Scharff Weisberg, Batwin + Robin Create a Multimedia Installation for the Pfizer Training Facility

A ribbon-cutting ceremony held late last summer for Pfizer Inc.'s new primary training facility at the Doral Arrowood complex in Purchase, NY, also served as the debut of a unique multimedia installation. The facility is the realization of Pfizer's ambitious plan to provide a state-of-the-art learning center for its employees, complete with fully equipped classrooms, auditoriums, and conference facilities.

However, before visitors can reach the classrooms they are seeking, they must traverse a long, high-ceilinged main walkway. It is along one wall of this 150' corridor that guests soon find themselves engaged by a media gallery presenting what Pfizer terms its core values. This presentation is comprised of multiple layers of glass, lighting, audio, and video that interact to form a sinuous tableau of light, imagery, and sound that changes seamlessly along the length of the wall. Because of the aesthetically engaging design of the multimedia installation, Pfizer's message is communicated in a subtle and sophisticated manner that naturally attracts the viewer.

Designed by industry veterans Batwin + Robin Productions of New York, the media gallery was intended to complement the architectural character of the building. The gallery combines video and lighting in a series of layers. The installation, housed in a shallow space along the 150'-long wall, extends 10' above the floor. The Pfizer Values, translated in 10 languages, are etched in the outer glass layer. Set 8" behind is a second layer of LCD glass and between the two layers, customized LED lighting fixtures line the top and bottom edges. Behind the LCD glass is an array of plasma video monitors masked in black. Speakers are mounted above the glass panels along the corridor to provide an audio environment that accompanies the visual patterns.

What makes the installation effective is the way all of the components have been designed to work in concert to create a fluid, ever-changing kaleidoscope of light and image. When viewed from up close, any section of the wall can hold the interest of a viewer. When looked at from afar, along the entire length of the corridor, the wall forms an undulating pattern that is never repeated throughout a daily cycle.

[Note: for exact equipment specifications and a full rundown of the participants on this project, see the accompanying lists at the end of the article.]

The Glass There are two layers of glass mounted in each wall section. The outer layer is thick glass onto which text and graphics have been etched. The inner layer of glass is specially manufactured polychromatic glass, also know as LCD glass due to the layer of liquid crystal diode film that is laminated between two sheets of standard glass. When a small amount of electrical current is applied to the LCD film, it changes instantly from opaque to transparent, a feature that has been used to great effect in a number of other installations.

For the Pfizer project, the designers wanted to use polychromatic glass in a novel fashion. Rather than use the glass in a conventional on/off mode, Batwin + Robin pushed for the ability to dim the glass in a measured transition from on to off and vice versa. This presented a challenge, as the glass requires an unusual 65VAC to reach full transparency. The glass also possesses a very low impedance, which appears as a short circuit to standard lighting dimmers, ruling out their use for this function.

To accomplish the task of running a fully independent, DMX512-controllable, variable AC voltage to each of 43 glass panels, the custom electronics shop at Scharff Weisberg designed a DMX-controlled amplifier module (patent pending) that smoothly varies the opacity of the glass via lighting system programming. The resulting system provides a precise degree of control that is repeatable.

The Lighting From the start, the design called for continuous striplights along the top and bottom edge of the glass wall to provide edge lighting of the outer glass layer and color wash of the polychromatic glass. But, once the problems of equipping the shallow, enclosed bay with incandescent fixtures became manifest in heat loads and lamp replacement costs, another solution was sought. Batwin + Robin looked into adapting the new LED lighting technology being developed by Color Kinetics as a possible solution. Obviously, the low power and heat loads, variable color spectrum, and lack of lamp replacement made LED an excellent choice, if enough light could be produced in a continuous strip.

After David Weiner, the project's lighting designer, tested a full-size mockup, prototype modules seemed very promising. Light output was more than adequate, color quality was good, and the physical size allowed LEDs to be placed in a continuous row at the top and bottom edge of the glass. In the actual application each LED module is DMX512-addressed and reacts instantaneously to program changes. The positioning of the modules allow a wide variety of effects as the light plays off the front and inner glass layers. It also works well in concert with the LCD glass as lighting color and intensity change along with variations in the glass opacity.

