Tree of Life, the system integration that managed the icon of EXPO

A new challenge

This story, I’m sure, you already know it. Most likely you, like so many others, have also seen it happen. Maybe when you saw her, you even wondered how she was born. Do you remember the Tree of Life of Expo 2015? Yes, I was part of the team of super professionals who created the lights and the projections of the shows. It was a special adventure, a real challenge, but let’s start from the beginning …

It was March 2015, when I received the call of the company contracting the Tree of Life @ Expo 2015 project. I was asked to pilot more than 400 dmx-ArtNet universes respecting the choices of the technical specifications, ie the use of the Pandoras Box software. The dmx-artnet universes were used to reproduce video contributions on seven kilometers of led strips positioned along the lozenges that made up the structure of the tree.

It was, therefore, a huge pixel mapping of almost 500 universes dmx-artnet.

Perhaps you could observe that this is not the only software available for such a task, but in 2015 it was the only one that guaranteed, for some years now, to carry out the work with the necessary reliability.

In the technical specifications it was recommended to use the server version of Pandoras Box, very expensive computers, too, even for that occasion. “All the quotations we find – I was told by the contracting company – propose these servers. Do you have a more effective solution? ”

I knew that the answer was yes, but I also knew that the challenge would be great.

In the next step, I will tell you how I dealt with it.

Creating a solution

The challenge, we said, was big, maybe bigger than me. According to technical specifications, Pandoras Box servers could drive up to 60 Artnet-dmx universes per computer. The project would have required, therefore, the use of at least 9 servers and, consequently, the exorbitant costs. At this point, I had to find a way to use the Pandoras Box Player software with custom hardware capable of exceeding the limit of 60 universes per computer.

In those hours I thought: «It will be the most important work for Italy, perhaps second only to the legendary Pink Floyd concert in Venice; it will be seen by thousands, nay, by millions of people and I am asked to optimize costs. And the risks, who takes them?» I spent some sleepless nights in my lab. I could not afford to propose an unreliable or even non-working solution. «I have to find the ideal combination» I kept telling myself.

Finally, after many tests and numerous components changed, in my computers, eureka! I had produced a reliable and economical hardware solution: a computer, which through the use of the Pandoras Box Player software, reduced the costs of installation piloting and exceeded the limits of the servers.

That’s how I joined the Tree of Life team, but the challenges were not over yet.

Read the next step to find out.

Pandoras box

A very complex structure

Well, the choice of hardware to install respected the budget available. But the difficulties were certainly not finished!

As you will certainly remember, in 2015 the Tree was also animated by video projections: it was projections mapped on its structure and produced by 8 projectors for a total of 240000 ansi lumens. The tree, however, was full of lines and curves that modeled a three-dimensional object, in other words: it was a very complex structure, to be videoprojected and mapped. The creative management had chosen to use two d3 servers (today called “Disguise”), powerful computers that would have been parked in the technical compartment for 6 months. You already understand, do not you? The cost of this operation was very high.

The contracting company was facing a situation at the edge of the desperate, a paved path of delays and complications that, of course, only made the management of costs more and more uncontrollable. I was asked once again to solve the problem with an alternative solution.

I do not hide that, in this case, the responsibility was even heavier than the one I took with the question of the strip led. It was a matter of making a projection mapping of 8 synchronized video projectors and a content produced on the texture of the 3D model.

Also this time I found a solution. Here’s how I got there. I noticed that, although the structure was very complex and the content was very high resolution, the video projectors were given a final video signal resolution of 1.920×1.080. Leaving a computer capable of mapping 16,000×8,000 pixels of texture parked for six months would have been useless and senseless. In fact, the d3 servers would have calculated a huge amount of data in real time to generate 8 trivial full HD video streams. I then proposed to export the outputs of the d3 servers in a series of video files that can be played with a much cheaper player. Obviously this solution, at first, aroused perplexity in my superiors.

To give up very reliable projection devices in the name of savings could not risk translating into problems related to quality and operation? It was a common opinion that, in case of replacement of a projector, it would be necessary to re-engage the d3 servers and the corresponding operator to recalculate the content starting from the 3d object and the mega file.

My experience in the world of projection mapping (or video mapping, if you prefer) came to my rescue again. I knew very well, in fact, that, in case of replacement of a video projector, the projection point with respect to the 3D object would remain unchanged. We could proceed without risk!

I therefore proposed to integrate the already present Pandoras Box system of the led strip with two other computers able to generate the 8 video outputs and to apply a simple two-dimensional warper, sufficient to slightly deform the image and correct the small optical distortions given by the difference of projector.

It was enough then to export the d3 server outputs in eight full HD video files and it was possible to reproduce the content for all six months of installation at an extremely low cost.

In the next step, I will tell you the stages of the set-up.

The set-up

It was April 25, 2015, when the set-up began for us. Five days of work had been planned, fifteen were needed.

Another great challenge was before us: to transport the almost 500 ArtNet universes to the controllers arranged inside the tree.

The ArtNet is commonly used in “broadcast” mode, the more it was in 2015. The broadcast mode requires that all devices within the wired network simultaneously receive data from all the pixels in the installation. This system, by virtue of the amount of data to be transmitted, would certainly have generated an unmanageable workload for network switches.

So I decided to use an alternative feature and to generate the ArtNet in “unicast” mode, managing to send to each controller only the data concerning it.

This solution allowed to manage the huge volume of data using only 20% of the bandwidth of the network.

I want to tell you another aspect of the story: with the “unicast” solution we have greatly simplified the lives of the technicians who had to install the approximately 30 ArtNet-DMX controllers from 16 universes each. In case of replacement, the technician would have had to modify only one parameter instead of 17. Each controller listened, in fact, to the universes with address from 1 to 16, so, in case of moving or replacing the controller, it would be enough to change the IP address instead of change the 16 universe addresses over the IP address.

During the exhibition, we have also created an interactive interface for the constant updating of texts on information monitors and show times.

This arrangement allowed the colleagues who remained in assistance to the installation to update contents and messages on the monitors with great ease for all the months of opening.

When Expo 2015 ended, we were asked to dismantle the media servers, as happened with all the technology on the Tree. We went back to setting up the servers for the following summer season. It was in 2017 that the company that manages the Tree of Life bought machinery and equipment to produce the show in a reduced version

Even today, if you happen to go from Milan North, you will distinguish the silhouette of the Tree stand out in the sky and you will still see it breathe, alive and proud …

I hope the article was useful to you! If so, share it with your colleagues and if you want to make a comment or ask me for a consultation do not hesitate to contact me!

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