The 2006 Saturn Sky, an open-air roadster with plenty of chrome in the grille and style in the interior, is unusual for the make. Robert Albitz, senior vice president of Worldwide Creative at the George P. Johnson Company (GPJ), believes it represents a breakthrough in design and technology. So when his team set out to exhibit it at the 2006 North American International Auto Show at Detroit's Cobo Hall, he was determined to find an equally unique way to tell the car's story. “We wanted something innovative that speaks to a technological edge,” he says.
Typically, there are very expensive and elaborate cutaways through sheet metal “to allow auto show visitors to see the inside of a car,” Albitz adds. Could his team reinforce the idea of innovation by creating an imaginative and dramatic environment for the car and allow visitors to “see” beyond the sheet metal without removing it?
GPJ fused two different technologies to create a digital experience on the outside of the environment. The Sky Box, as they called it, is a fusion of LED technology with a new concrete product, measuring about 29' on each side and 16' high. “We used a brand new custom material,” Albitz says, explaining that this material responds to lighting without requiring power. Composed of a proprietary micro-concrete mix within which a light-conducting fiber-optic-like matrix is embedded, SensiTile Terrazzo — from Ann Arbor, Michigan-based SensiTile Systems — reacts to changes in light intensity and color. The embedded light-conducting matrix transports light from one surface point to another. “This gave us the opportunity to develop a customized application integrating LED technology as an internal light source, through which we input media feeds throughout the entire surface of the Sky Box. An integrated 10mm Barco LED wall incorporated digital media to create what passengers driving with the top down would see of a moving sky from dawn through dusk throughout the entire surface,” Albitz explains, “What appealed to Saturn was this fusion of technologies and breakthrough experiential immersion.”
Inside the Sky Box, walls were black, focusing attention on the vehicle. GPJ partnered with San Francisco-based Obscura Digital, which has developed technology that makes it possible to display video on a variety of surfaces, without distortion. Obscura, in turn, partnered with Speedshape, out of Birmingham, Michigan, which provided 3D images of a model of the car. Obscura's Patrick Connolly ran the images of the inner car through software and developed animations. “What you see projected on the car is altered and distorted so that the video is mapped exactly to every curve of the car's surface,” he says. Images projected via five Dell MP projectors — three on the side, one on the wall, and one on the hood of the car — created various illusions, including that of an X-ray of the car.
“We used seven video projectors around the perimeter, all crossed over at various angles,” says Connolly. “We've written the software that enables us to take all those video projection streams and blend them seamlessly into one image…it's corrected for not only the image blending of all the projectors, but for a certain point in space where the viewer is actually watching that show.”
To achieve this while streaming out multiple high definition videos, Connolly needed to have a computer for each stream. “We've built our own custom racks of basically really high-end super fast PC's clustered together with our software,” he explains. “That software manages all the video streams of each PC, and then, in real time, distorts and warps that image for the surface that it's going to be projecting on.” Each rack consists of about ten PC's, all running software in a cluster, each controlling a different part of the car or the touchscreen interface. “The coolest thing about this is that it's really the first time — the first time ever that I know anywhere in the world — that anyone has ever done projection mapping to a car.”
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