HOW DO YOU INTRODUCE A NEW office chair and a new corporate image, and make the launch as dynamic and exciting as possible? When Allsteel was recently faced with this challenge, it called on EventQuest, a full-service special-event company based in New York City, which put together a fun and memorable traveling presentation comprising high-end projection equipment, as well as the latest in virtual reality and stereoscopic 3D technology.

Allsteel’s product launch blended a live performance with stereoscopic video imagery.

Established in 1912 and based in Muscatine, Iowa, Allsteel is one of the best-known manufacturers of office furniture in North America. Earlier this year the company launched a campaign to introduce the #19 chair, which is a new high-end office chair it created to rival the successful Aeron chair from competitor Herman Miller. At the product launch, Allsteel also planned to unveil its new corporate image as a younger, hipper company.

“Our client wanted a big, memorable event for the launch, which was to be presented to journalists, consumers, retailers, and buyers in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles,” comments Mark Veeder, founder and creative director at EventQuest. “To do that for them, we knew we had to pull out all the stops.”

And that they did. The event, which premiered in early March in New York and traveled across the country during the spring, comprised a mixture of virtual-reality stereoscopic 3D imagery, a video documentary projected in stereoscopic 3D, and a performance art piece featuring chairs and acrobats suspended from the ceiling. “Generally companies don't go to this extreme with a new-product launch. But Allsteel wasn't just launching a chair, they were also re-launching their image,” says Veeder. “So, it was very important that the event be wild and memorable.”

According to Veeder, EventQuest created the concept for the entire presentation, which lasted about 23 minutes. The presentation began with an introduction in which a computer-generated, stereoscopic 3D version of the #19 chair appeared to pop off the projection screen toward the audience members, all of whom were wearing stereoscopic 3D glasses. The chair next looked as if it was spinning in mid-air, drawing attention to the 19 different parts comprising it, and then suddenly appeared to zoom through the audience.

The presentation then segued into the stereoscopic documentary. This portion, which lasted about 8 minutes, combined video footage and computer-generated 3D animation that provided background information on the chair, including how it was conceptualized and built. At the end of the documentary, the presenter pushed the chair toward the camera. At this point the presentation seamlessly segued back into stereoscopic VR, and viewers watched as the chair appeared to fly off the screen and over their heads. The chair then broke apart into 19 pieces, each piece exploded into a number (1 through 19), and the numbers floated out into the audience. This portion segued into the performance-art portion, during which acrobats performed from the ceiling, and real #19 chairs suspended from the ceiling were slowly brought to the floor. At the end of the presentation, audience members were invited to sit on the chairs to try them out.

According to Veeder, EventQuest worked with a few different companies that helped to create the presentation using a variety of innovative technologies.

Creating 3D Magic

One of those companies is Viz-Tek (Iowa City, IA), which handled the VR portions of the presentation. Formed in 2001, Viz-Tek uses commercially available hardware and both commercial and proprietary software to develop stereoscopic immersive environments, or virtual wall solutions, for companies in medical, design, event marketing, training, and architectural walk-through applications. “With our technology the stereo image is separated per object, not per scene. So we can make different objects float in different areas of space, wherever we want, in a realistic manner,” says Dr. Karim Malek, CEO of Viz-Tek.

According to Malek, who is also a professor in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department at the University of Iowa and runs the Iowa Design Institute at the school, one of the more notable features of the Viz-Tek technology is the fact that it's PC-based. “This means we can offer our solution, which runs on Windows 2000 PCs, for one-sixth the cost of other typical immersive solutions, which are based on Silicon Graphics workstations,” he says. He adds that the PCs are equipped with a high-end, commercially available graphics card that Viz-Tek has enhanced.

Also notable is the fact that even though the Viz-Tek technology is PC-based, the images are rendered in real time, and the systems can be configured so participants can interact with the images being projected. “This means viewers can grab the objects they see floating in front of them and move them in space,” Malek notes.

Currently, the company offers four virtual wall solutions — the P1, P3, P4, and P6 (the numbers in the names represent the number of walls in each solution) — as well as a portable virtual wall called the Xp1. “When we were asked to participate in this event, we were already working with Allsteel to design a three-wall immersive, interactive environment that Allsteel could use to show its products and designs to prospective customers,” comments Malek. “Once he saw what we could do, Stan Askren, president of Allsteel, decided this would be a great technology to use in the presentation for the product launch.”

