Brains Behind the Wall
Oct 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Jay Ankeney
Designer David Niles explains the design and development of Comcast Center’s gigantic LED display.
If you listen carefully, you can almost hear the videowall in the lobby of Philadelphia's Comcast Center thinking.
For 18 hours a day, the giant 83ft.-wide-by-25ft.-high, 10-megapixel display provides the approximately 10,000 people who walk daily through the seven-story glass atrium with an unending — yet endlessly varied — parade of stunningly photorealistic images generated by a content-creation system with a complexity that approaches artificial intelligence.
The videowall is composed of 6,771 Barco NX-4 4mm LED modules in a seamlessly flat 800-tile installation that is draped over three cutouts accommodating the lobby's elevator banks. The fundamental genius of the videowall's design is that the display surface itself is intended not to be seen at all. Its creator, high-definition technology pioneer David Niles, has given the background on the LED array the exact same look as the 9'×10' maple wood panels adorning the surrounding walls. That way, images generated on the videowall's screen can appear to be floating in front of the wall itself.
In an era that sees corporate logos splashed over everything from sports stadiums to concert halls, it's refreshing to note that the videowall lobby installation was conceived by Comcast's chairman and CEO, Brian Roberts, as a gift to the people of Philadelphia.
To bring it to life, Roberts and the owner of the building, Liberty Property Trust, turned to Niles because of his proven history of being able to work magic with HD display technology that no one else has even attempted. After all, Niles established the first modern HD production studio in 1985 in Paris. After moving to Manhattan, he later employed HD acquisition and post to create music projects for the likes of Tony Bennett, Mick Jagger, and Aerosmith. Niles has also produced highly acclaimed HDTV installations at such places as Macy's Herald Square and Madison Square Garden in New York. He has used his HD wizardry on numerous TV entertainment and commercial productions, and he has been awarded the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from the French Minister of Culture and an Emmy nomination from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
Comcast and Liberty Property Trust came to the Niles Creative Group asking its founder to conjure up a lobby experience that would provide a magical environment capable of inspiring and informing passers-by with a longevity that would extend its appeal well into the future.
PLANNING AND IMPLEMENTATION
The criteria Niles set for himself were daunting.
“First, I wanted the wall to be photorealistic so the viewing experience would approach reality,” he says. “Second, since the atrium is open to the skylight, the display had to be able to stand up to daylight. Therefore, a projection system was out. And third, we needed to find a technology for the content-creation system behind the wall that could be almost maintenance-free by operating mostly on its own.”
In 2005, Niles installed a large LED display as the backdrop for stage productions at Radio City Music Hall, so in February 2007, he invited several major manufacturers to conduct a side-by-side LED screen shootout. Each system had advantages and disadvantages, but by March 2007, Barco's NX-4 4mm LED modules were picked.
The wall was to be suspended from a massive, steel box header beam bolted to the underpanels of the floor above, with tie-backs from the rear of the wall to the building's concrete core to stablize the wall vertically. Other than those tie-backs, the wall is completely independent from the rest of the building to so it can freely expand and contract with changing temperatures. The header beam went up in October 2007, and Barco started hanging the tiles in March 2008, completing that phase by early May. During the whole installation process, the wall was hidden from public view behind a paper curtain.
“It was a pretty extensive evaluation process,” says Steve Scorse, 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 videowall this size before, and we were scaling the project up from a 100-tile demonstration to a custom 800-tile installation with a hidden 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.”
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