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Updated Jun 24, 2024

How Projection Mapping Is Changing the Ad World

Projection mapping transforms buildings into works of art.

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Sean Peek, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
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Over the last decade, we’ve seen a shift in the marketing and advertising world, as it moves from physical campaigns to digital. With projection mapping, marketers can breathe life into the digital world by transforming everyday physical objects into works of art through digital effects and animations. 

Projection mapping can display virtual images on any surface, including city landmarks, public buildings and industrial locations, regardless of the size, scope and location you have. A giant leap beyond short-lived fireworks displays, projection mapping allows businesses and brands to share their stories with audiences dynamically and memorably. [Explore our guide to creating a small business marketing plan.]

Examples of businesses using projection mapping for advertising

Projection mapping can transform skyscrapers, sculptures and ordinary objects into glowing, kinetic art. Many shows using this digital projection method are promotional affairs. For example, Target hired Chicago Projection Mapping, a production firm that specializes in this visual medium, to design a Halloween/Dia de Los Muertos theme installation that played at the Nokia Plaza at the L.A. Live entertainment complex. It used 11 projectors that brought “Skeletown Square” to life through character animation and choreography, synchronized lighting effects, and an original musical score.

Another example of projection mapping onto architecture is the 2018 White Night display on the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne, Australia. The White Night is a three-day public event dedicated to art and culture that features concerts, light shows and other spectacles throughout the city. 

Projection mapping can also highlight a brand’s products and share their message on smaller objects, such as Nike sneakers and basketballs at the DES Digital Signage Expo, a Mercedes Benz A-Class hatchback at Groep Vereenooghe Ostend, and a Lamborghini Urus at the Museum of Moscow.

A recent example of projection mapping technology is the Van Gogh immersive experience exhibit, which ran in New York City from June 5, 2021, to April 10, 2022. The goal was to transform the walls and floor of the exhibition with a series of projectors that worked together to give visitors a 360-degree experience of Van Gogh’s artwork. 

For the Toronto installation, Lighthouse Immersive turned the 11,000-square-foot metal, brick and concrete industrial bones of the Toronto Star building into mosaics of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings. For this exhibit, Lighthouse Immersive used 53 Panasonic projectors to create images that were 26 feet high and up to 170 feet wide, causing visitors to feel as though they had stepped into some of the world’s most priceless works of art. The experience was such a success that several states in the U.S. and countries in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region have opened exhibitions.

Did You Know?Did you know
Lighthouse Immersive has produced similar types of exhibits, including Disney Animation, Monet and Lifeway Kefir yoga immersive experiences.

How projection mapping is used

Regular outdoor projection involves projecting images onto something, such as the flat surface of a building. Projection mapping requires a preproduction process to render images onto a 3D graphic model (of the building). When these images are projected onto the actual building, they “wrap” over the physical features, appearing as if they are painted on – or are part of – its structure.

Projection mapping is also used on a smaller scale in the marketing sector to, for example, project images of virtual clothing onto mannequins, or images onto apparel, shoes and automobiles to simulate changes in the color and texture of these objects.

There are several different types of projection mapping: 

  • Planar projection mapping projects media onto a flat surface.
  • Spherical projection mapping involves using several projectors to make the sphere projection look seamless.
  • Panoramic projection mapping creates a widescreen horizontal projection.
  • Vying is a projection method that synchronizes videos and images with music.
  • Interactive projection mapping uses captured feedback from objects and participants to alter the projection in real time.

How projection mapping has evolved

When this novel way of projection first appeared in the mid-2000s, the initial focus was on the impact it could have on visual art exhibits and live-music shows. Production companies specializing in projection mapping now incorporate cinema-style narratives to tell a story through animated visuals and music.

“Clients that use projection mapping as a cinematic storytelling experience tend to have longer audience engagement and wider social reach,” said J. Matthew Nix, manager and director of development at Chicago Projection Mapping.

Costs of projection mapping

According to ON Services, projection mapping costs an average of $10,000 for each minute of 3D video content. Depending on the scale and quality of your display, projection mapping can cost anywhere from $150,000 to millions of dollars. Additional fees apply, including time for creative development and equipment rental costs for the necessary projectors, servers and media storage devices for the project. To cut costs, consider 2D displays in lieu of 3D video.

