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In depth

Aspects of EXPO 2010 -an Audiovisual Review

By Robert Simpson, founder director of Electrosonic.

The EXPO phenomenon is a strange one. Billions of dollars are spent on a giant attraction that is only open for a few months, which means that there is little or no time to correct mistakes…world expo shanghai china

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On the other hand EXPOs have often been where new techniques have been developed. A real surprise is to discover that at as far back as the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900 Raoul Grimoin-Sanson put on a 330° show using ten synchronized 70mm movie projectors (sadly it was shut down for safety reasons). Less surprising is that EXPO 67 in Montreal set a trend for giant projected images and complex AV exhibits, followed by the debut of IMAX® at EXPO 70 in Osaka.

So what of EXPO 2010 in Shanghai? With over 200 countries and organizations exhibiting, a site occupying two square miles on both sides of the Huangpu River that is over two miles long, and 70 million visitors expected, it is the biggest ever; but does it show anything really new? In fundamental concept terms the answer is probably “no”, since, like the example from 1900, most show ideas have many antecedents, but in execution terms the answer may well be “yes”.

Not surprisingly there are thousands of electronic images at EXPO, shown on everything from flat panel displays, through projection to giant LED displays. The good news is that reliability is now high, so there was little evidence of malfunctioning equipment – I saw just two displays out of action in 63 pavilions. The performance is also better. Not only is the traworld expo shanghai chinansition from film projection to electronic projection now complete, but the results are better, and there is now no limit to projected image size.

An example of the flexibility that this affords can be seen in the Switzerland Pavilion, Here visitors can get very close to a 17m × 11m (56ft × 36ft) screen without seeing any pixels or other image artifacts. It is showing a magnificent seven minute film, “The Alps” (actually an edited down version of a full length IMAX® production by MacGillivray Freeman). The use of six electronic projectors makes it possible to squeeze the whole system into a relatively small space. (See image above right)

The EXPO Theme Pavilions do not suffer from any lack of space; indeed some are so big that exhibits within them are conceived on a grand opera scale, and images have to be huge to make any impact on the space. For example in the Pavilion of City Being an area called “Vigor Railway Station” (an exhibit devoted to the importance of transport to city life) has a back projected ceiling of around 41m × 27m (135ft × 90ft). (left)

Projection remains the best method of large high resolution electronic image presentation. However, with longer viewing distances it is possible to get much brighter images using LED technology. An example of the misapplication of the technology can be seen in the South Africa Pavilion where a central cylindrical feature is clad in LED, and presents images of the country (right). The problem is that the viewing distance, in this case 3 – 8m (10 – 26ft) is far too short for the pixel pitch of the display, with its 8mm pitch you would need to be at least 14m (46ft) away to get a satisfactory image.world expo chna shanghai

On the other hand the Pavilion of the Future, sited in an old power station, has an enormous central space 36m high, 60m long and 25m wide (118ft × 197ft × 82ft) called “Harmony Square”, and here giant LED displays work very well, since viewing distances are great enough to avoid the pixellation problem, and the advantages of LED in terms of brightness and contrast are fully exploited. One end of the space is filled by a huge LED video screen showing a film “Window of the Future”. The animated cartoon nature of the content places less demands on the display than “photographic” images would.

At the other end of Harmony Square a 25m (82ft) high “Communication Tower” (leftlower image) dominates the space. In this case the pixellated nature of LED is very much part of the design, and all the imagery is graphics and text based.

As with all EXPOs the same mistakes recur, but at the same time solutions are evident. There are several instances of pavilions under-estimating the effect of sunlight. For example outside the UAE Pavilion there is a pre-show partly presented on LCD screens, which really cannot compete with the sun; however in the line-up for the Information and Communications Pavilion a new generation of sunlight viewable displays is in use, and these are effective.
 
