As you enter the IAC Building, you might notice how the heads of people sitting in reception are dwarfed by a giant globe projected on a 20-foot-wide screen behind them, as if in some Barry Diller–esque restaging of the war room in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove. You might also notice a trackball perched atop the reception desk. If you feel emboldened, give it a good spin. This should send the projected Earth into a high-speed rotation, but beware: early iterations of the globe spun so swiftly that onlookers lost their balance, according to Frank McCann, whose company, McCann Systems, helped build it. “We had to slow it down,” he says. “At one point you would get vertigo.”
On the opposite side to reception, facing the West Side Highway, is part two of this multimedia extravaganza: the largest high-definition video wall in the world, at 11 feet high and 120 feet long. In April, shortly after its inauguration, the wall was showing a gentle ambient array of shifting colors produced by a bank of 162 high-output LEDs hidden behind the glass. But IAC plans a whole cavalcade of illuminated spectacles to turn the wall from, say, a glowing white slab to a game of interactive Pong or a bed of blooming video flowers.
The elongated media wall was the brainchild of Bruce Mau Design, which, as the building’s graphics consultant, proposed a “giant presentation device for large audiences” positioned level with the eyes of the thousands of motorists who drive down the West Side Highway each day. Many similar concepts have germinated and then terminated en route from rendering to reality, memorably the giant media wall planned for the new Penn Station. Here, however, the desire for size emanating from IAC’s boardroom trumped precedent. Several technological solutions were dismissed, according to IAC’s chief administrative officer, Jason Stewart, including an acrylic rear-projection screen (couldn’t get it flat enough) and a liquid crystal display (too expensive and “cubey”), before IAC and McCann came upon a new way of rear-projecting onto a thin laminated “film screen” sandwiched between two sheets of glass. Unlike standard video billboards, which use LEDs to render moving images at a resolution that becomes legible only when viewed from a distance, this method would allow you ten-point type to be read from a foot away. The glass sandwich would prevent damage to the screen, a crucial factor given that IAC planned to use the lobby area around the globe and video wall as rentable event space. “When the idea crystallized that we could do a high-definition image you can touch,” Stewart says, “it allowed us to feel that we were innovating.”
To project a 120-foot-long high-definition video image requires not one but eighteen sequential projectors perfectly calibrated with computer software so that the point at which one projected image starts and the next takes over is barely discernible—a process called “edge blending.” When Al Gore stands in front of a giant projected graphic of CO2 emissions in An Inconvenient Truth, edge-blended projectors are working behind the scenes. To choreograph, translate, edge-blend, and calibrate the imagery requires an entire room of computers. All in all, says Steve Zink of Warren Z Productions—which produced the software system and the spinning globe—it uses enough power to “run a small house or two.” So much for LEED certification.
Having built the wall, IAC is faced with the problem of what to put on it. Trollbäck + Company was assigned to come up with promotional “modules” that could be shown during peak pedestrian and car traffic hours. Each module is a two-minute visual riff on an “i” word theme, resolv-ing into an IAC company logo or several: “iConnect” features pixellated imagery of yellow taxis culminating in the Citysearch logo, for example; “iDate”—promoting IAC matchmaking sites—shows time-lapse footage of flowers blooming, shot with a high-resolution still camera. (Producing video footage at four times the resolution of the cinema screen proved prohibitively complex and pricey.)
IAC also approached New York University (NYU), where artist and scientist Jeff Han drew up plans to turn the wall into a kind of media mirror using strategically placed stereoscopic cameras to take live 3-D imagery of the people standing in front of the wall and render their moving silhouettes across the screen as dozens of tiny screens, each showing live TV footage. Meanwhile NYU instructor Daniel Shiffman and his students in the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) are developing an open-source system that enables anyone in the school to run work across the media wall using the popular programming language Processing. By mid-April, ITP had pulled together seven witty interactive experiments to show off its idea on six test monitors strung together in the lab. In “Phone Flyer,” a small animation of a biplane pulling a phone number flies across the screens, maneuvered by calling the number from any cell phone. The screens in “Timeframe” are broken up into hundreds of cells, each showing the same movie—but with each cell one frame ahead of the next. The effect is a dazzling array of snaking imagery, recalling Eadweard Muybridge’s early frame-by-frame photo studies of people and animals in motion. In another, a camera hooked up to the screen renders a blurred, blended version of yourself: wave your arms wildly, and your image partially dissolves into a flurry of particles that float the length of the wall, a kind of digital fireworks display. ITP director Red Burns anticipates having a class devoted to creating work for the wall. “We’re going to treat it as an experimental place for us to try new things,” he says.
In late April, IAC was encountering a few technical problems with its media monster. The inconsistencies between projected images were still visible as jagged lines on type or dulled colors. And daylight glare on the screen was completely washing out some of the Trollbäck modules, including one for Ticketmaster: on a studio monitor it was a gorgeous map of live upcoming concert data rendered as shooting stars on a black background. But on the wall in mid-afternoon it was barely legible, losing all its depth and subtlety, even after motorized blinds were installed. With the cost of replacing projector bulbs and commissioning original works for the wall’s demanding resolution and aspect ratio, this was looking like a very expensive trailblazer in the architecture of mutable surfaces.
The idea that IAC had indulged in this project without fully considering the conditions of the site is, perhaps, an indication of the seductive power of multimedia as an architectural element. The company likes to compare the wall to, for example, the giant screen behind Steve Jobs at a Macworld product launch, but that one is temporary. The media wall’s value as a publicity generator, and as a unique selling point of the lobby as an events space, will likely offset the cost of building and maintaining it. But IAC’s grand projet needs some ingenious programming to turn it into an icon of West Chelsea’s flourishing arts and architecture scene. Jakob Trollbäck remains hopeful: “Limitations are great because they ultimately make you most creative.”