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Mike Wharton • FeaturesSeptember 2021 • September 10, 2021

Photos: Illuminarium Experiences /Jordan Vision for Rockwell Group

AV Visionaries Take Immersive Entertainment to the Next Level

Just on the other side of the lush greenspace that borders the Eastside Trail of the Atlanta BeltLine sits a sleek 30,000-square-foot renovated building designed by the LAB at Rockwell Group. The centerpiece of the new attraction is the first Illuminarium, an immersive theater that surrounds visitors in a unique sensory space. The debut location also features a unique café/bar and souvenir shop.

Opened by parent company Illuminarium Experiences on July 1, the first Illuminarium spectacle, WILD: A Safari Experience, has been described as a “VR, without the glasses” sensation, transporting visitors to African landscapes captured by content partner RadicalMedia. The cinematic scenery will then shift from landscapes in South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania to outer space with the next attraction, SPACEWALK, followed by a deep sea ocean adventure. Future Illuminariums are planned for Las Vegas’ Area15 (Winter 2021/2022), Miami and Chicago’s Navy Pier (late 2022).

Face to face with a lion

Birth of an Idea

Along with Illuminarium Experiences CEO/founder Alan Greenberg and CFO Chris Renaud, others playing key roles bringing the Illuminarium concept to life include Rockwell Group founder David Rockwell and RadicalMedia founder Jon Kamen, with Brian Allen serving as executive vice president of technology and content.

“I had been working at Radical on a number of prototypes for immersive spaces. I came over to Illuminarium to fully realize that vision, continue the concept, and head up all of the technology and content integration,” Allen says. “By 2019, we were shopping around for a projection technology and had courted all the usual suspects.”

At that year’s Consumer Electronic Show (CES), Allen met with Joe Conover, strategic manager of themed entertainment for Panasonic in the Panasonic booth. Allen had come to talk about the Panasonic PT-RQ50K laser projector. “Brian said to me, ‘I got something cool to build,’” Conover laughs, recalling that initial conversation. Conover had started with Panasonic in sales then migrated as the company developed the forefront of high brightness 4K laser projection and 3DLP technologies. These had developed a huge market presence in large venue projection and entertainment.

The technology also became a useful tool in Hollywood for on-camera visual effects as opposed to green screen. In Las Vegas, there are many shows on stage that utilize the same technologies in digital formats. A significant byproduct had been the emergence of a submarket in immersive experience. “We liked that their road map and their vision was very aligned with ours,” Allen says. “They see immersive as the next generation of entertainment.”

Camera arrays capture immersive images of animals in the wild

The Next Phase

Not long after that conversation, a projector “shoot out” was arranged and staged in Panasonic’s Orlando facility, which serves the cruise ship and theme park segments. Along with several other brands, the shootout contained two Panasonic laser projectors; the PT-RQ50K and the PT-RQ32K.

“In listening to Brian’s vision, we knew we would need a hybrid solution,” said Conover. “The 50K certainly provided the pixel impact Illuminarium desired while the 32K offered the short throw lens needed.”

Additionally, the 32K short lens came in an “elbow” format. Says Allen, “The short throw lens allows the audience to get up close to the projected image and not see any distortion, nor cast their shadow on the image.”

With that decision, Panasonic became the official technology provider for the projection, with Kashio “Yuki” Yukinori, manager, Panasonic Product Engineering, playing a key role. Conover had been pondering what other technologies might be needed to bring Allen’s vision to life since that initial talk. “I told Joe how much we liked the projectors, but let’s see if we can do something on the lensing side of things to really push the boundaries in native 4K. A short throw lens increases the angle of incidence so guests can feel more immersed. Can he do that?”

And that is just one of the developments to come out of Panasonic and Illuminarium during 2019. “We sat down through the pandemic with our amazing factory engineers in Osaka, Japan and said, ‘Let’s do this, let’s build this lens for Brian,’” notes Conover.

“Those are the things we do like to add to the conversation,” he adds. “I am most proud of Panasonic, especially our parent company in Japan. It’s a company of engineers, from the top guy down. It’s not just off the shelf, these machines are all hand built. When we bring those thought processes to people like Brian, he can say, ‘Well… it’s almost perfect, but what if it could do this.’ And that’s when I love, going back to the lab and saying to our guys… ‘What if?’”

Walking among giraffes

Ensconced in the Lab

The Illuminarium complex in Atlanta will be its world headquarters. Within the 30,000 square foot complex exists 10,000 square foot main theater, The Innovation Lab, which measures 60 by 143 feet and houses the lab stage measuring 40 by 30 feet with a 360-degree wall with haptic floor. Live IR sensors are imbedded on the floor for projection mapping.

Extensive remodeling took place on the existing building. The roof had to be raised four feet. During construction, all the testing was done within the Innovation Lab at Illuminarium. This is where the team of collaborators “lived” during the Covid-19 pandemic shutdowns.

Illuminarium has other tech partners, such as integration partner Electrosonic and disguise, who help bring the multi-sensory journey to life with their latest disguise hardware; it pushes the breathtaking 4K content on one of the largest LED canvases in the world.