According to Malek, to create the stereoscopic VR imagery for the Allsteel event, Viz-Tek began with CAD files of the chair that Allsteel created in Parametric Technology's Pro/Engineer software. Then Viz-Tek ran the CAD files through a process it developed that involves polygon reduction and scene optimization techniques using proprietary software, and texture mapping and colorization techniques using Discreet's 3ds max and proprietary software. During the Allsteel presentation, one Windows 2000 PC equipped with the Viz-Tek enhanced graphics card rendered the imagery in real time and in stereo 3D. “The Allsteel presentation was rendered in real time, but it wasn't interactive because they didn't want to go that far with it,” says Malek. “If it were interactive, audience members could have stood up, grabbed the chair, and moved it in space.”

The audience wore 3D stereoscopic glasses for the presentation.

In addition to the VR portion, Viz-Tek also created about two minutes of computer animation for the stereoscopic documentary, which primarily comprised video footage shot by an award-winning documentary team hired by EventQuest. EventQuest then sent the video and computer footage to M360°, which has offices in both Westchester and Manhattan, New York. At M360°, the footage was transferred into stereoscopic 3D. “We wanted the documentary to be seen in stereo 3D because we wanted the audience to keep their 3D glasses on throughout the presentation,” says Veeder. “We didn't want them to take their glasses off while watching the documentary and then have to put them on again to watch the stereoscopic VR portion toward the end.”

To transfer the footage into stereo 3D, M360° first loaded it into an Accom Sphere editing system. “Then, using proprietary techniques, we created a right- and left-eye view to separate and delay the images in each scene to create an optimal stereoscopic effect,” explains Ed Greenberg, president of M360°.

The company tested the resulting footage by viewing it on a monitor over which it had placed a Z360°, which is an innovative mask that it developed, patented, and sells commercially. “With the Z360°, we didn't have to go right to projection to see the footage in 3D,” says Greenberg. “The Z360° can fit over any computer monitor and convert it into a stereoscopic 3D viewing experience.” As a final test, the company output the footage onto two different Beta tapes — one showing the right-eye view and the other the left-eye view — and projected them onto an off-the-shelf lenticulated forward projection screen using two Boxlight projectors.

The Projectors

To facilitate the projection of the stereoscopic imagery during the Allsteel event, Scharff Weisberg (New York City) designed and built a special stereoscopic projection system. According to project manager Tony Rossello, Scharff Weisberg used three Digital Projection 15sx projectors for projection. To configure the 12,000-lumen devices for stereoscopic projection, Scharff Weisberg placed polarized glass in front of each projector's lens.

Scharff Weisberg ran the stereoscopic documentary footage from a high-speed PC generating a refresh rate of 120Hz. The output of the computer was interfaced with a Cyviz stereo 3D converter, which accepted the incoming refresh signal and split it into two discrete 60Hz outputs that corresponded with the left- and right-eye imaging.

Working with Ken Myers, M360°'s 3D expert, Rossello also custom-built a 20-foot-wide by 15-foot-high lenticular projection screen on which to project the VR and documentary footage. “We didn't have time to have a screen manufacturer custom-build a screen for this,” says Rossello. “So we purchased some screen material, had a border sewn on it, and fit it to a stock frame we knew we could get in all the cities on this tour. It took some time and ingenuity to design and build a screen that would work and that would last for four shows,” he adds. “We even designed a case for it.”

Rossello notes that Scharff Weisberg also provided four NEC XT5000 projectors that were used in the New York show to project standard video footage on the walls on the sides of the presentation room. Two Doremi hard disk recorders output the footage shown on the side walls. Other equipment used at all the sites included two Sony Betacam SP recorders, which ran the stereoscopic documentary, and a Vista Control System's ScreenMaster switcher, which kept the whole package running together.

According to Veeder, the Allsteel presentation was an unmitigated success. “This was the first time this stereoscopic VR technology was used on this scale. No one had ever done an event that just spontaneously plunged people into it.

“The reception to this presentation was phenomenal,” he concludes. “It was great because the transition from the VR to the documentary and back again was seamless. The audience didn't know what was virtual and what was real. We were in uncharted territory, but it worked well.”

Audrey Doyle is a freelance writer based in Reading, MA.