Curtin University, Australia

Hurrairah bin Sohail looks at one of the first ever deployments of the Digital Projection Satellite MLS projector at Curtin University, Australia.

The HIVE (Hub for Immersive Visualisation and eResearch) at Curtin University is an advanced facility established to support and encourage the use of visualisation technologies in research projects across the university.

When Curtin University took the step to upgrade the capabilities of the HIVE, InDesign Technologies served as the consultant for the project while Vizcom acted as the integrator.

The upgrade project centred around the Cylinder and the Dome displays. The Cylinder is a 3m high, 8m diameter, 180-degree projection surface while the Dome is a 4m diameter half-dome that fills an observer’s full peripheral and primary field-of-view.

Peter Coman, managing director at InDesign Technologies, says: “Curtin University was looking to replace the existing display technology in the HIVE and upgrade the equipment, there were no changes to the layout of the space. The key thing for us to keep in mind was that the usage and application was very intensive. Curtin University wanted high quality images and the team who run the HIVE were very particular about the technology and the outcomes they wanted. They really knew their stuff and from the start of the project their questions were incisive and delving into deep technical aspects such as colour wheel speeds.”

An engaged and knowledgeable end user drove the project, and Coman explains the impact this had: “We are professionals, we know a lot about technology. But the interactions with Curtin University and the questions they asked us helped expand our knowledge pool and take it to another level. We have no problems admitting when we don’t have the answer to a question but give us time and we can find the answer.”

Taking the Cylinder and the Dome into consideration, it was obvious that projection was the only suitable display technology. However, finding the right projector was a different matter. The display systems in the HIVE are used to support a wide-range of world-leading visualisation projects – from the depths of the ocean looking at shipwreck sites, to high-resolution images of the surface of Mars being used to count impact craters, to microscopic visualisation of molecule dynamics at the atom level, and everything in-between. What they hoped to achieve with the upgrade was a four-fold increase in display resolution and an increase in display brightness, all whilst maintaining compatibility with 120Hz stereoscopic 3D display – and of course all of this needed to be at a reasonable budget.

Coman details: “Everyone can look at a spec sheet and read off the headline specifications such as the resolution and the brightness. But to be honest, it’s much harder to properly evaluate these specifications. A projector can state that it delivers 4K resolution. But is it true 4K? Is it 4K with modulation? Curtin University wanted the best display and when they started asking these questions, we went back to the manufacturers to really find out what the projectors on the market could do.”

Coman continues: “No brand was off limits, but the bar for performance was very high. We started by going to the market and finding out what the projectors could do.”

Coman says: “As we continued the market research and the number of contenders kept dropping, we reached a point where we thought that we would have to compromise. It was around this time that we were talking to Digital Projection. They said that they didn’t have something that ticked all the boxes at the moment, but they had a new projector in the pipeline that might just do the trick. Digital Projection shared the specifications of the Satellite MLS, and we were blown away. It was the perfect projector for the HIVE - so much so that they were willing to wait for the product to be available.”

The Satellite MLS also nipped a number of design challenges in the bud as Coman elaborates: “When you are talking about high brightness, the projectors tend to get big. For us, that means finding a way to hang the projector in a position where it can do its job but not be intrusive. It means having to consider how much noise it is going to make and how that can be mitigated. But with the Digital Projection Satellite MLS, a lot of these issues were resolved right off the bat. We only had to accommodate a Satellite Head at the display site, whilst the Modular Light Source was able to be placed in the nearby server room housing the various AV and computer equipment.”

With the projectors picked, the backend was also upgraded. Kevin Sing from InDesign Technologies details: “Since we were working with native 4K 120Hz 3D we needed brand new computing hardware. To get the blending, geometric correction and the high resolution and high refresh rates we went with three Vioso workstations. The core requirement from Curtin University was that they didn’t want any compression, and there should be minimal latency or artefacts introduced in the video transport. We spent some time doing calculations and coming up with excel spreadsheets to determine how to best achieve this and in the end, we specified DisplayPort 1.4 active optical cables from the workstations to the projectors.”

Sing provides further details: “We used the projection calculator software from Pixelwix to accurately model all aspects of the projector positioning and lens choice – which was complex due to the use of multiple projectors beaming onto single- and double curved screens. We needed to be very careful to accurately model the actual size of the Satellite Heads and large optical lenses and precisely simulate the field-of-view of the images projected out of the lenses. From there we had a structural engineer create the structural mounts for us. Of course, there was a lot of work that went into this, making sure there were no shadows being cast, providing adequate blending but not too much blending, accounting for lens shift, and so on.”

Three Digital Projection Satellite Heads were used for the Cylinder display while a single Satellite Head with a fisheye lens delivers visuals for the Dome display. Being able to use the same model projector for both Cylinder and Dome display systems also provided some advantages – such as the ability to easily swap components if there is ever a failure.

Sing says: “Due to the projectors being new-to-market and Curtin University being the very first installation, we were designing many aspects of the HIVE installation in parallel with the final development of the projectors. We had to be careful to design in a level of flexibility to the installation to allow for the possibility of some design changes to the projectors in the final stages. The HIVE was being taken offline to perform the AV upgrade and everything needed to be prepared in readiness for the delivery of the projectors. The projectors were to be the last item to arrive and they needed to fit first time. The timing was also going to be very tight with the HIVE being used very heavily by many academic groups across the University. The pandemic, which arrived during the middle of the project, caused various additional complications.”

Scott Wrightson from Vizcom, the AV integrator on the project, explained: “The whole Vizcom team has been extremely pleased to be involved in this high-profile project. Having the opportunity to work with high-end new-to-market equipment is always a treat.”

Coman concludes: “Taking on tough projects and pushing the boundaries is just in our nature. I think what we were able to achieve is very unique and very special. And furthermore, this is one of the first deployments of the Digital Projection Satellite MLS and it is a great honour to be associated with that. Of course, there are risks when you are working with the latest products on the market, but you need to take those risks if you want to build something spectacular.”

Associate Professor Andrew Woods, manager of the Curtin University HIVE, comments: “We are extremely pleased with the end-result of the upgrade of the HIVE Cylinder and Dome display systems. We often look at some of our visualisation content from pre-upgrade and remark on how it looks so much better with the new systems – much sharper, much brighter and with much more punch! It is always pleasing when our academic collaborators notice the improvement too. In addition to the HIVE being used to support active research projects, the HIVE is regularly used to showcase those projects to industry and the general public. Being able to blow our visitors’ socks off with high impact visuals to explain high quality research outcomes is extremely valuable. The HIVE is being used to support projects that are being published in high-impact journals, is supporting projects receiving significant funds from government and industry, and helping create high-value public experiences such as museum exhibitions at the Western Australian Museum. The newly installed AV systems in the HIVE are allowing us to continue working at the leading-edge of visualisation technologies.”

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