Orlando-based Evolve Lease helped equip Illuminarium Atlanta with 23 Panasonic PT-RQ50K and 30 PT-RQ32K laser projectors, which are enhanced with Panasonic’s ET-D3QW200 lens and Early Warning and Control (EWS) software. Evolve Lease also helped pave the way for Illuminarium Atlanta’s 22 disguise vx 4 media servers, which are optimized for immersive environments with 12 rx rendering nodes to power real-time generated cinematic scenes.

These are presented with a 240-degree native field of view (versus the average 210-degree human field of view), surrounding visitors in a sensory space of sight, sound, and scale unlike any other. The digital display setup includes four TH-75EQ1W, three TH-65SQ1, seven TH-55LFV9U and one TH-86EQ1 screens, all from Panasonic, along with two Panasonic AW-UE70K PTZ cameras. And for its immersive sound design, including 3D audio effects, Illuminarium turned to Berlin, Germany-based Holoplot.

“Illuminarium is completely reinventing the game in immersive real-time entertainment, and we are truly honored to play a part in it,” says Tom Rockhill, chief commercial officer at disguise. “Our vx and rx machines have been engineered to power photorealistic real-time graphics of the highest quality on the largest canvases, and our partnership with Illuminarium can perfectly show off these capabilities.”

Allen chose disguise for media playback as well as for their generative capabilities. “It’s at the heart of our system. I need that media to come out of the server at its purest uncompressed form. Having disguise work with Panasonic together delivers media that has integrity and non-degradation throughout the system.”

Adds Conover, “That’s where those efficiencies come together on the large scale, large venue projection. We’ve had a long term relationship with disguise. If it’s Panasonic, there is usually disguise involved, and vice-versa. I know the team there well. We’ve always played nice in the sandbox together. Through this relationship at Illuminarium, we signed some NDAs and started sharing some technologies. Our two systems are now actually integrated. A lot of engineers’ hours are behind that. That’s great for the industry, because we are going to scale that down and create better efficiencies for everybody eventually. These applications will in the future be scalable for mobile or touring operations. Projection in a box, wherever you want.”

Zebras wander past in the African savanna

Overcoming Challenges

“The fact is, we are layering technologies that have existed before,” notes Allen. “We are on the bleeding edge in that we are trying to put all those into one building and make them work together, be cohesive. This gives us and the partners an opportunity to make something that has not been done before.”

“That was another of the unique opportunities,” says Conover. “Panasonic is a true partner building a mutual relationship. In the lab with Illuminarium, we are working with a collective team without worrying about sharing information. We all are pushing the whole immersive space forward to the next generations. To do that, you have to stumble sometimes. These challenges will be overcome, but in an environment that Brian and Illuminarium have fostered.”

There are challenges to the content side as well. Capturing and manipulating content at this scale, with canvasses of 3 billion pixels, can be cumbersome, Allen notes. “It takes a lot of horsepower, a lot of computing power to deal with just the media itself — capturing, storing, carrying, and transferring. We kind of took a stab in the dark. The haptic floor, for instance — no one has ever done a haptic floor like this, so the approach was, ‘I think that this is how I want to do it, I want to build a haptic floor like this.’ You test, you deploy; it’s an ever-evolving product.”

Content is captured with specialized camera arrays, which are then stitched together as plates that allow for really expansive wraparound shots. Particular attention is paid to where the horizon line sits on the wall, so the guest really feels like they are on an African safari or walking on the moon or even underwater at the deepest parts of the ocean.

“The way they capture the experience with the array of cameras creates a totally immersive perspective,” says Conover. “The person viewing this in Illuminarium gets the same experience directly through those lenses. It is a connection, a feeling that really defines the word immersive.”

Illuminarium is a new media format. Along with Atlanta, Las Vegas and Miami, the company envisions theaters in the top 10 tourist cities around the world. “That allows us to take our content and travel it as much as possible, so we get to amortize our content over multiple locations,” Conover says.

“Walking on the moon or around the floors of the deepest ocean are just a few of the places we will take the audience,” says Allen. “We are truly on a mission to democratize the most extraordinary experiences in the world and bring that to people on a mass scale. To do this with such great technology allows us to make it that much more realistic.”

Behind the Screen

The bare-bones staff working in the lab next adjacent to Illuminarium belies the truly majestic splendor and immersion captivating experience that lies on the other side of the breezeway that houses WILD: The African Experience. This small team of people are there to ensure show quality and successful running of the show. Operation of the show is automated. It was purposely built and designed so a nontechnical person can start and stop the show from an iPad. Allen calls this “light operations.”

Conover points out that a typical day for the last year involved a team full of people huddled around a bunch of hardware in the lab space. As the Atlanta location is fully in the launch mode, all that has moved on to the Las Vegas theater, which will open in late 2021/early 2022.

The Lab will be a training site for technical staff for onsite support at every location for every day and first response. Additionally, every site will have the ability of remote control. The Atlanta laboratory will be the site of global headquarters and command center of Illuminarium. Here, too, research and development will continue. Adds Conover, “We are looking into a way to give Brian a sort of a God’s eye view of all the locations to be able to remote into any one projector from the global headquarters in Atlanta.”

Allen and his team will migrate with the gear as it leapfrogs around, too. “Of course, we at Panasonic remain fully involved,” smiles Conover. “We are here before the launch, during the installation, and to support thereafter with Panasonic Service in order to provide ‘Show Quality Solutions,’ so yeah…we bounce around a bit, too.”

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