A group of UCLA artists and researchers were collaborating on an exhibit called Ecce Homology, which would use dynamic media, computer vision and computer graphics to create a unique hybrid of art and science. The exhibit site was a long, narrow space in the Fowler Museum of Cultural History. The intent was to let visitors discover evolutionary relationships between human beings and other organisms through interaction with a 45-foot long, 12-foot high projection.
A custom computer vision system would track visitors' movements and create light-filled traces into the projection, allowing visitors to interact with the projections while standing anywhere from a few inches to several feet from the projection surface. Thus visitors would have a visceral, aesthetically pleasing, immersive experience with the projections. On their way out of the space, visitors would learn that they had in fact conducted and experiment finding the genetic similarities between a rice seedling and the human genome, and triggered the process through their own through their movement in the space. So they would have an aesthetic experience first, only to later learn that the experience was actually related to the latest advances in genetic science.
To accomplish this, the exhibit creators sought a display technology that would enable large projected images, a difficult task given the narrow space. To create an immersive experience they also needed to project the images in a way that would allow visitors to walk through the space without obscuring the projections. A typical front projector would not be feasible due to the throw distance required and due to the fact that visitors' shadows would get in the way of the light path.
The creative team was trying to find a way to make the exhibit a reality using projection technology, since they viewed projection as integral to Ecce Homology's success.
"As projectors get smaller, quieter, brighter and better looking, museums are using them for information presentation in many locations where they might not have even considered monitors before," said Jeff Burke, Research Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor for the Hypermedia Studio at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television. "Our piece really could not exist without projection-other display technologies would create a completely different and significantly less immersive experience if we tried to do the same work with them."
The exhibit's creators were unable to find a solution until they read a press release on NEC's new WT600 projector, and realized that its technology could bring the exhibit to life. The WT600 is a front projector with a patented system of four curved mirrors instead of a traditional lens, enabling it to attain the world's shortest throw distance, from a screen size of 40" from only 2" from the screen to up to 100" from less than 26" away. A typical front projector would require a throw distance of several feet to obtain the same 100" image size.
Four WT600s were hung from the ceiling of the gallery to form the forty-five foot horizontal component of the projection. A single projector was mounted on its side at a slightly lower height to form the vertical projection.
The WT600's 3D Reform™ technology allowed the creators to set up the projectors and align all five of them relative to each other quickly, in addition to compensating for any mounting irregularities.
"The extremely short throw of the WT600s enabled the piece to use front projection without concern for visitor-participant's shadows, and this was fantastic," said Burke. "Shadows would have changed the piece considerably because the exhibit was dependent upon visitors' movement in close to the projected image. When the visitors were close enough to project shadows, they were very near the wall and it felt appropriate there."
The WT600s also offered the advantage of quiet operation at less than 37 dB, making them ideal for blending in to a quiet gallery environment. The exhibit's creators were impressed with the projectors' overall performance. "We were using the projectors in pretty adverse conditions, including the use of a dark projection surface, and we were very happy with the brightness we got for such wide throws from a small projector," said Burke. The exhibit was a tremendous success. On opening night, the museum had to turn visitors away, and more than 2,300 people experienced the exhibit during the show's limited run. More importantly, visitors were able to experience for the first time a unique new way of looking at science through art.