The World of 3D Projection Mapping

Last fall, the Philadelphia 76ers became the third NBA team to permanently adopt projection mapping technology as part of their intro and half-time media set-up. At the beginning of every game, players are introduced via an elaborate 3D spectacle that transforms the court of the Wells Fargo Center into a 94 x 50 foot projection canvas. Using techniques like forced perspective, artists are able to create a one-of-a-kind show that bends the confines of reality—at one point the floor appears to be made of lava, only to fall away revealing a pit full of bouncing basketballs. As each player is introduced, custom graphics spotlight their entrance onto the court.

2012 Digital Arts & Design grad Jate Earhart was part of the team behind the 76ers projection mapping project. He’s been working with image projection specialists Quince Imaging since May, but his interest in projection mapping goes all the way back to his early days as a Full Sail student. Back then it wasn’t always easy to find resources for furthering his understanding of effects.

“I’d played around a little bit by following very specific tutorials,” he recalls. “But when I’d type ‘projection mapping’ into Google it would ask me, ‘Did you mean projection man?’ Which is a tool in Cinema 4D that doesn’t get used much. So even just a few years ago, an obscure tool was searched more often than projection mapping. It’s grown a lot since then. People are thinking of ways to use it more commercially.”

As a hybrid student, one of Jate’s first campus classes was the Motion Graphics course in his tenth month. For the first time, he was learning to make his own effects rather than copy someone else’s. He took to spending a lot of time in the after hours lab, working on projects and learning more about motion graphics. His hard work caught the attention of faculty, which led to freelance jobs with ESPN, Red Bull, and the Philharmonic Orchestra. The experience served him well in what is becoming a rapidly growing industry.

Jate says that the goal of using projection mapping to generate 3D motion graphics is to create an emotional response in the viewer. It’s the difference between an arena full of fans held in thrall by something enjoyable versus an arena full of fans suffering through a tedious intro.

“You’re making things happen that couldn’t really happen,” he says. “That’s the goal. You want to present an experience.” The type of experience that projection mapping technology provides is particularly well suited to sporting events.

“With sports, there is the idea that anything is possible,” says Jate. “The way athletes are able to move, it’s almost superhuman. So when you present them to an audience, you have to have something that matches that grandeur.”

It’s precise work. If a projection is off by even an inch, the effect will be ruined. The team at Quince starts out by using a laser scanner to map the dimensions of a building. From there, they create a 3D model of the space to ensure accuracy. A camera is set up to provide designers with the audience’s point of view, so that they can optimize perspective and make flat images appear to have depth. Jate says that having high end projectors and a good media server to play back content at full resolution is important, but that it’s also possible for students to achieve similar results on a smaller scale. Ultimately, concepts matter more when it comes to building a portfolio and gaining experience.

“Now, we’re playing around with interactive projection mapping, where you could walk up to an effect and move your hand, and change what’s happening in front of you. You’ll be able to control the art generatively. It’s always important to keep pushing toward the next thing.”

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