For the uninitiated, the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), held in Detroit each January, might seem like a mega-industrial. Journalists from around the globe, numbering close to 8,000, descend upon Detroit for North America's only international show, to attend three days of press events, in which the newest, hottest, and most technologically advanced vehicles are unveiled using the newest, hottest, and most technologically advanced lighting, sound, video, and staging gear. After the press events, there are several supplier days and a black-tie charity preview before the show opens to the public.

The NAIAS is now the largest show in North America, and is used as a springboard of the major automotive manufacturers to launch some of their highest-profile vehicles. This year was no exception. Visually, the show ranged from the clean looks of many of the European manufacturers to the occasionally theatrical flair found in some of the American exhibits. Audi, a perennial show favorite, made use of floor-based tracking LED walls, while in a small corner of Dodge's Truckville, a tranquil pond, complete with chirping birds, soothed those who passed through the space. The Mercedes exhibit was resplendent in warm wood tones, while almost next door, a waterfall that spelled out messages could be found in the Jeep display. Toyota sported a massive wall of blue light, while bright red neon beckoned patrons to the Mini Cooper booth. Once again, Chrysler stepped away from the pack and used the aerial group Artistry in Motion for several performances a day during the public show, much to the delight of attendees.

The show wasn't always the media technology showcase it is today, involving countless companies spanning the globe. “Years ago, there wasn't a great deal of emphasis on architecture,” explains Paul Grondin, an industrial exhibit designer at the HB Stubbs Company of Warren, MI. “Basically, our environment was a few signs, the cars, a few turntables, and demonstrations.” As entertainment technology changed and came into the forefront, the look and the feel of the Detroit Auto Show changed with it. “Over the years, the show has gone from pretty simple designs and live presentations to what you see today, where a number of different technologies are utilized to present the vehicles,” notes Tom Trivan, vice president of sales and marketing at HB Stubbs. “In fact, one of the biggest changes in the look of the show is the increasing emphasis on visual as well as interactive technologies.”

In 1989, the Detroit Auto Show was granted entry to a very special club, and transformed into the North American International Auto show, which changed many standard operating procedures. “When Detroit became an international show, the criteria changed to be more like the shows you would find in Geneva or Tokyo or Paris,” explains Stefan Graf, design director at Illuminart of Ypsilanti, MI. “There, they were allowed to build larger architectural elements and enclose the overall space a little bit more. And along with the architecture changing, the lighting changed to complement that.” As a result, the early feel of an open show floor was gone for good, replaced by a new international show that made extensive use of exhibits and architectural structure.

Detroit's entry into the international circuit also had a long-lasting result: the influence of the European auto shows. “There's definitely a European flair to the Detroit show, unlike any of the other American shows,” says Barry Rackover, vice president of Fourth Phase Michigan.

Visually, the European-designed exhibits (which include BMW, Audi, and Ford, among others) tend to be more innately architectural, a stark difference from the American-designed exhibits. “What they're doing in Frankfurt and Paris is construct showrooms,” observes John Wakely, director of field services of exhibit enterprises of Dearborn, MI. “They're not really using trade show displays, they're making them more of a retail environment,” he adds. Glass, wood, and metal are all favorites of the Europeans, while in the American displays there is another focus entirely. “In Europe, many of the exhibits are more architecturally pure and simple, while in America, there is a greater emphasis of entertainment and marketing,” Grondin says. “Of course, I think the American audiences are generally more entertainment-oriented overall.” The materials used for the displays also vary from one side of the Atlantic to the other. “The European exhibits are normally very clean in design, usually consisting of wood, glass, metallic surfaces, and strong accent lighting,” explains Trivan.

Another design concept drawn from across the Atlantic is the utilization of taller structures. Two — story (and taller) structures are commonplace in Europe, but due to the limitations of Cobo Hall, the NAIAS venue, there won't be any mini skyscrapers in the Detroit show any time soon. “About six years ago, Americans started considering double-deck exhibits for their auto shows because they couldn't get additional floor space,” notes Grondin. “This year, General Motors very effectively used their double-deck not only for hospitality, press, and administrative offices, but also for special exhibitions and presentations.” These elaborate structures (which are even more elaborate in cities like Frankfurt, where the show is held every other year) are only constructed in Detroit, because the venue is dedicated solely to the auto show from the beginning of October to the ending of the public show in mid-January. “Detroit is probably one of the few cities that you actually have enough time to set up some of the large, more ambitious structures,” Grondin says. “Also, from a physical standpoint, you simply couldn't do some of the Detroit exhibits in any other city.”

The exhibits have a dual role: set the stage for the press events, which can include an outrageous unveiling of the newest, coolest car/truck/SUV, as well as a structure for the public event. “It's very important that the same structures that are used for the public days are used for the press days,” observes Grondin. “Generally speaking, things happen so quickly that once you're set up, you don't have the time to go in and make major changes.”

