One of the projects that we're working on now is the design for the premiere of a new mammoth-scale video installation in Beijing. Planned as part of a massive urban redevelopment for the 2008 Olympics, the screen is to serve as an epic welcoming entry, a source of information as well as entertainment and wonder. The LED screen — similar to the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas in that it is a roof — is several city blocks long, 160' wide, and stands six stories above the street. The installation has an extensive automated lighting system integrated, as well as an enormous seven-zone PA. How this gig took shape, and some of the resulting adventures have made for a good travelogue at least, and perhaps some insight into our industry as well.
It started when I was at InfoComm, and one of those countless industry dinner parties we all hear about took shape. The distinguished list of guests included Colin Waters, president of TMB; Nick Archdale, one of the major minds behind Wholehog and inventor of the newly minted Pharos controller; Hsieh Yin-Lung, newly named board member of the giant LED manufacturer OptoTech; and CC Hung, president of OptoTech. Others who shall remain anonymous to protect their guilt were also in attendance. I was lucky enough to be hanging on at the right moment, and so went along for the experience.
One hears about dinners like this — it's the sort of thing where Jere Harris orders great wine and perhaps buys your company, or maybe a gaggle of recent Tony Award-winning producers make themselves available for designer wooing.
In this case, there were several deals in the offing. Deals for work in China most often take shape through joint ventures, or JVs. The JV is the way of business in China, a way of expanding guanxi, or connections. Guanxi goes beyond acquaintance. It is a network built on trust, a trust that is won in some pretty exhausting ways. Ultimately, with trust, there can be business, and hence, the JV. Taiwanese and Hong Kong companies rely on JVs with mainland vendors and manufacturers in order to have a solid structure for international business.
JVs can be hard to work out though. A lot is at stake in a market with so much potential. Cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Taipei, Shanghai, and Beijing are an astonishingly vigorous marketplace for high-end application of lighting and imagery at a mind-bogglingly macro scale. (I wonder if I could say that last sentence aloud?) In any case, a visit to any of these mega cities will humble the average North American practitioner.
Hsieh, the above named board member of Opto, is also owner and president of Taiwan's biggest lighting and staging production company, Top Increasing. Sharing a love for engineering and invention that twined with his talented live design side, Hsieh carved a career that included all of the major arts organizations of Taiwan and stretched across the rim with works in Shanghai, Bangkok, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Building from this extensive travel and knowledge, Hsieh went on to build the number one lighting, rigging, and AV/Staging rental house in Asia. He was key in proliferating the use of OptoTech LEDs through his own custom designed fixtures. Hsieh was using LEDs in clear plastic tubes before anybody anywhere else had dreamed of them. He did distributed LED screens, including floors, long before the new vogue of LoRes LED.
I was seated to the right of Hsieh, and we talked a great deal about our love of dance lighting, and the days of touring alone, driving the truck, loading in, etc. We also discussed art, and the intensely rich intersection that exists between art and science. Hsieh brought up the Beijing screen; Top Increasing had signed the contract to provide the first show, in addition to the system integration. He leaned toward me, saying quietly, “It needs an international flavor; it needs somebody who understands this scale. I think that is you and your wife.” I leaned back, flabbergasted. I had one of those moments when the earth seems to rush by at a full 27,000 miles per hour. I mean man, what a palette to work with!
I turned to Colin, who had been listening discreetly. He smiled and nodded. I turned back. “Are you offering us this show?” I asked. Hsieh grinned. “We are married now! Yes, you do the show!”
And, thus, sometimes that is how are deals made. When days had passed, and sobriety returned, we called Colin to reflect on what had happened. “Can this be real? Did Hsieh mean it ?” Colleen asked. “No question,” said Colin. “If he said it, he meant it.” It began to look like a trip to Asia was in the offing.
After consultation and cross-referencing, we decided that I would head over to have a look at the Beijing project. I would be joined by Colin, Nick Archdale, Dave Shadoan of Sound Image, Hsieh, OptoTech vice president Mr. H.T. Wang, as well as a Greek chorus of assistants, project managers, travel agents, and drivers.
First stop, Taipei. I arrived one day before the others, who were working a lighting tradeshow in Singapore. I arrived immediately before one of the largest Typhoons to hit the island of Taiwan in 20 years. While I “languished” in the hotel — with its stable wireless broadband connection, and excellent 24-hour room service — my brave compatriots were hopping earlier flights to Taipei to try to beat the storm. Last to arrive was Nick Archdale, veritably diving through the eye of the storm to make one of the only landings that day.
We gathered in the bar to wait out the storm, and to guarantee a good flow of liquor when Nick arrived. We were snug in our little bar, and talk flowed. It dawned on me that this was how business in China took place: around a table flowing with food, and perhaps more importantly, drink. Individual toasts were de riguer, and flowed with the frequency of a different century. I mentioned guanxi at the beginning of the missive, and this was where it took shape. It was a group of people getting to know each other, telling stories, and finding a common ground to work together.
