In a technology landscape where even last year’s big thing tends to get old quickly, it’s pretty amazing that the lobby-filled LED installation at the Comcast tower in Philadelphia remains one of the best visual experience projects out there … more than 12 years after it was first lit up.
If the project is unfamiliar, imagine walking into a very large corporate office tower lobby, admiring the wood walls that line it, and then seeing those walls are active, and that there are little visual stories being told.
The project went live when few people even in this industry knew all that much about direct view LED, doing a 4mm wall years ahead of when AV people started thinking and marketing in terms of pixel pitch.
I spoke with David Niles, whose little company did the original job and continues to work on it, through a recent LED upgrade.
We get into his long background, starting in architecture and early computer graphics, and evolving into pioneering work with HDTV, again years ahead of when people were using terms like 1080P.
We also talk about some of the other work done by his team.
I spoke with Niles last week as he puffed a morning cigar in his central Florida backyard. I was staring out at my Nova Scotia backyard, wondering when predicted snow flurries were going to blow in.
David, we’ll get into the Comcast experience, but that’s not the only work you’ve done through the years. Can you tell me about your company and what you do?
David Niles: If I would start backward, what we do today is, I make large scale multimedia experiences. Mostly for, I guess you would call it public art spaces and buildings, sometimes residences, all over the world. And that’s what I do today, where I started is, it’s a long list and I’ll try and go through it quickly. I really started out in architecture. As a kid, I was fascinated with building and really enamored with architecture. I thought it was extremely novel. I was 10-12 years old, reading all Franklin Wrights books and studying his plans. By the time I was 12 or 13, I taught myself how to be a draftsman and I could draft, and eventually went out in my early career, designing and building outdoor cafes, stores, interiors in New York City. But I was always frustrated with this idea that as novel as I thought architecture was, it was turning into this sort of commodity for run of the mill things and I believe that the future of dynamic art is really in that thing called television. So very early on, I was fascinated with the idea of television and the medium of video and in the early part of my career I was involved with video art, very early pioneers of video art and in New York City where we would run out in porter back and we would shoot all kinds of things that we thought were for art.
Parallel to that was involved with music and music recording and engineering, sort of altogether and theater to some extent, live theater, and that eventually melded into me getting more and more involved with the medium of video and television, summarily rejecting the idea of broadcast television. It was terrible, those television shows had terrible graphics, horrible lighting, and all this other stuff.
One day I was sitting in a loft with some friends of mine and we’re looking at this video, art that we were making and other than the three or four people in this room, looking at some protracted very boring thing that we shot and realized that we really weren’t doing anything and that maybe, being popular and television needed change, needed revolution.
So I decided at that moment that it was more important to get involved with the idea of changing television and bringing art to the popular medium, rather than narrowcasting in this, three or four guys in a room, looking at video feedback on a monitor and thinking it’s wonderful. So I started to get more involved with the idea of taking what was then non-broadcast equipment and seeing if I could adapt this into making a more popular video with it and I was about 18 or 19 years old, I met up with an investor, who lived in France, who felt my ideas for creating a revolutionary mobile unit, that would permit us to go out and shoot and create on the spot more organically, without all of the baggage of what broadcast television was, at least in those days, if you wanted to go out and shoot outside, you were talking about a 50-foot trailer with 25 guys with screwdrivers, cameras that weigh 400 pounds.
He put up the money to invest in making a video mobile unit that would permit us to do that and it was a long story, but eventually, that mobile unit ended up in France and he invited me over to shoot a jousting competition in Carcassonne and this mobile unit that I built, it’s a one-man show. This is one guy that had one, two-inch machine and three IVC 300 cameras. These were semi-professional, well they were professional cameras, but they were not high-end RCA, Marconi cameras. This sort of almost looked like a bread truck, it was a small van that housed all of this stuff.
And I basically went to France to shoot this jousting competition and ended up staying in France and convincing this investor to let me take it apart and rebuild it and make it better and this is years before there was any sort of private television or private videotape production in France. It only stayed on television and we pioneered the idea of creating broadcast facilities in France, to supply the French channels and eventually American and basically world channels for sporting events.
Years later, I was able to buy out the original investor, because business was very slow for the first five or six years and set up my first company in France, where we ended up building that first original mobile unit, but ended up building nine more and became the premier facility in Europe for HBO, ABC, CBS, French television, German television, English television, in high-end video production.
