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How Projection Mapping Is Changing the Ad World

By Howard Wen
Business.com / Branding / Last Modified: January 18, 2018
Photo credit: Alexander Tolstykh/Shutterstock

This technology is wowing customers, building brands and making a big splash in the advertising world.

Projection mapping transforms skyscrapers, sculptures or ordinary objects into glowing, kinetic art. Many shows using this digital projection method are promotional affairs. 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 production company, WorldStage, gets a lot of work to do projection mapping on buildings to promote the property, or events or services related to it. They did such an assignment for the Ralph Lauren Men's clothing store in New York City. 

How projection mapping is used, and has evolved, in advertising

Regular outdoor projection is merely projecting images onto something, such as the flat surface of a building. "Projection mapping" requires a pre-production process during which images are fitted onto a 3D graphic model (of the building). When these images are then projected onto the actual building, they "wrap" over the physical features of the building, appearing as if they are painted on – or part of – its structure.

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

When this novel way of projection first appeared in the mid-2000s, the focus was on its visual-art and live-music show aspects. Now production companies working in projection mapping incorporate cinema-style narratives. The show tells a story through the 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 Matthew Nix, director of development at Chicago Projection Mapping.

Misconceptions about projection mapping that ad clients have

Since the last decade, advances in digital projection and computer technologies have lowered the barriers to entry to do projection mapping. But a big misconception that production companies in this field encounter from clients is that it can be done on the cheap. It's not simply a matter of plugging a notebook into a digital projector and pointing it at a building.

For a promotional campaign centered on projection mapping, the event can involve several production departments: creative, equipment setup, legal, on-site crew, programming, sound, etc. If the client's vision is very elaborate technically, costs can begin in the low six figures.

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 existing or stock media can be used for projecting, to save on costs and time. Often, new content has to be created, or existing images or video need to be reworked so that it will fit onto the geometry of a building's (or whatever object's) surface where it will be projected. Otherwise, the visual, animated effects won't look as effectively "real."

"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, director of business development and special projects at WorldStage. "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

Interactivity likely will be the next stage in the evolution of projection mapping. A person would manipulate projected images in the environment of an installation by approaching them or touching the projected surfaces. This experience would be similar to virtual reality but without the person 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 even more important as a 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."

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