TipBottom line
There are several factors to consider when creating your projection mapping project estimate, including the total surface area you plan to use, the type and size of the projection, and the ROI associated with incurring this kind of marketing expense.

The legality of projection mapping

While projection mapping is an excellent form of high-impact advertising, consulting with an attorney to understand the associated legalities before starting your projection mapping project is essential. Check your local laws before arranging projection mapping. Stage permits may be needed depending on where you plan to use and install projection mapping. Also, consult with a copyright lawyer regarding any possible design copyright infringement. You must also be permitted to use the lot or building where the projections are displayed. 

Another often-overlooked legal consideration is the impact your display could have on public safety. If you’re considering an indoor exhibit that requires admission to access, you’ll likely have less to consider. However, if you’re planning an outdoor display that projects onto one or several buildings, consider coordinating with local government and law enforcement to help prepare the public and clear the area to minimize the impact on citizens.

Misconceptions about projection mapping

In the last decade, advances in digital projection and computer technologies have lowered the barriers to projection mapping. But one of the most common misconceptions from clients that production companies in this field encounter is that this kind of effect can be achieved inexpensively. As opposed to projecting a movie onto a screen, projection mapping cannot be accomplished by plugging a laptop into a digital projector and pointing it at a building.

For a promotional campaign featuring projection mapping, several production departments should be involved in planning the event, including creative, equipment setup, legal, on-site crew, programming and sound. If the client’s vision is technically elaborate, costs can begin in the low six figures and grow from there.

Since many projection mapping events can approach the complexity of a Hollywood movie or TV production, significant prep time is required. Nix of Chicago Projection Mapping recommends, “For clients wanting to incorporate projection mapping, realistic timelines and preliminary creative conversations make the biggest difference in delivering an awesome end product. Three to four months is a good minimum timeline.”

Another misconception many clients have is that they can use existing or stock media to save money on projection mapping displays. However, new content should be created, or existing images or videos should be reworked to fit the geometry of a building’s (or object’s) surface for the projection. Otherwise, the intended animated effects won’t be as impactful.

“Some clients have existing content that may require editorial changes, and some clients need new or different content created to fit the scope of the mapping project,” says Jim Richardson, vice president of business development at ITP LIVE. “While our focus is on the technical production, we partner with several content creators so the end client can experience a positive turnkey experience. Communication between the technical and the creative parties on these projects is critical.”

What’s next for projection mapping in advertising?

Now that the world has gotten a taste of projection mapping, the global market projections for this type of exhibition are expected to reach $8.1 billion by 2026, according to IndustryArc, with a compound annual growth rate of 22.3 percent from 2021 to 2026. And there’s no doubt that the U.S. is expected to contribute to the lion’s share of the industry’s growth due to its early adoption of virtual reality technology and the demand for immersive entertainment experiences and high-profile advertising projects. [Read related article: How Technology Is Changing Online Advertising]

Interactivity likely will be the next stage in the evolution of projection mapping. People could manipulate projected images in the installation environment by approaching them or touching the projected surfaces. This experience would be similar to virtual reality without the visitor having to wear a headset. “There are new platforms that allow audiences to use sight, sound, touch and wearable tech to affect mapping in real time,” said Nix.

This suggests that projection mapping will become an even more important high-tech tool for advertisers. Nix explains why. “We live in a media-saturated world, but we still need ways to cut through the noise and hold our audience’s attention. Projection mapping takes that attention back by creating huge and powerful visuals that demand to be seen.”

Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

author image
Sean Peek, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
Sean Peek co-founded and self-funded a small business that's grown to include more than a dozen dedicated team members. Over the years, he's become adept at navigating the intricacies of bootstrapping a new business, overseeing day-to-day operations, utilizing process automation to increase efficiencies and cut costs, and leading a small workforce. This journey has afforded him a profound understanding of the B2B landscape and the critical challenges business owners face as they start and grow their enterprises today. In addition to running his own business, Peek shares his firsthand experiences and vast knowledge to support fellow entrepreneurs, offering guidance on everything from business software to marketing strategies to HR management. In fact, his expertise has been featured in Entrepreneur, Inc. and Forbes and with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
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