Interactive displays are popular with the public. However, when you have heavy visitor traffic it has to be recognized that not every visitor will benefit from them, and, for those that do, the displays must be intuitive in operation and very quick to operate. At EXPO there are some good examples, many of them dependent on gesture input. A particularly enjoyable one is in the Shipbuilding Pavilion. Here a real aquarium is fitted with a detection system which allows visitors to point at a particular fish. The fish then “talks back” to the visitor by means of a projected bubble caption (below). Great fun.

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With over 500, 000 visitors to EXPO every day, pavilions have to decide what represents a reasonable throughput, and need to resolve the possible conflict between maximising visitor numbers and giving visitors a worthwhile experience. A practical maximum seems to be around 40, 000 per day with a visitor experience of between 20 and 45 minutes (excluding waiting time). One way of ensuring both a good flow and satisfied visitors is to build a “show” based pavilion.

BRC Imagination Arts is an expert practitioner of this approach, and has applied it to the USA Pavilion (below and header image  at top) which is, indeed, achieving 40, 000 visitors a day (its 3 millionth visitor arrived on Day 75). The pavilion offers an “overture” and three “acts”. The overture is a pre-show where the waiting audience see images of the USA crosscut with both famous and not-so-famous Americans attempting to greet the audience in Chinese. It goes down well.

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Act I is a theatre based show presented on three large screens, it emphasizes the importance of the China-USA relationship and includes contributions from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Act II is the main entertainment, a show that follows the EXPO theme of “Better City – Better Life” called “The Garden”, a story about how a 10-year old girl dreams of turning a vacant lot into an urban oasis and inspires her neighbors to make her dream come true. It is notable for its unusual format of five silhouetted 30ft (9m) high screens, and for the way it uses lighting to enhance the impact of the show. Screen perimeter and auditorium lighting is tightly synchronized to the mood of the show, with more than 800 lighting cues in eight minutes.
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The ultimate in visitor flow control is to use a conveyor belt to carry the audience through your pavilion. In practice this both controls and limits the throughput. The Saudi Pavilion boasts eight hour queues for the “Treasure Cinema” which features “The Giant Emerged Screen”. Visitors travel on a conveyor (in fact a variant of the standard airport baggage conveyor) that takes them through the pavilion. Actual capacity is stated on the pavilion website as 25, 000 per day, but in view of demand one suspects that efforts have been made to run the conveyor as fast as possible!.

 The main part of the show is another example of how image size has ceased to be the technical challenge it once was. The “Giant Emerged Screen” weighs in at 1600 square metres (15, 000 square feet) and is most impressive.

A short review can only give a flavor of what is on offer at EXPO 2010, but I hope that the examples I have chosen are of interest and relevance to those in the attractions “industry”.

Robert Simpson is founder director of Electrosonic. He has attended many of the world EXPOs since EXPO 58 in Brussels. Electrosonic was responsible for the AV installations in the USA Pavilion, the Shipbuilding Pavilion, and the Information & Communications Pavilion at EXPO 2010.
Text and photographs © Robert Simpson and Electrosonic.

Image captions: (from the top)

1.(Header, top)“The Garden” show in the USA Pavilion is notable for its unusual screen format and the way in which it uses lighting to heighten the impact of the show.
2.“The Alps” in the Switzerland Pavilion. Notice how close the audience is to the screen, and how nearly all of the visitors seem to have cameras.
3.The giant projected ceiling in the “Vigor Railway Station” exhibit within the Pavilion of City Being.
4.The cylindrical LED display in the South Africa Pavilion is heavily pixellated.
5.“Harmony Square” within the Pavilion of the Future is dominated by a huge LED video screen. Notice the mirrored wall to the left.
The 25m high “Communication Tower”, to the right of the bottom of the 2 photos, is another giant LED confection.
6.The aquarium exhibit in the Shipbuilding Pavilion uses an infra red camera to detect a visitor’s pointing action, resulting in the fish responding by means of a projected caption.
7.“The Garden” show in the USA Pavilion is notable for its unusual screen format and the way in which it uses lighting to heighten the impact of the show.
8.The “Giant Emerged Screen” in the Saudi Pavilion. Visitors are carried on a conveyor belt that floats above the screen.

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