24 July 2014 // Thoughts

From Ghosts to Shoes to Railway Stations – A Brief History of Projection Mapping

As we wrote last week, The Grand Hall Experience at St. Louis’ Union Station incorporates projection mapping to transform an historic venue.  So, we at JRA + blog thought it fitting to step back in time to chronicle the history and mechanics of this increasingly used technology.

First of all, we need to define what projection mapping (previously known as “video mapping” and “spatial augmented reality”) actually is and how it works.  Simply put, the technology creates projection surfaces from three-dimensional objects.  First, the artist creates a exact virtual replica of the projected surface (be it a building, a car, a bridge, or even just a shoe).  Once the images and video for the projection are chosen, the model is “masked” with the chosen media to map out exactly where and in what sequence the images will be projected onto the surface.   The correct distance between the projector and the object is determined, and the projector orientation, position and lenses are specified.  Finally, it’s showtime!

According to PhD candidate and Projection Mapping Central curator, Brett Jones, the history of projection mapping dates back to 1969.  As with so many breakthroughs in our industry, the new technology sprang from Disney, as the “Grimm Grinning Ghosts” and the disembodied Madame Leota sent chills down the spines of guests to Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.  To accomplish the effect, singers were filmed with 16 mm film, and then the images were projected onto busts of their faces, coordinated with the ghosts’ singing.

Flash forward to 1980, and the film installation “Displacements”, by Michael Niemark.  As you can tell by the video, Niemark makes it appear as though people are actually walking through the living room and interacting with the objects.  Eleven years later, Disney raises the bar again, securing the first patent for projection mapping, which described the technology as projecting an image onto “a contoured, three-dimensional object.”  General Electric would follow in 1994 with a patent of its own.

Projection mapping received “academic legitimacy” in 1998, when University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill professors Ramesh Raskar, Greg Welch et al published a paper entitled The Office of the Future.   The document foretold the ubiquity of projection technology, rendering anyone capable of experiencing “spatial augmented reality” right from their desks.  According to Jones, the UNC paper predicted that “we could Skype with life-size versions of our office mates, [via] life-size virtual 3D models.”  Throughout the next decade, a variety of scientists would all make their mark in honing the technology, from specialized bulbs and lamps to moveable projectors.  As the technology developed, companies like NokiaSamsungand BMW adopted projection mapping to advertise their products, and DJs created mapped, synced visuals to accompany their beats.

In the last five years, urban environments around the world have incorporated projection mapping to breathe new life into (and onto) their buildings, though mostly through temporary installations.  Since 2010, the Fete des Lumieres in Lyon, France has offered exquisite installations, blanketing its Theatre des Celestins with fanciful masks, twinkling nightscapes and colorful animated characters. In 2012, this blogger had the great pleasure of witnessing a projection mapping show on the façade of the famed Sagrada Familia during Barcelona’s annual La Merce festival.  The show, produced by Canadian multimedia company Moment Factory, exploded Gaudi’s iconic building in a kaleidoscope of color, carefully choreographing the projections to a recorded soundtrack.


One of the most successful urban projection mapping (and community building) experiments in recent years occurred just a few blocks from JRA’s home offices.  Last year, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO)Cincinnati Ballet and Cincinnati May Festival Chorus worked with local firm Landor to design a one-of-a-kind, 40-minute projection mapping experience against the front façade of Cincinnati Music Hall, a National Historic Landmark and local treasure.  The event, Lumenocity, came together in just six months as a way of welcoming incoming CSO conductor, Louis Langree, and was funded entirely by local corporations and foundations.  While roughly 20,000 guests were expected to attend the two free nights of performances, over 35,000 people flocked to Washington Park to witness the multi-sensory event, jamming the park and surrounding streets with awestruck revelers.  This year, to better control capacity, the CSO offered reserved (but still free) tickets via Ticketmaster.  Within 12 minutes of release, tickets were already completely sold out, and scalpers were (illegally) offering tickets for hundreds of dollars on eBay.  The overwhelming demand forced the CSO to offer tickets to its dress rehearsal and satellite locations where the spectacle could be broadcast via closed circuit TV.  Here’s a look at the last year’s blockbuster “Bolero” finale:


The Grand Hall Experience at Union Station is one of the few permanent projection mapping installations in the world (and the first of its kind in the US).  But with leaps and bounds in technology, along with a commitment to compelling storytelling, this history of projection mapping is only just beginning.