Times Square in New York City is now home to some of the world's most spectacular signs incorporating innovative, cutting-edge technology. Going beyond steam representing hot coffee or a lit cigarette, today's signage incorporates everything from fiber optics to strobe lights in a quest for attention. The use of billboard-sized video screens has increased in the past few years, and recently LEDs have been adapted into the mix of lighting sources found. The massive advertisements that dotted the cityscape in the movie Blade Runner are now a reality. NASDAQ, with its seven-story LED sign, and the E-Walk movie/ entertainment center on 42nd Street, with its five-story Loews sign, are two of the more illuminating examples attracting millions of tourists.
Early users of new technology are often challenged by unforeseen snafus, such as manufacturing problems, construction delays, and the weather, not to mention skepticism by many. The project team associated with the Loews E-Walk theatre complex in Times Square certainly had these problems, and more, to be concerned with and ultimately to be successfully resolved. "This sign can be seen from Second Avenue [near the easternmost edge of Manhattan], and while driving on the West Side Highway. The usage of [Color Kinetics] LED technology fulfills the intention of a Times Square-type sign to be big, bright, and attract attention," says Teddy Asero, project manager for the Rockwell Group, the architectural/ design team for the entire theatre, including the conception of the sign.
Asero continues, "Actually, the usage of new technology was originally suggested by our lighting designer, Paul Gregory of Focus Lighting. We knew we wanted something different, something to get noticed, and it had to be more dynamic than light bulbs dancing around." The results of the collaboration between the Rockwell Group and Focus Lighting is a 60'-tall by 8'-wide (18x2.4m) blade-type sign utilizing a quarter-million red, blue, and green LEDs spelling out LOEWS. It is attached to the building above a traditional marquee. Carmen Aguilar, Rockwell senior associate, designed the building facade above the marquee to be reminiscent of a proscenium arch (five stories high) and the vertical sign plays an important role in being a link to the "grand movie palaces of the past," adds Asero. "This sign is an icon indicative of the large theatres of yesteryear." The picture gallery located inside the complex shows a multitude of theatres of the 1930s and 40s, many in an Art Deco style, all adorned with the trademark blade sign. Clearly, the challenge was to give the familiar a new look.
"What separates us from all of the other LED signs in Times Square is we started from scratch, not wanting to create video images. We wanted to create bright, high-contrast, colorful geometric shapes and sequences, and because of that we could approach the whole problem differently, not having to worry about adding display processors and such. That allows us to use traditional control and to develop interfaces that a lighting designer is more comfortable with," says Fritz Morgan, director of engineering for Color Kinetics.
Gregory notes, "The LED is very specific in the way it emits light." Morgan clarifies, "It also meant we could explore the viewing area of the sign, since without displaying video, the sign did not need to be viewable over a wide range and have a consistent image displayed across it. For example, the NASDAQ sign is by far one of the best ones out there, but the problem for an engineer is that the image needs to be viewed from all the way around Times Square. If instead all you were trying to convey was large pixels of color, you can focus the LEDs differently and use narrower ones to create a much brighter, much more impactful sign, and that's what we went for. We chose very narrow-beam LEDs, 20 degrees as opposed to the ones for the Sony Jumbotron which are 100 degrees or 120 degrees. We focused the LEDs up and down 42nd Street so that we can attract attention. We could approach the problem differently from both an engineering and a control standpoint." Agilent Technologies, formerly a division of Hewlett Packard, provides the red LEDs, and Nichia provides the blue and green LEDs for Color Kinetics. Nichia also provides LEDs for the NASDAQ sign.
