflow.

UV template for video production
Frame 6,848x6848

In addition to playback, we used TouchDesigner to create a virtual 3D stage, where designers could preview their work in real time. They could move virtual camera inside the set to observe the content the way visitors would see it from different angles and positions while walking around.

With the help of TouchDesigner, our team and the client could experience "The Renaissance" even before the real gallery was actually built.
Realtime Previz
Realtime Previz
Realtime Previz
Realtime Previz
Realtime Previz

At Front Pictures we call this process a "spatial video design". Unlike 3D mapping, we project the content on a complex surface, which consists of a variety of planes with different angles. Not all of the surfaces are visible from all positions adding another level of complexity in the process of content creation.

The project was a success and created quite the buzz! Art Mall A-gallery became a great attraction for the whole city and "Renaissance: the Age of Genius" exhibition is getting a lot of positive feedback from visitors. The client was impressed and now we are working on the next big thing, the "Alice in Wonderland" exhibition. Our tests have shown, that we can successfully connect up to 64 projectors to a single media server which will allow us to make the next exhibition even more spectacular.

See also Aug.12.2013 Front Pictures and the Fulldome Experience

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