The Video Video images appear on a series of sixteen 42" plasma video monitors located behind black masking as the final layer of the construction. Most of the monitors, which are 16:9 wide aspect ratio screens, are in normal "landscape" orientation. Five of the monitors are physically rotated to a "portrait" orientation to provide variety in the look of the media gallery.

The monitors display images pulled from a total of 90 minutes of material stored on DVD disk. The imagery transitions - from sweeping landscapes to detailed closeups of flora and fauna to moving global portraits of the people that comprise the company's efforts - was produced using a variety of innovative filming techniques.

There are currently more than 100 video pieces in the library, all directed by Roger Woo of Woo Art. The video pieces play in a continuous sequence on the 16 displays and although the sequence may appear random, it is a carefully scripted program that correlates the video material with the look and activity on the wall. The programmed sequence insures that no piece plays twice in a row.

As many as eight different video pieces can be displayed simultaneously, with the video system providing a smooth crossfade from one piece to another. This built-in crossfade ability allows each image display to individually transition seamlessly from one video selection to another. This capability is actually more difficult to achieve than imagined, since each display device must use a separate dissolve switcher and the signal matrix feeding the switcher must constantly switch sources. The actual system uses a 24 x 24 routing matrix and 18 channels of video dissolve switchers to accomplish this complicated video signal square dance.

Besides providing solutions to initial programming issues, the video system allows new video content to be placed in the sequence without regard to in/out transitions or display routing. Since the system provides the transition, virtually any type of material can be stitched into the sequence easily from a bank of 12 industrial DVD players.

The Sound Audio content for the media installation is not directly related to the video images. Rather, it creates a mood environment using a mix of natural sounds and music that complements the general tone of the imagery. The primary audio source is an eight-channel hard-disk audio player, with additional tracks playing off DVD. These sources, as well as microphone and other external feeds, are mixed, routed, and processed within a BSS Soundweb digital audio system.

Soundweb provides dynamic level control as well as equalization for two primary audio zones. One audio zone, which is used for ambient sound as well as announcements and paging, is comprised of ceiling speakers arrayed along the length of the corridor. The second zone, used only for ambient audio content, is comprised of compact high-quality speakers installed above the media wall.

Because the audio tracks originate from a multichannel system, the tracks are used to create layers of sound, much like the layers of media within the wall. A viewer standing in front of one wall section might hear a background music track emanating from a sound source directly ahead, while from the left and right, various natural sounds flow through the audio landscape.

The Control The completed show control program for the system runs automatically for 12 hours without repeats. This is not a random sequence but a programmed sequence, since a random pattern could conceivably contain repetition. It is also a very long program containing almost 1,000 cues. In addition to running automatically, the users can select from a number of preprogrammed "moods," such as serene, atmospheric, and active, as well as other manual conditions, such as special event mode.

The combination of interactive and automatic, scripted operation made the choice of a control system particularly important. One alternative was a conventional conference room system, such as those manufactured by AMX or Crestron. The other alternative was a theatrical type of system that facilitates creation of complex, timed sequences. For this installation, the show control department at Scharff Weisberg selected Dataton hardware and Dataton Trax software, a system that has been used successfully by Batwin + Robin in collaboration with Scharff Weisberg many times before.

In this application, Dataton acts as the show control master as well as the user interface portal. Control of all devices, including the DMX storage device for lighting and Soundweb for audio, is through Dataton Smartpax hardware controllers. Users interface to the system via small touchscreens located at the reception and main control desk or through a very comprehensive GUI at the system racks. The custom GUI for the Pfizer system not only provides many layers of control throughout the system, it also provides detailed feedback of device and system status.

Programming the system was similar, in a way, to programming a large videowall. As with a videowall, the designers had to choose what video source was to be displayed on what monitor. However, they also had to select lighting sequences as well as setting the opacity and rate of change for the LCD glass at each of the wall sections. The programming process took a lot of thinking, experimentation, and imagination, but the result is an unusual and beautiful use of modern media technology.