Focus Lighting chose the Color Kinetics digital color-changing LED system which allows for the intelligent control of colors and sequences via DMX. Project designer Brett Andersen, also of Focus, offers additional background: "We had proposed just about everything one could think of for Times Square signage: incandescent lights, PAR lamps, neon. We even explored light pipe, and fiber optics, but nothing was really spectacular--the owner wasn't thrilled about anything. I was aware of a company called Color Kinetics that had won a product of the year award at LDI." [The C-Series self-contained color-changing LED fixture was LDI97 Architectural Lighting Product of the Year.] The kinetic nature of the source, to borrow from the company name, just tends to grab more attention and we were naturally drawn to that. Based on other experiences, I was able to see the power of doing those kinds of changes and patterns. Maybe there were three people in the company [Color Kinetics] at that point, but we knew the source was right, it had long lamp life and the ability to change colors, and there was just the problem of figuring out how to do it from there."
"There" meant designing a circuit board that could be cut on a bandsaw to fit the shapes of the letters. Morgan explains, "Each board is divided into three pixels, or three controllable squares, and each square has 120 LEDs on it. The same board is replicated for the different letters. You set a DMX address for it, store it in EPROM; you have nine channels of DMX control for that board: three for each pixel, one for red, one for green, one for blue, for each of the three pixels." This arrangement simplifies control and "you don't need as many LEDs in the sign, which makes fabrication easier, simpler, and less expensive. In addition, a traditional sign fabricator can be used. In this case, Universal Unlimited of Long Island did the fabrication, with Empire Erectors providing the rigging and attachments."
LEDs require heat management, and that means ventilation. Andersen explains how: "It required ingenuity to create spaces for the fans and then to keep water from getting into the sign. That was a whole new thing to consider." A system of sensors automatically triggers fans within the sign. If the temperature continues to climb, LEDs are gradually switched off to lessen the heat load. As the temperature decreases, the sign returns to normal operation.
"The whole sign consists of six DMX universes, and that runs back to a Strand 510i show controller. Essentially, it's their top-of-the-line 500 series console squished down into a box. The DMX is distributed through a Pathfinder from Gray Interfaces, and Belden cable was specified for the DMX," Andersen adds.
"One of the reasons to specify the Strand 510i show controller was the ability to interface with the Panja control system (formerly AMX), and so what we've done is use a 10" touch panel display which gives the theatre management an easy-to-use, straightforward interface to the 510i. The manager would probably not know how to program the Strand to make the sign red, so we've canned the programming into multiple cues, and loops of effects, and he simply accesses the Panja panel, places the sign into manual mode, and selects red, for example, and the LEDs turn red, until the system is returned to normal mode, a randomly running sequence of patterns and colors. Among the manual cues are about 15 colors: red, blue, green, magenta, cyan, yellow, purple, lime, lemon--a good mix. Originally being theatre lighting designers, we used standard gel-type color names, so the colors are labeled as bastard amber, steel blue, or congo, names like that," says Andersen. The programming was done by Jaie Bosse and Will O'Halloran of Focus Lighting, with Sepp Spenlinhauer as the control system designer. Visibility, especially during the day, was a key issue and many people were skeptical. Morgan says, "A letter was placed in a mock-up, and Sol Sachs, the senior vice president of design for Universal Unlimited, exclaimed, 'It's brighter than the sun.' " Along with the LEDs, neon, a Times Square favorite, is still featured. Andersen notes, "There is an outline in white on each letter, and blue neon behind the letter to give it a halo effect, plus yellow, which runs the outline of the entire sign in a double band for accenting and definition. If you didn't ring the letters with neon, they would be lost. Now it reads as LOEWS no matter what color pattern is running across it--it defines it much more."
Besides LEDs and neon, the facade is bathed in more conventional forms of light. The 510i provides cues for an Elektralite controller which in turn enables 10 Clay Paky Golden Scan HPEs to project stars, patterns, and beams of light on and around the building. Six Tempest Lighting Hurricane all-weather enclosures provide environmental protection for the Golden Scans installed on top of the marquee. The remaining four automated luminaires are "embedded in the marquee," notes Andersen. Installation and additional equipment was provided by Barbizon's New York office. The goal of the Loews sign has been met, and it is an example of combining different technologies and manufacturers to create something new and visually stunning.