Because of the high costs, the basic structures of many of the exhibits are kept the same from year to year, and this year was no different. So how do designers keep their shows looking fresh year after year? “All the exhibitors come up with new wrinkles — there's always something new in the booths,” Grondin explains. “There are new materials and new colors that you can reclad on existing exhibit structures, new graphics, new floor plans.” Using modular components, the exhibit can be reconfigured year after year, and broken down and utilized in other shows. “With new carpeting, different flooring surfaces, new lighting, the re-arranging of the display properties, or new graphics, you can really create a totally new effect,” Grondin concludes.

Lighting is one of the crucial aspects of the show, another element that delineates the Europeans from the Americans to some extent. “About six or seven years ago, the design swung from a quartz light source to a high temperature white light, which first showed up in Europe,” explains Rackover. This trend has been carried over into numerous displays, and has apparently replaced the rotating gobo fest that seemed to dominate the show for several years. “The use of high color temperature lights (5,600K), especially by the German companies, became a trendy thing to do — they call the units ‘daylights,’ the Euro-light, or even the Euro-tech look,” says Graf. “Ferrari and Lamborghini didn't want to use the cool, blue white light on their cars because they're Italian; their cars are mostly yellow and red and daylight doesn't make the reds look nearly as good as the quartz lights do.”

Planning for the NAIAS starts early, actually during the current show. “When we're participating in the other shows on the circuit, we're already discussing some of the things that worked well in Detroit and some of the things that we might do differently next year,” explains Grondin.

While designers are evaluating what might or might not work for the next season's show, the budgets are also being developed. Although the economy has taken a beating due, in part, to the events of last fall, the economic downturn was not in such glaring evidence at this year's NAIAS. “The effects of the economy on the Detroit show were minimal; this show will also continue to be the key show in the United States,” Wakely says. “Because of the events of September 11, I think some people were planning on doing some things on a larger scale, and, in the end, might have cut back a bit,” remarks John Wolf, vice president of corporate events at Scenic Technologies of New Windsor, NY.

In fact, an economy that might be lackluster could help the NAIAS budgets. “When the economy is suffering domestically, it seems to me that the automotive industry spends more money on marketing and the auto show, because it's their way of reaching out to the people,” says Rackover. Of course, the Detroit show is the premier show in North America, and it's a place where no company wants to scrimp. “The NAIAS is one of those touchy-feely, highly visible events for corporate leaders and the press, so nobody wants to look shabby,” Graf observes. “However, due to the economic times, I think we're going to see more cutbacks, especially in the ‘B’ circuit cities, such as Dallas and San Diego.”

Technologically, two of the areas that have seen a boom at the NAIAS are the use of LED videowalls and the use of sound. “Projectors used to be the only way to create video within a show booth, and since the lighting has gotten to be so important, it was drowning out the screen,” explains Dan Eibner, national sales manager for Lighthouse, the LED manufacturer of Cary, NC. “So when LEDs came around, they were an instant hit, because they could keep the lighting up. They didn't have to darken the booth with drapes, and you could have a bright environment to show the cars off and have great-looking videowalls at the same time,” he adds. Now, there are LED walls across the Detroit Auto Show, from the tracking screens at Audi to the stark, European looks of Volvo. “This year's show seemed to have a lot more massive LED walls,” Trivan notes.

While the use of LED walls is exploding in Detroit, the use of audio reinforcement is also growing. “We initially started doing only press events, but in the past two or three years, the actual public events have become more elaborate and more entertainment-based, rather than simply product-based,” says Jim Risgin, vice president of engineering at OSA International of Detroit. From an audio standpoint, the press events can be seen as a theatre-sized concert. “The press events are geared toward 2,500 to 5,000 people, so we're talking about a small entertainment event for about 15 minutes,” Risgin notes. “For the press events we did for Chrysler this year, which was in the round, I had 42 cabinets and 12 subwoofers.”

The use of sound reinforcement for visuals, as well as natural sounds tied to a specific environment, has also increased over the years. “I think sound and lighting is more encompassing than in the past, and I think that people are reaching out with sound systems a bit more now than in the past to envelop their presentations,” notes Grondin. Of course, sound reinforcement is only one aspect of the audio. “We have the ability to really draw people's attention, and to physically move them through the booth, just through the programming of an event,” Risgin explains.

So, will sound be the way of the future for the NAIAS? Or will LEDs dominate next year's show? Everyone has an idea about where the show will head in the future. “I see it going into much more of an austere, clean look, which is what the manufacturers are trying to get their dealers to go to,” says Risgin. “It will be less of a jumble, more of a flow, and cleaner looking. And I think that audio will certainly go more into the forefront.”

