The Ford exhibit at the recent UK Motor Show caught the eyes and ears of marketing people everywhere. With considerable input from UK-based Imagination, Ford was able to transform the concept of car show presentation into something unique.

At any major expo, the dilemma facing exhibitors is this: the need to distance themselves, metaphorically speaking, from the competitors that surround them. However, there are conventions that preclude one stand from overwhelming another, a system of even-handedness that can be a problem if you're a manufacturer with a lot to say. At the UK Motor Show, this situation was certainly true for Ford. Adrian Caddy at Imagination describes how Phillipe Mellier, VP of Ford Europe, defied Imagination to "produce a single-minded statement that typifies the Ford brand."

Says Caddy, "Mellier wanted us to find a framework that the visitor would find unexpected, that conveyed the Ford ethos of 'customer connection' in everything that they do." To that end, Imagination placed a large temporary building immediately adjacent and joined to the main expo hall. "We first produced this structure last January, for the Geneva show," says Ollie Watts of Edwin Shirley Stages. "This led onto a much bigger structure for the UK show."

There was, however, one big obstacle--a road running alongside the hall--to overcome. You can't just park a 16,000 sq. ft. structure outside the main exhibition hall, so ESS conceived of using a roof structure to provide the essential framework to the building, and a second roof set to span the highway, which thus formed a high load floor. "What we had to do," explains Watts, "was to straddle the road at a height of 6m (about 20') in order to allow free passage of the tallest vehicles below." ESS used its standard Tower system to provide the support; the final building was rated to conform to an approved 5kNewtons/m2, making the extra Expo space capable of supporting almost 400 tons total load.

From within the main exhibition hall, a striking, high-tech metal bridge connected to the ESS structure, "It's a metaphor," explains Caddy. "It's symbolic of everything Ford does--not just engineering, but design, purpose, style." The bridge stood on delicate legs, its concourse tapering into the distance, the whole thing clad in shining aluminum. As show visitors crossed the bridge, they were "met" by almost life-size human images shown on plasma TV screens. "We filmed sequences using real questions posed by actual customers," Caddy says. "Rhetorically, they'd speak to the person on the bridge, [asking] 'What do you want from a car?' and then outline their own particular needs."

The further one went into the ESS structure, the more profound became the depth of communication. Unusual Rigging was Imagination's chosen rigging contractor; the company's lead engineer, Steve Porter--a man with a reputation for taciturnity second only to President Calvin Coolidge--describes the contents enthusiastically. "There's absolutely everything in there. I've hung four cars, well over 3,000' (about 914m) of truss, a 360-degree projection screen, 16 Barcos (from Creative Technology), and those amazing new plasma screens made by Fujitsu."

The interior was divided into three areas. The design area featured vehicle design, body modeling in clay, graphics, and CAD models. The driving dynamics area dealt with aspects of road holding, safety, and braking, and continued the communication theme with a robot linked to a concealed actor in a VR suit. This latter used a video link to "see" through the eyes of the robot, enabling it to interact with visitors. The third display dealt with Ford ingenuity, centerstage being taken by a new, advanced, lightweight car from the US that's a hybrid diesel/electric.

With a strong visual element to the show, the challenge of conveying the aural information became immense. London-based audio supplier Orbital and sound designer Sebastian Frost took on the project and, naturally enough, broke down the requirements into the three main areas of the exhibit. Frost explains their approach: "The main hall where all the vehicles are displayed--we call it the car park--was relatively straightforward. Some time ago, we developed what we call the Range Pod. It's a free-standing pod with a Sony video monitor in it and a pair of arms out to the sides, each supporting a Bose AcoustiMass speaker. One of these is positioned next to each car. We can run these quite loud, and because of their good localization, there's no interference between adjacent stands.

"For the big temporary structure outside the main hall," he continues, "we had about 40 different video sources all going on at the same time, and all requiring their own bits of sound. We had to find a way of making sure it didn't all end up a mess, and the solution was to keep the sound local. Again, we used AcoustiMass, but we needed to get the bandwidth up, so we concealed Mini Sub-Bass [speakers] under the floor in various areas."

Ford's live show arena had the most complex sound requirements. "It's an in-the-round theatre setup, with seating for 350 people," continues Frost. "There's a big circular screen above the stage at its center, and because this is projected onto from the perimeter, height clearance for the PA was a major consideration. Ten meters [about 33'] was the minimum height we could fly equipment, and the PA needed to cope with quite a range of inputs: recorded material; feeds from other parts of the Ford stand; live bands; and roving 'reporters.' With these roving presenters and all the live acts onstage, using in-ear monitoring systems, there was huge amounts of RF floating about."

The PA above the stage was a mixture of d&b audiotechnik products, mainly 602s and 902s, with some of the small full-range E3s used for fill work. "We found that because of the steep angle down onto the audience coverage was limited," said Frost. "To compensate, we crossed over some of the 602 speakers, firing them over to the opposite side of the arena. For control, we had 32 channels of DDA desk plus a 16-channel Allen & Heath GL2 with DP200s for EQ, something we used in the ESS structure as well, though there the desk was a 48-channel Soundcraft SM24. Because we were also taking feeds from the car park area, even though it's largely a static display, we had a Crest LMX 40 desk with BSS Vari-Curves for EQ."

One of the most innovative aspects to the audio was the use of Wharfdale Loud Panel speakers. Made for ceiling tile or picture frame installation, these flat panel speakers are 600mm square (about 24", standard suspended ceiling tile size in Europe) and have a frequency response in the range of 150Hz to 22kHz. "The great advantage of these was for the set designers," says Frost. "So often, these shows are perceived largely from the visual aspect, which is right, as it is the most immediate way of relaying large amounts of information. But it does mean the audio crew is frequently asked to put sound in impossible locations, and a compromise is then needed. With these flat panels, we were able to mount them directly into set pieces that had no depth to allow for a concealed cabinet. More importantly, the panel surface is dense enough to take the application of a graphic far more effectively than a conventional speaker grille."

From the big conceptual ideas of moving the exhibition out of area to the small detail of using flat-panel speakers, this show exemplified manipulating environment, using it to grab attention, holding it, and communicating precisely. It's not dissimilar from the ethos of a department store in a modern shopping mall--that contrivance which makes getting out of JC Penney's much harder than getting in--it's about capturing your prospective clients. But for Ford, having caught its target audience, the sophistication of transmitting the message is finessed to perfection. Focus indeed.