Virtual Magic in Motion

Say you’re in the market for some investment property. Or you just want to buy a second home, maybe on the water in Dubai, the destination of the moment, where tourism is burgeoning so fast that even Donald Trump is getting into the act, building a Trump International Hotel & Tower with panoramic views of the Arabian Gulf.

You buy your $2,500 ticket, sit on a plane for 16 long hours with your knees at your nose and arrive at Dubai International looking like wilted arugula. You go to the sales office, where all they can show you is the future site of the development and some plans. You plunk down your money and buy the apartment sight unseen. Right?

Wrong. At least, not if Patrick Connolly has anything to do with it.

The Marin-born and -raised technology entrepreneur is CEO of Obscura Digital, a creative digital video technology firm in San Francisco that specializes in immersive and interactive video content, displays and experiences using sci-fi-like visuals.

Employing the latest surround video technology, Obscura designs and builds commercial video installations for a blue-chip client list that runs from Oracle and AOL to HP, GM, Google and Dubai’s mammoth real estate developer Nakheel. Sit down in Connolly’s 30-foot video dome (think planetarium)—and with one push of a button on his iPhone he will transport you to a huge, currently nonexistent development and marina planned by Nakheel on the Dubai waterfront. The water seemed so real I nearly jumped in.

Obscura’s clients look to Connolly and his team of engineers and computer artists to market their messages using technology that puts the w in wow. The company’s proprietary software makes it possible to create hi-definition visual events based on video mapping, motion graphics, holograms and multitouch video walls. Instead of viewing products, customers experience them.

Obscura’s core technology maps high-resolution motion video to all surfaces a projector can reach, controls it in real time and covers 360 degrees distortion free. Images are combined seamlessly so they can be projected onto irregular screening surfaces. The company can create the illusion that water is running down a wall and onto the floor, that grass is growing as you walk by it and that the virtual dog on your real-life couch needs to be taken walkie. It’s an acid trip without the acid.

“What we do reflects the changing face of marketing,” says Connolly, who lives in Mill Valley and peppers his conversation with the phrases “Isn’t that cool?” and “How cool is that?” and “This is cool!” Tall and slim and poured into some very tight jeans, Connolly is feisty and kinetic, his mind and eyes always on several things at once: his iPhone, his computer, his visitor, the 15 current projects he’s overseeing, the three current projects he’s shooting himself. (A sheik in Dubai lent him a helicopter so he could gather local images and video.)
“New technology is pushing marketing to be about experience,” says Connolly. “Television and radio and other media currently used to get the message out are in dramatic decline in effectiveness. What this business is about is the integration of the creative, technology and business worlds.”

The original creative spark came from Obscura founder and president Travis Threlkel, a former guitarist and founding member of the early 1990s neo-psychedelic band Brian Jonestown Massacre. Threlkel, who at 35 looks like he could still land a paper route, had already been experimenting with projection techniques to create visuals for the band.

In the mid-1990s, while living in Cincinnati, Threlkel began scouring the area’s wealth of inexpensive flea markets and thrift shops.

“I was piling up over a hundred projectors,” he says, “collecting them for $5 apiece, and I would take them back to my warehouse and turn them all on at the same time and create these massive projection collages. That was all on film. Then I started to buy video projectors and the first thing I did was project video games. And then I started realizing there was a possibility of doing surround video. Then I started looking at doing real time rendering of an environment. And then I thought, why can’t we project all the angles all around you? It turned out the things I was thinking about were new technologies.”

In 1998, he moved back to San Francisco and two years later founded Obscura. “We were musicians who did visuals to make environments, which was kind of a ’60s thing,” he says. “But for us in the 21st century, we have the tools to really do these things digitally, in all these brand new ways. So we’re just opening up the box of the beginnings of what will be the future. We can’t live in a rectangular world. Movies, computer screens, cell phone displays, televisions are all rectangular. Maybe there’s another shape that might be used. Call me crazy.”

Threlkel, Connolly and the Obscura crew now work out of a 30,000-square-foot warehouse that takes up a quarter of a city block. Inside are interactive, multitouch video walls, holograms of gremlin-like creatures and dragons, a metal shop, wood shop, dark studio, and light studio.

Lighting up The Universe

In the case of Nakheel, the Dubai developer wanted a razzle-dazzle way to communicate the size and scope of The Universe, a multibillion-dollar residential, commercial and tourist project being built in the Arabian Gulf on an archipelago of man-made islands shaped like the sun, the moon and the planets.

 Nakheel wanted a dramatic way to impress 500 VIP guests at a launch event at its sales office in Dubai. Obscura created the world’s largest surround video dome (90 feet wide and 19,000 square feet of video surface) and projected high-resolution images onto it so buyers could experience looking at the future luxury waterfront real estate.

The task wasn’t easy. “We thought, ‘How can we produce something with high resolution that these people have never seen before?’” says Connolly.

The solution? “We put a state-of-the-art piece of technology that came out about a year ago, the Red One 4k digital camera, with a piece of technology from 1973 — a lens the size of a football helmet,” says Connolly. “There are very few in the world and we bought it off eBay. We outbid MIT’s Media Lab for it. Cool, huh?”

How did he know it would work? “We didn’t,” says Connolly. “We hoped it would. It’s the only lens that can capture a 220-degree field of view. It’s made for astronomy and is very high powered. The lens and the camera existed but we pioneered how to build a relay system between them to make it work.”

All the effort was worth it.

“We had about 500 sheiks there,” says Connolly. “Jaws were dropping everywhere. Oh my God! It was the response we wanted.  So cool! We put these people into an environment that doesn’t even exist yet.”

