3D projection mapping, also known as video mapping or simply “projection mapping”, is the art and science of using physical spaces and objects as the surface for a projection, instead of a conventional screen. The end result is a visually striking, almost “magical” effect that has to be seen to be fully experienced. Though projection mapping has been popular in Europe for years, it has only recently gained momentum in America, in part to high-visibility events including the Grammy Awards, and for big-name brands such as Coca-Cola and Volkswagen.

But what does projection mapping mean to you? If you’re reading this, you’re one step closer than most – you’ve heard about the buzz, or you saw an enormous display on the side of a building, and you wanted to learn more. Maybe you’ve even been thinking about bringing projection mapping to your own company or project! In any case, we’re excited to share our experience with you. This is a simple guide to understanding the creative and technical considerations behind projection mapping,

Projection mapping uses a combination of four factors working in unison to create the visual experience, which we refer to as CPSM.

Content (the visuals that are projected)
Projection Hardware (the equipment that is doing the projecting)
Surface (the physical space projected onto)
Mapping (the technical aspects of conforming the projection onto the surface)

Or, as a one-sentence description;

The content is projected onto the surface, then mapped to fit perfectly.

Unlike regular video, the content for projection mapping must be custom-made to fit the surface – like a tailored suit, it really only looks “right” on the one it was designed for. That said, the content can be anything you can imagine – animation, video, branding, abstract, technical, surreal, and beyond.

The content also affects the preparation for an event. The most popular (and most impactive) displays are story-driven scenes, that use the architecture of the surface being projected to tell a story through animation and sound. Also popular are effects that incorporate branding, such as in trade shows or for corporate anniversaries. Particularly in 2014, there has also been a growth in interactive and user-generated content in projection mapping – the versatility of the medium has lent itself to innovative uses of user control over the experience. Less popular, but still viable, are “real time” displays, which use visualizers to create effects to match music.

It goes without saying most projection mapping couldn’t be done with a conference room projector. As projection mapping needs lots of light to create its effects, most of the ‘hard’ expenses for projection mapping end up in hardware.

There are two rough groups for projectors – “standard” and “large venue”. “Standard” projectors are similar to what you would see in a board room or educational setting, and work well for smaller surfaces, like product displays or entertaining guests. “Large venue” projectors are much bigger, brighter, and require special power consideration – they cannot be plugged into a standard wall outlet. Events that require large venue projectors are commonly more expansive in scope, as due to the nature of the projectors, additional support hardware such as truss and electrical generators are required.

Here is a rough guide for setting your expectations for projection hardware, though keep in mind that needs of every surface are different.

5ft by 5ft product display – 1 standard projector
Corporate event staging – 1-2 large venue projectors
3000 square foot wall – 2-3 large venue projectors
15 story skyscraper – 10-40 large venue projectors OR 2 top-end large venue projectors

Very simply, the surface is the physical space or object you’re projecting onto. Almost anything* can become a surface for projection mapping given the right planning, and your surface dictates what kind of content will be created. It is common for a projection mapping display to utilize the architecture and contours of the surface, and for good reason – the effect is made more powerful by playing on a viewer’s sense of space, and provides the ability to create illusions and tricks of light.

Surfaces that typically work seamlessly are light-colored buildings and walls, staging for corporate events, cars and semi-trucks, sculpture, art, and trade show booths. Less effective are blank white walls, as there isn’t much mapping or conforming involved, and therefore the effect is lessened. Advances in projection technology also have opened up avenues for highly unconventional surfaces, and displays can be created on specialty smoke, treated glass and plastic, water curtains, and fountain surfaces.

* The darker the surface for projection, the less effective the illusion – however, there are techniques to make even “difficult” surfaces work for projection mapping. Call us for details!

Mapping is the technical side of conforming the projection to the surface. This is arguably one of the most challenging parts of the projection mapping experience, as pixel-perfect corrections (often less than a quarter-inch) through specialized software is required to properly match the surface. Mapping is also one of the most time-sensitive aspects of projection mapping, as the mapping team needs at least an extra rehearsal day to set up and craft the map.

One of the key aspects that separates Chicago Projection Mapping from our competitors is our use of proprietary, cutting-edge mapping hardware. We are able to implement our maps faster, more accurately, and at a superior value than has been seen in our industry – and our clients are always amazed by the end product.

So let’s take two examples of high-profile projection mapping displays, and use our CPSM workflow to understand what went into these displays.

Carrie Underwood’s Dress at the Grammy’s

Content – Rose pedals, butterflies, artistic sketches, etc.
Projection – Likely one to two “large venue” projectors (only on her dress – the background visuals were handled separately)
Surface – Ms. Underwood’s dress
Mapping – Conformed to the dress itself – notice Ms. Underwood had to hold very still during her performance.

Chicago Projection Mapping at Union Station

Content – Six minute animated story
Projection – Three “large venue” projectors
Surface – North wall of union station
Mapping – Conformed the projection to match columns, windows, down to individual bricks

As projection mapping continues to gain momentum as a important part of live events, this will not be the last time you think about the illusion of a glowing building, or a transforming car. When that happens, this new knowledge will make you the center of conversation when the crowd starts buzzing afterwards. Thanks for reading, and for any detailed questions, or to inquire about how we can bring projection mapping to you or your clients, please email us at info@ChicagoProjectionMapping.com, or call us at 630-620-0000.