Oh, good God.
We're converging again! We're actually suffering from convergence fatigue. We've been so busy converging, we're no longer entirely sure of what our constituent parts are. And can anybody tell us who has the right of way when converging?
Seriously, you'd have to have been on the moon for the last year and a half to have missed all the discussion of convergence. Most of that discussion has related pretty directly to the integration of video and lighting. Certainly, there's been a growing use of media servers in the lighting world and some very exciting implementation of LEDs (display products and otherwise) into today's lighting rigs. It's easy to see that production design is tilting extraordinarily. Even the two-sticks-and-a-nail variety of theatre seems to utilize extraordinary amounts of kinetic imagery and digital design elements. There is no question that audience expectation is on the rise. The influence of cinema, television, and the Internet is being felt at every level of live production. The audience demands, and we deliver. But this is old hat. We've heard it before.
Lately, we've broadened our view, and we're noticing larger scale convergence — macro convergence, if you will. This isn't so much about converging products as much as converging disciplines, converging industries. The same expectations placed on entertainment are serving to bring entertainment elements to numerous other, sometimes unexpected, places.
Let's look at a really prominent example of converging industries: entertainment and architecture. For years now, our little design studio has subsisted on things theatrical: musicals, opera, concerts, and themed entertainment. These have been our bread and butter. Prior to 2002, we had completed perhaps two significant architectural-based designs. It was a field we thought a lot about, but we had little idea of how to break into it, and the applications seemed narrow.
In the last 24 months, our architectural workload has increased to the point that it now represents the majority of our work. What caused this seismic shift in our focus? The will and desire to implement entertainment-based technologies into architectural design has exploded beyond theme parks. Perhaps not surprisingly, the casino market exemplifies this. The grand opening of Wynn recently stood out, with its fabulous lake display designed by Patrick Woodroffe [LD, July 2005], not to mention the cleverly automated LED marquee. Other Las Vegas properties in the pipeline are now seeking to top each other in manifesting extravagant displays of lighting, projection, LED, and scenic automation.
And it's not only the Vegas casinos that are playing this game; Foxwoods in Connecticut, new casinos in Macao, and gaming properties in Atlantic City are all participating in a production-value arms race that has designers scrambling to invent new and exciting installations.
Far more surprising than casinos are the proliferation of boutique retail, mall properties, restaurants, and even financial buildings that are latching onto prominent and complex lighting systems, emissive displays, and thematic, scenic architecture. Contemporary culture has instilled a demand for high production values, even in branding efforts. Modern consumers want to participate in fantastic experiences, while shopping, eating, recreating, and investing — you name it. Experience has become an important part of branding.
Participating in this market has come with a steep learning curve. Codes, permits, architectural rating and certifications, and really complicated schematic designs have become de rigueur. But the payoff has been gratifying, and the work has been diverse and interesting. Suddenly, it's all about buildings in Mumbai, Doha, Osaka, Taipei, and Beijing, as well as stages in New York, Seattle, and Vegas. Many of the biggest projects are internationally based, so our passports are getting all kinds of interesting stamp art.
And it goes both ways. One has but to look at a master practitioner like architect and set designer David Rockwell (recent EDDY Award winner for blurring the line of environmental design) to see an example of architecture crossing over to theatrical design.
The door to this market opens at the major architectural firms. Most of the large ones have product and service information departments. This is the contact for introducing your services as a designer. Commonly, a brownbag-type lunch intro session can be scheduled where you pay for some simple catered lunch and get an opportunity to present your portfolio and talk about your services with the firm's architects while they munch. Another way is to inquire whether a firm has an organized product and services fair. Many architectural firms periodically stage small internal trade shows where outside consultants, as well as product distributors, can hawk their wares to the architectural staffing. You'll find the architects are a receptive audience; they find the stuff we design every day to be exotic and compelling.
Once inside this converged architectural market, having an idea of how firms like to work is helpful. Generally, architects deal with projects in stages. Typically, a firm might be willing to have you work at an hourly rate for a set number of hours to help them in the vision/planning stage. This might include charrettes where various architects and designers gather to brainstorm, technology evaluations where you introduce the architects to available technologies, as well as pre-visual renderings. If a project goes forward, you might then formulate a budget and fee based on the scope of work to enter into schematic and content design and production. You'll also find firms wanting to tap your experience and relationships with systems integrators and vendors. Often, the architects will put you into direct contact with the end client for the actual production process.
The design approach here can be complicated, particularly as it relates to integrating projection and video in retail environments. These will almost invariably demand the inclusion of branding graphics. Provisions for ongoing media management and integration of new media are definite concerns for the retail clients. There is an educational component that often goes with interacting with this kind of client. Often, they are not aware of what such a system can bring to their environment, aesthetically or operationally. It's up to you, as the designer, to liberate your design options by making your end client aware of what can be achieved. Nothing works better here than pretty pictures, so sharpen those concept-rendering skills.
Recently, we've had some great opportunities to work closely with various manufacturers in the development of new technologies and applications for our industry. It has been fascinating to see the convergence at this manufacturing level. For instance, most people know Barco as a premiere maker of projection, emissive, and signal-processing equipment. What many people might not know is that the same research and development of imaging technologies that has resulted in fantastic options for designers has also resulted in significant advances in medical imaging. Barco is one of the world's leading providers of diagnostic displays and 3D imaging for radiologists and physicians worldwide. So if you go in for an MRI, it's likely that the same manufacturer providing MiPIX in your latest groundbreaking design is processing images of your internal structure.
We are also fortunate enough to enjoy a close consulting relationship with one of the world's leading manufacturers of LED components, OptoTech. In a recent trip to Taipei, we were surprised to find that OptoTech had discovered that, by applying LED technology solutions developed for entertainment to laser printer heads, they were able to dramatically increase speed and quality in laser printers while reducing costs by as much as 50%. The end benefit for the entertainment market is that this lucrative side business will fund further R&D across the spectrum with LED, creating more product opportunities.
As designers, it's important to see these cross connections, whether they are cross-industry opportunities or just amazing cross-pollination of technology. Converging at an industry level is about opening the door to design opportunity. Knowing the avenues that are available to your creativity can give your practice new direction. And design is nothing without context. Being aware that your laser printer might share technology with your backdrop may seem a bit ephemeral, but it is a connection between your design and the larger world. It is a road sign on the map of convergence.