Lights Illuminate the Night at Harrah's

Sept. 8, 2009

Entire blogs are devoted to the subject of when, where, and how to best view the digital imagery streaming across the façade of Harrah’s Resort’s Waterfront Tower in Atlantic City, NJ, where architecture and experiential media converge to create what claims to be the world’s largest video screen.

The consensus: The best place to view dice tumbling down the 55-story façade is southwest along Route 30, where motorists also can enjoy unobstructed views of cascading cards, a rippling American flag, and scores of other kinetic images, all courtesy of a digital imaging system incorporating 700 feet of linear LED arrays per floor.

Depending on the vantage point, the imagery can be seen from as far as 10 miles away, and from dusk until the wee hours of morning.

Harrah’s wouldn’t settle for a mere billboard for its new hotel – nor did it get one. Instead, the gaming and entertainment giant rolled the dice and came up with a showstopper that all but halts motorists in their tracks.

If Harrah’s owns the night, it’s indebted to the inventive team of consultants that illuminated it. While the Las Vegas office of building architect Friedmutter Group was charged with accommodating the arrays, a task it accomplished by locating attachment points on the covers of curtainwall mullions, it was up to New York City-based consultant Tim Hunter Design (THD) to create content that conformed to an extremely fine horizontal resolution of 1.2 inches and a far coarser vertical resolution of 10 feet, a distance dictated by mullion spans. “Those vertical spans presented us with bizarre mapping, given what we had in mind,” recalls Mike Hansen, executive vice president with THD. “The biggest problem was the potential for dead space.”

To fill it in, THD studied the unique spatial relationships between image and brain recognition functions, and then translated its findings into an algorithm it later incorporated into imaging software. “The imagery is governed by same principals as those governing what you see on television,” says Hansen. "Up close, you see an array of tiny dots, but when you step back, the brain assembles an image. It’s your brain that does most of the work.”

Despite the algorithm, THD needed to be mindful of certain content parameters. “Anything too detailed, like a boxing match, wouldn’t register, nor would anything insufficiently detailed, like a simple Christmas ornament,” says Hansen.

Neither the concept nor its planned execution initially registered with Harrah’s, which envisioned projecting  simple, LED-based color changes across the façade, much as it had with other buildings comprising its Atlantic City resort. Hansen credits Los Angeles-based consultant John Levy Lighting Productions Inc. and New Windsor, NY-based Production Resource Group with upping the ante, owing to the growing availability of advanced LED technology. Among other improvements, LED-based lighting shines more brilliantly than before, says THD President Bill Groener.

However, translating the revised scheme into terms that Harrah’s executives could handily apprehend required THD to create a 3-D digital model, which it later employed to preview media concepts.

THD continually refined content on the basis of studies it performed on air quality, misting, and other environmental conditions. “We hung arrays outside our office to study them under various climatic conditions, and from various distances and vantage points, and then demonstrated to Harrah’s how content would look,” recalls THD CEO Tim Hunter. “In all, we created 30 digital models. When the system was finally complete, the client was shocked at how closely the imagery resembled our modeling. There were no surprises.”

As constructed, the LED display measures 33,000 linear feet, commandeered by digital-signage software supplied by Tel Aviv-based C-nario. The software not only manages and schedules files, but synchronizes playback across the four façades – a feat that required the supplier to customize its product.

Additionally, the software continually reshuffles files to avoid repetition, and can add or remove files to modify content. All told, the software harnesses 8 million pixels. The imagery itself canvasses more than 4 million square feet of contiguous LED screen.

Just as staggering, the program operates off of a simple desktop PC, albeit one containing a robust graphics card, according to Hansen. “A more conventional approach involving DMX graphics would have made it costlier to generate new digital content,” he says. “LED doesn’t come cheaply. We wanted to ensure that Harrah’s had the capability to create inexpensive content on its own.”  

Don Patai, a project manager with Friedmutter Group, says work the architect performed on previous Harrah’s projects laid the groundwork for integrating the LED array into Waterfront Tower. Recent technological advances, he adds, made the task even simpler. Rather than locating power sources for the arrays in hotel rooms, an approach that would have required 30 façade penetrations per floor, the design team was able to locate them in the LED fixtures alongside drivers and data enablers. “As a result, we were able to hold façade penetrations to four per floor,” says Patai.

Fixtures, he says, are modular, and were installed in 2-, 4-, and 8-foot-long sections. They are also sustainable (the diodes function for 30,000 to 50,000 hours before their output begins to diminish). As a result, displays could conceivably operate until 2055.

That’s not exactly a traffic stopper – but it does give one pause.

John Gregerson is a freelance writer living in Chicago.

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