That was France. Of course, pioneering, I was always pushing the envelope of never being satisfied with the state of the art of the existing equipment. It was too heavy. It was too complicated. It wasn’t innovative enough. So I have an engineering side where I would go back and look at this hardware that existed at the time and modify it, adapt it, and create these sort of revolutionary for their time outside broadcast vehicles and studios, and somewhere in the early 80s, I had a reputation for being a hardware pioneer and Sony & RCA were constantly throwing new ideas at me and new products that they were developing.
Sony came along and they said, “We have something we want to show you, David” and I said, “what would that be?”
“Something called high definition television,” and they took me into a room and they showed me the very first prototype for high-def TV and a transfer of this high-def TV that was made to the 35-millimeter film and I looked at it and it blew me away. “Holy mackerel!”
Now, this was a frustration that we’d had in Europe for something that Americans wouldn’t understand is that if you produced a 65-pallet television on videotape, the French channels would not accept it. They would not accept videotape. They would only accept 35-millimeter film. So everything that we produce, whether it be a TV commercial, or anything else, or even a commercial for the cinemas, because in France, they put commercials in cinema, we would have to convert our videotape to film, and the only way to do it in the 70s was to do an elaborate kinescope process that Technicolor had developed.
So we would have to produce absolutely perfect 65-pallet television and then take it through this kinescope process to create, well, 35-millimeter film that looked pretty good, but of course, it’s limited in resolution and contrast ratio, but it looked pretty good, so we were constantly trying to get the best we could possibly get. So when I saw HDTV for the first time, looking at a video picture with a better than thousand line resolution and a contrast ratio that was amazing, I was blown away and I said, I’ve got to do that. So I spent several years negotiating with the NHK in Japan and Sony to allow me to buy the equipment to launch HDTV, which is what we did eventually. In France, we opened up the first studios in the world that actually produced HDTV, not necessarily for broadcast, but for transferring to 35-millimeter film, because we looked at it as either a new medium or a medium that would compete with 35 millimeter, which is the beginning of the HDTV revolution.
Our studios in France were very successful and we produced the first commercials in HDTV, the first movies in HDTV behind and a lot of our customers were calling from America, New York. And I said, “Wow, I need to expand my company,” to open up a New York office, which is what we did in 1987. We opened up 1125 Productions in New York, which was a fully equipped HDTV studio and production facility in New York City. It was an enormous financial investment but parallel, if you look at the history of HDTV, HDTV in 1987 was a very disputed medium as the American broadcasters really didn’t want to know about it. The cinema community, of course, said you’re not going to replace anything, you’re not going to replace this beautiful film with the electronic medium. So it was a very challenging, uphill battle.
It’s a very long protracted story so I’ll try and make it shorter. 1125 Productions was mostly a a very sophisticated post-production studio that we had on Fifth Avenue with mobile units. Eventually, I needed to start to produce HDTV programming on my own to start to fill the void as we needed a studio, and we eventually took over the Ed Sullivan Theater, where we built HDTV studios in New York and that’s my television career.
There’s a lot involved, though I’d say it’s a long story after that, but you know my roots and storytelling, show-business, theater, music,etc. everything else lends itself to, again, going back to this idea of these enormous pictures and these enormous experiential things that we could do with HDTV, that we really couldn’t do with it any other video mediums.
So in the Sullivan theater, we built a 60-foot screen, and did perhaps through the photorealistic projection and we opened up a Broadway show called, “Dream Time” that ran for 145 performances and the big feature of the dream time, aside from being successful, was that it had fully integrated photo-realistic HDTV imagery that was projected with live actors, and you couldn’t tell the difference between the live actors and the projection. It was actually a really cool show.
What year was that?
David Niles: That’s 1992. And still, if you Google, “Dream time”, you’ll see that there’s even a Wikipedia page that some people put on, I had nothing to do with it, that talks about it.
We eventually then sold The Ed Sullivan theater to CBS to do the Letterman show. I opened up studios around the corner in the studio 54 building and continued doing HDTV and other stuff and then got involved with Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, again, in the form of HDTV, but, more so with Radio City Music and their desire to expand the holiday show, which is the most important product that they’re doing there, into bringing a LED screen at that time, one largest in the world that covered the whole back of the stage to be able to embellish the Radio City Music Christmas show, which we did.
We put the screen up and we created an entire animated and coordinated sync to the background for their holiday show with great success and that brings us to where Comcast came into all of this.