Dan Eibner is in the LED camp: “I think you're going to see LEDs being used more as a focal point as vertical stacks, which allows you to do video art,” he says. “Naturally, that would add an ambiance to the booth that just wasn't there before.”

John Wakely sees the show going in another direction entirely: “I think we'll see a lot more of the vehicle being put into a natural setting, rather than putting them on crystal turntables and spinning them around. Everybody is vying for the customer's attention, and anything that's going to give them a little bit more ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ is something that they're willing to go with.”

As an exhibit designer, Paul Grondin might have the inside track on the question of the future of exhibit design. “If I knew where exhibit design was going, I'd probably be very wealthy,” he says. “I think today that the young people are very entertainment-oriented, and I think that the automotive manufacturers realize that, and maybe it's a key. Generally speaking, I think this whole idea of creating an environment is going to be very important, and I think that the presentations are going to become more ‘infotainment’-oriented. Just putting the vehicle on a turntable isn't going to cut it.”

So where is the show heading? An early answer will be found at the 2003 North American International Auto Show.

Behind the Wheel at NAIAS
by Michael S. Eddy

Following is a partial listing of the technology and personnel involved in the razzle-dazzle of this year's NAIAS. Due to the scope of the show, deadlines, and some companies' nervousness about protecting their designs and technology, this is not a complete list.

Clay Paky equipment was used in a number of the booths. Tobins Lake Studios supplied a number of the Clay Paky fixtures.

LD/programmer Chris Medvitz of Juice Creative, along with associate LD Erin Hearne, designed the look for the Nissan/Infiniti exhibit area using High End Systems gear from LSD/Fourth Phase (through Chris Wasilauskas). Medvitz's rig included 52 Studio Bearn and 42 Studio Color® 575 automated wash luminaires, controlled with two Wholehog® II consoles.

Over at the Acura exhibit area; Juice Creative LD Chris Wojcieszyn, associate LD Erin Hearne, and crew chief Cathy Beer highlighted the new vehicles with 64 Studio Beams run by a Wholehog II console. Says Medvitz, “Acura had a press event that needed some theatrical lighting and a quick turnaround, with most of their fixtures mounted in locations of the truss that couldn't easily be reached, so the ability to quickly and remotely focus was essential.

“Nissan was extremely critical of their exhibit's appearance and wanted to see absolutely no ugly lighting equipment hanging in the air,” he continues. “All the conventional fixtures were recessed in the ceiling, leaving the Studio Beams hanging in nice, clean rows. The sleek and clean appearance of the fixtures themselves fit right in to the high-tech modern environment.

“For Infiniti, we built Studio Colors into a 180' — long wall to illuminate it from the inside, using creative slow ambient movement and color shifts. For the press event, however, we had some awesome chases with color sweeping across the wall in synch with extreme stereo sound. The effect was great. Our client literally jumped out of his chair the first time he saw it.”

Two-hundred Martin MAC 2000s were featured at this year's NAIAS; in the Mercedes, VW, Daimler Chrysler, Ford, GM, Isuzu, and Bentley booths, Martin products were used to highlight new concept cars and production model car releases at the press events prior to the opening of the 2002 show.

Production companies that supplied the booths included Fourth Phase, Christie Lites, Upstaging, and ProCon.

Approximately 2,000 sq. ft. of Barco's daylight display products were on prominent display at Mercedes, Saab, Nissan and Toyota; roughly 800 sq. ft. was ILite 6mm product, one of the highest resolutions of daylight display available today.

Showman Fabricators built the presentation stage for GM Experience Live, General Motors' exhibition. Produced by Jack Morton Worldwide (Detroit) and designed by Production Design Group (a division of Jack Morton Worldwide), it featured three concept cars — the SSR, the Hummer H2, and the AUTOnomy, a revolutionary, fuel-cell technology car.

“We constructed a 60' × 100' football-shaped stage with numerous mechanical and special effects,” says Showman's president Bob Usdin. Other personnel included designer Erik Ulfers of Jack Morton, Steve Dvoriak, Rob Jansen, Gerald Frentz, Geoff Quart, and Tony Menditto of Showman, folks from Feller Precision and Perfection Electriks, two New York — based companies, and staff from Fisher Technical Services of Las Vegas. Scenic elements coordinated and constructed for this event included three mechanized reveal walls, three 18'-diameter turntables, 22'-high surround walls, a huge black Lexan deck to accommodate up to 10 cars and two water curtains. The reveal and surround walls consisted of multiple layers of frosted acrylic and graphics, internally lit with Color Kinetics ColorBlasts.

AVC Inc. and Handling Specialty worked together to produce two custom-engineered turntables with built-in scissors lifts for GM's auto show display for the all-terrain Hummer H2.