"Everyone talks about different ways of making light, although there really aren't that many. You overheat a wire and it incandesces, you use phosphors which fluoresce, or convert one form of energy into light, basically UV into light. You have arcs, basically lightning in a bottle, and the different metals within the bottle cause the lightning to be emitted in different colors, and lastly the new way--LEDs, essentially electroluminescence, at a microscopic level. LEDs are poised for growth, and to have a major role in the lighting world, faster than we will have seen anything else in lighting," says Mark Roush, market developer for Lumileds, the joint venture of Philips Lighting and Agilent Technologies.
Around the corner, the NASDAQ sign, also incorporating LEDs, is a huge video screen eight stories tall, 120' by 90' [36x27m]. It follows the curved form of the Conde Nast Building on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 43rd Street. Created by Saco Smartvision, the sign produces a palette of more than 16.7 million colors and can display live video, text, graphics, and videotape from a multitude of sources. Besides being the largest LED sign in the world, it is an integral part of the NASDAQ presence in Times Square, which consists of a large visitor and exhibition center and a multipurpose TV broadcast facility that incorporates the NASDAQ stock ticker, utilizing corporate logos, being displayed on a video wall consisting of 96 video cubes.
"Eight simultaneous live sources, ranging from NTSC video and high-definition video to computer signals, up to 1280x1024 (SXGA) resolution can be displayed. Our sign is unique in that computer signals are displayed in their native resolution, in part due to the capabilities of the 20mm LEDs, which have a 170-degree spread on the horizontal to compensate for the curvature of the building and to allow viewing off-axis anywhere in Times Square," says Jack Feder, the vice president responsible for the design and development of NASDAQ MarketSite.
Saco Smartvision, which provides large-format video display for entertainment and sports facilities, has developed modules of LEDs for different applications. Bill Himaras, field supervisor for the company, explains the type used for the Times Square NASDAQ screen: "The requirement was a viewing distance of a couple hundred feet, so a 20mm module was used, which corresponds to an eight-lamp unit, consisting of three red, three green, and two blue within each pixel, and there are 16 by 16 pixels." The measurement (mm) is derived from measuring from the center of one pixel to the center of the next. The closer the pixels are, the better the resolution. However, with a larger sign, viewing distance and its size combine to require a larger pixel size so as to increase the brightness and to allow the sign to be read farther away. Then the intensity of the red, green, and blue can be varied remotely to allow white or any other color to be displayed. "The LED modules (panels) are 12.6" by 12.6" with a depth of 2.6", and 26 blocks are interlocked to form one profile, which are interlocked mechanically and with a ribbon cable to pass the data which is routed by the addressing within each block. Together they are joined to form the eight-story sign, consisting of over 18 million LEDs. Essentially it is like a TV. Our processor takes the video or computer feed, breaks up the data, and puts it where it's supposed to be on the screen outside."
There is a separate control room for the sign, with preproduction monitors and a system for viewing the actual output. In addition to the Saco processors, Synelec processors are incorporated into the signal chain, which basically splits the sign into eight regions, which can display images separately or in combination as one.
Among the many challenges faced were problems caused by the overall size of the sign, the sun, and the need for extensive cooling. Located on 13 catwalks behind the sign are fan-cooled units that bring cooled air directly into the sign structure, to maintain a temperature below 95 degrees. The chillers are located on a mechanical mezzanine above the NASDAQ MarketSite offices. "We are maintaining positive pressure within the sign," says Himaras. All coolers were installed by the React air-conditioning firm. The sign has a separate feeder from local utility Con Edison that provides a 2,000A three-phase service. The fabrication of the sign itself was done with Federal Sign, in conjunction with Landmark Signs. Construction of the entire facility was on an accelerated schedule and completed within one year. Detailed wind analysis, vibration calculations, and a structural loading survey were completed prior to the attachment to the building. Himaras remarks, "This is definitely a different kind of animal. For instance, it's the largest of its kind, and we never before put windows within a screen." Feder concludes, "The sign exceeds our expectations in every way imaginable, and we are even considering replicating it in other financial centers, like San Jose, London, and Tokyo."