Yeah. I was going to say there’s a lot of connective tissue here that I wasn’t really aware of.
David Niles: Yeah, it was interesting. Comcast, the backstory for Comcast is Comcast, at that time, in 2000, was basically a lot of administrative offices spread, pretty much in separate office buildings all over Philadelphia and Comcast became the major tenant for a spec building that was being proposed by a company called Liberty Property Trust. Liberty Property Trust are real estate developers in the Philadelphia area and my original contact was with the real estate developer that came to me and, I guess it was 2000, 1999, and they had this idea to do this spec 53-story office building in Philadelphia, and they wanted to create a sales center to pitch either anchor tenants or many tenants for their revolutionary new thousand-foot tall building and they found me and they came in and they saw what we could do, and I came up with an idea for creating a sales floor with a lot of virtual things and a lot of features that were like this experience that as soon as you walked off the elevator and it was one long interesting almost theme park ride to sell you on the idea of moving into this building, and the main feature of this thing was a room you ended up in that I designed, it was in the shape of an oval and you would sit in this room and it looked like you were in this oval-shaped room and in front of you was a 16-foot wide by 10-foot tall granite wall and this Brent wall was actually one of the materials of the spec building that Stern had designed, that Liberty Property Trust wanted to build, and the lights would dim automatically and it would go into this 10 minutes show that we produced, that would start out making you believe this is going to be a sales pitch for a building – it’s going to have 25 elevators and it’s made of granite and it’s got 4,000 off spaces, and all of a sudden, you’re now going through this 10-minute thing about falling in love with Philadelphia with shots of Philadelphia and interviews with JL and other key people and the architect, about the wonderfulness of being in Philadelphia and why you needed to be in this building. It was a very compelling, absolutely beautiful film.
And at the end of the film, it goes back to this granite wall and this granite wall slides away physically. And it reveals real windows that are actually looking out onto the site for which this building is going to be built and long story short, the lead tenant for this building became Comcast. Comcast decided at that moment, they wanted to unify all of their 5,000 workers into this new building and that this was going to be their new headquarters, and eventually, as they started to build the building, Brian Roberts, who’s the CEO of Comcast had made frequent trips to Japan, he’s a very innovative guy, absolutely really smart.
He decided that this lobby, that Stern had designed, this huge lobby and all of these wood panels. He wanted something that was going to make his 5,000 employees inspired and feel good about moving into this new building. The developer that developed the building, wanted to at the same time, create an instant destination for this new tallest building in Philadelphia and basically, I had just finished doing Radio City and they’d heard about it and they. invited me to pitch them my ideas for what to do in there. And our pitch was that we wanted to do something that was unexpected and we created a whole bunch of animatics and things, and we said if you put screens up in the lobby, you can do time and temperature and because Comcast is basically a cable TV operation, we’re going to put up thousand channels. Things that would be typical, but it looked fine and then I said, wait a minute, let’s talk about the unexpected, what don’t we expect to see? And we incorporate something that is ever-changing and inspiring without interfering with what I consider to be private time of the public.
Private time of the public means that, when you come through the front door of Comcast and you’re walking towards the elevator, you can’t do things that are too intrusive, that are screaming at you, not audio-wise, but screaming at you for your attention.
For the Comcast side, it was doing something that would be more a gift to the city. Something that was more socially redeeming without being video art, video art in a negative sense and it had some meaning. For the Liberty Property Trust side, it was their subway station name, that’s underneath the Comcast building and there were another 10,000 people that come through that lobby every day, so how can we create a meaningful destination for these people coming up the staircase that allows them to enjoy something and then not feel as though they’re missing something if they walk away from?
So we created this idea of one doing the unexpected and two, using theatrical things because people relate to people, where we take ordinary people doing extraordinary things, that are like fun things to watch and from that, we created this whole plethora of things that could happen up there. And then Comcast came back and they said, “David, these ideas are great. This is wonderful. We love it. But how do you create hundreds of hours, thousands of hours of original programming, because we don’t want to be constantly producing for this thing cause it’s very expensive, and keep it fresh?”
So, I went back and designed what we called a content delivery system, which is the system for which we actually get this content up onto the screen that is ever-changing, that’s able to create its own content, by connecting pieces of pre-recorded content together in a logical fashion, not random so that it stays fresh. And Brian Robert said, “Okay, David, you can do this, but you’ve got to guarantee me that I will have two years worth of content that’s going to remain valid and appear to be new all the time, without creating hundreds of thousands of hours.”
