Suburban Legend: Sony Laser Projectors Help MIT Look into the Future of Suburbia

by Sony Pro Team 06/02/2016, in Projectors, Press, Sony Professional, Education, Notes From the Field

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A recent exhibit at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), “The Future of Suburbia,” has an ambitious goal: examining the infrastructure and growth of suburban areas while exploring their complex relationships to urban centers. The exhibit is the result of several years of research by students, faculty and independent experts, all curated by MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism.


To educate and engage visitors, “The Future of Suburbia” combines text and graphics displayed in a variety of media and kiosks, including a large-scale terrain model featuring imagery driven by Sony’s laser light source projection technology.


The exhibit uses three Sony VPL-FHZ57 (4,100lm/WUXGA) laser projectors, edge-blended and oriented vertically and equidistantly above the model. They are each equipped with 0.85:1 short-throw zoom lenses, projecting down onto the model to carry one large image across it. Imagery is fed to the projectors from a custom-built PC running a Quadro NVIDIA card.


The MIT team noted that the Sony projectors delivered the resolution and brightness necessary for the “look” they wanted to achieve, while features like edge-blending, lens shift and warping solved many logistical issues.


There are 30 affiliated faculty laboratories across MIT’s five schools that cover more than a dozen different specializations dealing with urban issues. The Center for Advanced Urbanism’s mission is to act as a “convening location” to house research and explorations from these different disciplines to work collaboratively on projects that explore urban issues.


“As a convening entity for all things urban at MIT, we regularly host collaborative projects between disciplines that normally wouldn’t come together to deal with the most pressing problems of urbanity,” said Alan Berger, MIT professor, co-director of the Center, and curator of the exhibit.


Berger explained the MIT faculty chooses biennial themes around urbanization that run on a two-year cycle for public engagement and highlight the center’s resources, with The Future of Suburbia as one of those themes.


“We’re interested in exploring urbanization as a more holistic enterprise where the suburbs need the city, and the city needs the suburbs, rather than what typically is described as one versus the other,” Berger said. “In academia, the media, and probably in a large part of public opinion, you find a polarity where there are people who say I like the city, I don’t like the suburbs. What we’re trying to do is show that they need each other, to coexist, especially from a perspective of sustainability in the future.”


The exhibit’s goal is to illustrate this often-changing dynamic in a way that educates and raises awareness of suburban/urban themes among visitors. “We look at the relationships between the two and ask, what can the suburbs do for the city, and what can the city do for the suburbs to make it one holistic enterprise,” he said.


According to Berger and Matthew Spremulli, research associate at the Center and responsible for the exhibit’s design, the technology chosen for the exhibit was key to accomplishing this goal.


“The center is always trying to find new tools and new techniques for studying urbanism,” said Spremulli, explaining the exhibit layout, which flows along an agenda of central themes that tell the story of suburbanism.


“It’s dynamic, but it’s also physical and spatial,” Berger said. “Most architectural representations that are supposed to be physically explored are static. You walk up to a model or a screen and sometimes you can touch it and change it but it’s really a fixed user perspective.  We’re trying to get people to explore this theme kinesthetically, move around the model and see different information from different perspectives to understand the holistic view.”


The exhibition is presented in three strips of information for the audience to experience.  The first is a set of screens that communicate where suburban trends are going globally and also domestically in the United States, with information presented through schematic videos captured by aerial, helicopter, drone photography and videography.  The second strip is a set of themes that the Center recognized through more than year and a half of research and activities: heterogeneity, experimentation, autonomy, and productivity.  The final strip is a large model, which is meant to coalesce these four themes into a future speculation about the suburbs.


This final area, the model, is where the Sony projection technology came into play as a new medium for illustrating the Center’s research.


“The model is supposed to be experienced from four different sides, presented as four different stories,” Berger said. “Rather than looking at a static model that has one way to read it, you can read it from four different perspectives to understand the holistic complexity of such a large issue.  So in some ways, it’s not about the object.  It’s about the processes within the object and the digital representation allows us to convey our themes more effectively.”


Visitors see the first strip through screens, the second strip through printed media, and they see the third strip as a merge of physical and print, and projected media.


“It is a mix of multimedia, printed content, and different types of content joined in different ways,” Spremulli said. “The projection technology really lets us show the larger-scale relationships between the urban fabrics we’re portraying. It’s helped to dynamically project this very large-scale model, to project different layers of information onto a single plane to show the complexity of the various issues so people can see for themselves how spatially these issues of sustainability create a holistic view.”


“We were toying with a number of different ways to communicate dynamism,” Spremulli said. “To show how the suburban fabric would work on its own and how it would plug into the city centers, we needed a technical solution that would allow us to use a number of projectors and basically carry an entire animation or image across the whole model, which is quite large at nearly 25 feet.  We needed something that would have the appropriate resolution, brightness, but also warmth.  We didn’t want the model or the projectors to out-compete one another.”


The way the projectors are configured and installed not only conveys a sense of dynamism but also gives the exhibit a combination of technology benefits, including mosaic features and pixel overlap. But the exhibit really made maximum use of three of the Sony projectors’ key characteristics: edge blending, lens shift and warping.


The projectors’ edge-blending features helped the team carry images across the entire model, especially where there was content that needed to be overlapped to produce a more seamless image.  Also, Spremulli noted, the precise alignment of the gantry that suspends the projectors and the table below them is never completely perfect, so the projectors’ lens shift provides the flexibility to easily compensate for any positioning discrepancies.


The exhibit team experimented with several different projection-mapping software tools to make the image and the model even more perfectly aligned, but, Spremulli noted, “right out of the box, the Sony projectors were able to basically get us 90% to 95% of the way there just using edge-blending, lens shift and warping.  That was extremely encouraging because it meant we did not have to get into more expensive software solutions and learning curves because the units themselves were pretty amazing in their ability to help us manage a complex shape and model. The combination of the projectors’ resolution and brightness with these extremely useful characteristics, really help make this exhibit a success from a visitor perspective.”


The projectors’ ease of use also helped the team meet the deadlines for getting the entire exhibit up and running, allowing them to focus more on the exhibit content instead of the technology behind it.


“They were plug and play out right of the box, with just some minor tweaking needed,” Spremulli said.


The projectors’ brightness and image quality also helps to best present the exhibit since the model is located in an open lobby space which presents lighting challenges. Since the exhibit opened in late January, the Center’s team has tracked the visitor traffic and engagement and noticed consistently favorable impressions.


“The model really comes more to life around the early afternoon, which is also when we have a lot more traffic coming through the building,” Spremulli said. “We often see crowds of people hovering over this model and mesmerized by these pretty amazing animations stretched over the physical model. People are impressed to see images carried across the entire model, so the ability to chain a number of these projectors together and have them successfully carry content over such a large object is what people get extremely excited about.”


While the visitors are engaged and immersed, the Center’s exhibit team is also satisfied with the exhibit and its innovative use of projection technology.


“Our people are all extremely excited to have such a dynamic piece on display,” Spremulli said.  “In many ways, this entire exhibit embodies how the Center would like to portray itself — using mixed media and innovative combinations of content to present larger visions and speculations for society. Using this type of projection for this model, we are able to do this more effectively than we ever have.”


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