The next day brought clearing weather and the opportunity to tour the OptoTech LED manufacturing and R&D facility. As a liberated techno fetishist, I was ready. All expectations were exceeded, the moment they asked me to don a space suit and the most outrageously retro booty shoes ever. We were entering the clean zone. One by one, we passed through the positive pressure airlock, featuring a bunch of air blowing nozzles. I now understand what it would feel like to stand in a car wash.
Beyond lay a magical land. Very serious technicians worked with incredible focus, utilizing electron microscopes, precision substrate spray chambers, and incredibly hot silicon-baking arrays. The final result: 40,000 light emitting diodes, packed on a piece of material that looks like foil and is about 2” by 1/2”. Even with all of the care in creation, the average for success in fabricating the diodes is pretty bleak. The scale is so small, the tolerances so narrow, that the majority of attempts will end with product not sufficient to pass quality control.
We passed through to R&D, where they were developing the unique panel construction for the Beijing screen. I saw the prototype panel, and we discussed technical considerations such as panel color and pixel pitch.
Scattered throughout the space was a smorgasbord of LED product. A vast array of VersaTubes™ lay out, going through 90 days of continuous diagnostic cycle. Nearby, a several-blocks-long strip of 16mm LEDs, destined to adorn a major urban convenience store was also going through diagnostic cycles. An amazing screen of Opto's new 6mm display panel was showing high-definition footage; the quality of the pixel pitch was amazing. Seeing the way manufacturing happened and the way the engineering was carried out, it was apparent why OptoTech had such an enormous presence in the marketplace.
On the way to the LED focus area, we passed a vast floor of traffic signals, simultaneously chasing through their red-green-yellow permutations. In the panel alignment room, a multimillion-dollar optic measurement array worked on delicately engineered tracks to test and refine the pixel focus and viewing angle of the display.
Our next stop was a night in Hong Kong, a quick stopover to arrange for mainland China visas, to have a break, and, of course, to find some opulent eating and drinking experience. I had never been to Hong Kong and I was blown away, to say the least. As lighting and media designer, my aesthetic had always drifted towards Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Here was Blade Runner personified. The foundation: one of the most international cities I had ever seen. The shear mix of regional costumes and customs was dizzying — all contained in the backdrop of a frenetic port city, a harbor criss-crossed by Chinese junks, passenger hydrofoils, and improbably large container ships. Nighttime brings the lighting of the city, a vast interplay of architectural light, massive displays and pixel arrays, lasers, and searchlights piercing and glaring through the thick inherent atmosphere. From the Kowloon side of the harbor, the city glimmers and refracts, becoming image and light and structure. It's like a hallucination, or perhaps that was just the afternoon scotch talking.
The pace of our trip was unrelenting. By 7 the next morning, Nick, Colin, Hsieh, and I were packed away in a little van, taking Mister Toad's Wild Ride through Mainland China. Our destination for the day was NeoNeon, a vast lighting manufacturer located in the Quang Dong district. Along the way, we passed through the Chinese Border control, an eye-opening experience, and then through Shenzhen, a mainland city that was developing fast and furious into another media-driven metropolis.
NeoNeon's main location comprises 5,320,000 sq.ft. Behind the plant walls is a sort of “Charlie and the Lighting Factory” experience — all of the buildings are cheerfully lit with the company product that includes LED fixtures of every stripe, automated lighting, conventional stage fixtures, lasers, virtually every inch of rope light on the planet, Christmas lights, fiber optic illuminators, everything except perhaps actual neon. Almost 20,000 workers stream in and out of the facility daily, making it by far the largest lighting manufacturing plant in the world.
We were squired around the plant and shown operations that ranged from injection molding for automated lighting yokes to semi-conductor testing and manufacture. The LED assembly building was vast and full of professionals working with highly automated testing and assembly gear to produce individual LEDs as well as finished fixtures. The place was entirely vertically integrated. The only things that arrive at NeoNeon are raw plastic, raw glass, raw rubber, copper, silicon, and paper pulp. Out the other side, rolled completed lighting devices in every category and for every market. It was humbling in scale. NeoNeon exists at one of the huge initial nexus of the world's lighting manufacturing networks, a place that likely finds its components in many, many devices familiar to us all.
The next day, it was off to Beijing and to meetings with the property developers who were funding the screen. Beijing was clearly a city undergoing transformation. I tend to rate the economic well being of a city by how many cranes I see dotting the horizon. By those standards, Beijing is on a major upswing, and the upcoming Olympics are driving much of it. Our giant screen is but one of many huge-scale design efforts going into the modernization and styling of one of the world's oldest cities.
The meetings in Beijing proved very productive, and I returned home, thoroughly exhausted, at last. Several things had become apparent in my odyssey. One was that the Asian marketplace as a whole is an enormous outlet for creative services and gear alike. The region is bursting with progress and with a sense of macro-scale design projects that are a rare find in North America, outside of Las Vegas that is. The other is that the region has truly become the manufacturing cradle of many technologies that we use every day. As a designer who has used a lot of gear over a lot of years, it was fascinating to see the actual manufacturing processes that enable me in the end.