Remember that basically scenarios in the Comcast center last about a minute, there’s a minute and then it’ll go back to being this wood wall, disappearing and then coming back. We rotated about 1200 pieces of content every day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. That’s a quantity of content that’s impossible. I mean broadcast stations don’t even do this.
This was like in the mid to late 2000s and nobody was talking about direct-view LEDs other than people with jumbotrons.
David Niles: Oh, that was the first challenge. In the mid two thousand, you were looking at LED screens that were 6 millimeters, 8 millimeter, 10 millimeter, jumbotron, so it was first because I needed this to be photorealistic, you had to believe that what you were looking at was actually real, that was part of the magic of it. So I had a longstanding relationship with Barco broadcast from my television days because they make a lot of broadcast products and Barco was doing LED, but LED in 6 millimeter and 8 millimeter. And I went back to Barco and with Barco engineers, we developed the idea of doing a 4 millimeter pixel pitch wall, which for 2006 was revolutionary.
We did tests, we set up eight screens in studios in New York, did subjective tests, objective tests. Again, there were other competing companies that wanted to build this screen, Mitsubishi wanted to build this screen, Daktronics wanted to build this screen, and we eventually ended up developing this with Barco.
Comcast eventually was convinced that Barco was the way to go, and we ended up doing the first NX4, a huge screen. It’s 80 feet and it’s up to almost 6 million pixels, 6,000 pixels wide. This was revolutionary for its time and then, of course, a content delivery system to be able to deliver to this. There were no servers that would do anything, no pipeline that would do anything larger than HDTV 1920×1080, and we’re trying to feed something that’s 2000 pixels wide by 10,000 pixels across. That’s not going to happen.
So we ended up designing and building a content delivery system that was capable of doing that. But again, Brian Roberts and Comcast came back to me and they said, “Listen, this is the front face of our building. This is our image. This has to be mission-critical.” And of course, I go back to my days in television, where there’s no such thing as something going wrong, you don’t do a live downhill skiing event from Switzerland, it’s feeding 20 million television sets. There’s no such thing as “Oops, the camera doesn’t work.” That doesn’t happen. I mean it does, you just don’t see it. So in designing the content delivery system, we designed several levels of redundancy, such that, in the event of any failure behind the scenes, it would automatically switch over and change so that the problem would remain invisible on the screen.
And in the first eight years of operation, the screen was never turned off. It never ever went down. After eight years of operation, a couple of years ago, it was the end of life for the NX4s so we actually changed all of that, but basically, the new installation, the new content delivery system, and the new screen is based on the same original design. So what levels of redundancy we had built-in, you can’t see the problem if there’s a problem and eventually, it’s a lot of hardware, things do go wrong, but you just can’t see them.
How does Comcast know this is working? How do they measure that this is having the desired impact?
David Niles: That’s a really great question, because Brian Roberts was constantly analyzing and he’s very analytic, and even when we were proposing the ideas, we had the meetings in Comcast where he invited 50 people that worked in the building to come up and I made a miniature model of a lobby where we projected story worlds, started animatics and things and scenarios that we were developing and we actually had focus groups come in and vote on paper and tell us what they liked and didn’t like, what they thought and even before we actually started shooting, we were having results in 97% off the Richter scale.
When it finally opened, one of the first things that began to show, other than people that loved the original Comcast experience, was the holiday show. Brian wanted desperately to have, aside from what the wall does every day, during the holiday seasons to run a special holiday show, and the first year that we did the holiday show, within several days of this thing opening, it went viral and the holiday show is a 15 minute or 18 minutes show that ran every hour, 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock, eight or nine times a day in the lobby of this office building. And within several days after opening, every show was jam-packed. You could not get into the lobby of the building. The lobby would hold on a couple of thousand people. It was an enormous success and you have to imagine, this is a building lobby, there are no chairs in it, there’s no place to sit down. All you can do is stand on this couch on this granite floor and people from all over would come running in on the hour to see this spectacle, and now the holiday show is in its 12th year and because they eventually put in counters and analytics to see how many people came in when they come in, we’ve had millions, that’s plural, millions of visitors. The hardest thing in the world in show business is a free attraction. That’s the hardest thing to actually promote, ‘cause I’ve done, Broadway shows, et cetera. Once people have bought a ticket, they’re bought halfway into something, but when you do something for nothing, when it’s free, when it’s open to the public, it’s the most discerning audience. It’s the hardest audience and the success has been phenomenal.