Creating New Realities

Obscura’s technology has seemingly limitless applications. In 2006, to launch its then-unbuilt peppy new SKY roadster, General Motors–owned Saturn and its advertising agency, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners of San Francisco, wanted an environmental display that would reflect the idea that driving a SKY roadster is an experience that engages all the senses.

Connolly and Goodby came up with the Saturn SKYdome, 23 feet tall and 44 feet in diameter. The dome’s ceilings became a massive screen onto which were projected images of clouds, trees, stars and birds. A powerful sound system provided music and audio effects. The roadster was enclosed in the dome and visitors could experience — while standing still — the feeling of putting the top down and going fast.

Saturn also wanted a way to demonstrate the car’s engineering, so Obscura used a new technology that takes two-dimensional CAD animations and maps them to a three-dimensional surface. When that technology was applied to the SKY, the car was distorted so that the video was mapped to its every curve. The result gave the illusion that observers were seeing an X-ray of the car.

SKYdome debuted at Wired NextFest, an annual exhibition of new technologies, and was taken to three auto shows by GM. Consumer reaction was positive.

“The first thing people did is to walk up to the car and stare at it to see if it was really there,” says Scott McLaren, a GM marketing executive. “So it was wonderful. I heard as much comment about the technology as I did about the vehicle, which is exactly what you want in marketing, something that excites the consumer and gives them an interactive experience. People would walk around the car just fascinated. At the time, there were only four SKY Roadsters in existence. The problem we brought before Patrick was, ‘I want people to know it’s coming but they can’t touch it or get into it so how do I tell them about the car without actually giving them the opportunity to drive it?’”

Following SKYdome, GM worked with Obscura on projects for its two hybrids, Aura and Vue.

“With our hybrids, we were again pre-production so we used those projections on them but now we could also add color and actually show how the hybrid worked,” says McLaren. “Patrick put a five-foot-tall hologram consultant that was in front of the display. You could engage with him to talk to you about how the hybrid works and what it does. Behind all of this was a beautiful green wall 40 feet long with interactive grass blades. Consumers would go and type questions in and it would grow another inch. It was incredibly engaging.”

With so much competition today for the consumer dollar, this kind of marketing is the future, says McLaren. “TV doesn’t have the breakthrough or delivery or attention it used to have. So how do you go out and get consumers to allow you to talk to them? We can put a car out there and someone to talk to consumers about it — but we want them to experience our product.”

Google is another satisfied customer. In May, for an event to promote the company’s new artist themes for iGoogle—the customizable home page for Google users—Obscura projected 250,000-square feet of moving images of artwork by Michael Graves, Mark Morris, Marc Ecko and Jeff Koons onto the facades of buildings in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. The challenge was huge. Obscura could not project onto the windows of the buildings in case nearby hotel patrons were disturbed, it was raining, there were no cranes to move equipment onto the roofs, the roofs had no power and the buildings were brick, glass, steel and cobblestone. Phew! Using 16 30,000-lumen projectors, Obscura worked around the problems and the event stopped traffic.

 “What they do is magical,” says Andy Berndt, managing director of Google’s Creative Lab. “It’s truly Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory for adults. We wanted to take these great pieces of art and make them available to everyone. We had seen what Obscura had being doing in display and we thought how can we do this on a bigger scale? So we came up with this idea that we would take this art, whose whole purpose was to be shared anyway, and then share it in another way, with New Yorkers. People were just walking by saying, ‘What is this? You mean I can put this on my computer? Great!’ It was exactly the way we wanted people to respond.”

Berndt says that although there are other companies who do facets of this kind of work, Obscura stands out because it does everything.

“What’s really amazing about them is that they are into everything from holograms to multitouch screens to stitched video,” Berndt says. “And they are so involved in the hard-core manipulation of data that they are really doing the whole thing from the top level of creative down to the programming and technology. People have been projecting slides since before I was born and watching TV for all that time, too, but what Patrick is doing is taking all these things and pushing them and seeing where they can go.”

Starting with Stocks

Connolly started his entrepreneurial career while a senior at UCLA, when he founded, one of the first companies to bring stock tickers online. When the technology bubble burst and financing dried up, a college friend introduced him to Threlkel and his colleague Chris LeJeune and soon he was on board at Obscura.

“The creativity was there but not the business part,” Connolly says. “I thought these guys had a great idea, but no idea how to sell it.”

That has changed, due partly to Connolly’s can-do-everything ethic, which he attributes in part to having grown up in Marin. “I’m a Marin public school kid and growing up here there was lots of creativity around,” he says. “We weren’t taught that this won’t work and that won’t work.”

Settling me on a couch in the dome, Connolly presses his iPhone, setting off a compilation show of some of the company’s projects. There are Nakheel’s nonexistent Dubai buildings again; there’s that nonexistent Dubai marina.

“Look at that building!” Connolly cries, pointing to a split linked tower with a modern core design. “The Trump Tower doesn’t even exist yet. Yet there it is! Isn’t that cool?”

CAPTIONS: (Top, middle) Obscura founder and president Travis Threlkel holds the 6mm Nikon lens purchased from eBay that can capture a 220-degree field of view. (Lower, middle) Obscura projected 250,000 square feet of moving images of artwork onto the facades of buildings in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District to promote Google’s new artist themes for iGoogle. (Bottom) The Dubai developer Nakheel communicated the scope of a multibillion-dollar residential and commercial development being built in the Arabian Gulf during an event held in Dubai.