And even though it’s part of the design of the wall, we don’t do any advertising for Comcast on it. There’s almost no branding whatsoever, but this idea of doing a gift to the city, the public relations response to this wall has been extraordinary. And people don’t like cable companies, even if you go online and you look up Comcast, you’ll see, blogs opened up a little bit of the, we hate Comcast, we don’t like the bandwidth, it’s screwed me out of this, but that thing that’s in the lobby, it’s genius.
Now I don’t want to paint you as a one-trick pony because I know you’ve done other work. What are some of the other projects that your team has worked on lately?
David Niles: Another one also for Stern, who is the architect of Comcast, we, of course, did the George W. Bush library, which is an interesting 360-degree video experience. It’s in the central part of the library complex called Freedom Hall, which is this very tall, huge square room where people gather, after they pass security to go into the library, they gather in this room before they’re actually admitted into the library section and as they gather in this room, they’re basically looking at what’s a drawn level, which is doors and paneling and stuff. But, at about 12 feet high, it turns into what looks like a hand-painted mural that goes 360 degrees around them up to a skylight area. And as they’re standing in there, this hand-painted mural, when enough people gather, all of a sudden it starts to come to life. Images of sand dunes and tumbleweeds and a desert landscape, Texas landscape looks hand-painted, and all of a sudden it starts to come to life. Tumbleweeds start to move around. Surround sound, original orchestra track begins to play and this goes into an eight-minute presentation about the office of the presidency, what the office of the presidency actually means. and it’s about the fact that our presidents come from the people of the land, to become president and it’s done in a way where we’re looking at again, it’s a very big challenge to shoot these time-lapse images of the American landscape, the textures of the American landscape in 360 degrees, photorealistic above your head and it’s a very inspiring thing. People, all of a sudden start pointing, looking. The end of that experience is that the screen explodes into thousands of images, in what looks like, almost passport photos of all kinds of Americans, young, old Americans from a hundred years ago, colors, all races, all this and that. And it turns into this enormous mosaic of these pictures of Americans and some of these pictures are larger than others. And those pictures that are larger than others are actually what looked like passport photos of everybody that’s standing in that audience and somebody will notice it and they start pointing and it’s like popcorn going off in a popcorn pot. They all start and it’s basically, they’re incorporated basically thousands of pictures and the pictures begin to dissolve off leaving. Today it would be 40-44 pictures that are up there that are left up there that are 44 presidents, so it’s a very inspiring thing. It’s about the office of the presidency. It’s not necessarily about a particular president.
But that’s a big one. In Washington, DC, we have the Media Arch at the City Center, which is an Archway. There are no two of my installations that are identical. There are similarities to Comcast in so much as it’s got rotating entertainment, it’s ever-changing, it draws quite a large crowd.
Other installations we’ve done pretty much all over America and in Europe and in China, they’re all different, but they’re very large installations and also some very small ones. What we love to do is challenge ourselves. We constantly deal with clients that are saying, “This is what we want to accomplish. How do we accomplish it?” And what I mean by accomplish is, like in the Comcast experience, Brian Roberts wanted to have his employees feel connected to this building and inspired. At the same time, Liberty Property Trust wanted to create a destination. We love a challenge. The Bush library was another challenge. It was, not to make something specific that is, for Bush, the president, ‘cause that’s where the library is here for, this was an overture to the idea of the office of the presidency. In California and in other places, it’s people telling us specific goals that they have to see what we can come up with to create something that fills those particularly, sometimes commercial, sometimes not commercial and we love that idea of the challenge.
And again, we’ve done dozens of tiny lobbies. We have one that we’re about to install in New York City, which is a ceiling in a very important office building, but it’s very small. The lobby is only 18 feet wide and it’s about 80 feet long and we’re putting a ceiling in there. The lobby’s beautifully been re-redesigned, and here we’re creating a virtual ceiling that is an experience that works from the front door you walk into, down this 60-foot lobby that has a reward to it being there without interfering with the architectural design of the lobby, it’s complementary. It blends in, it doesn’t look like, “Oh, let’s put a screen up there and we’ll put a lava lamp on it or something.
All right, David, this was terrific. We could talk for hours. I want to thank you for spending some time with me. It was really interesting.
David Niles: Thank you so much for the questions, they are really good.