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The beating heart

The beating heart

The beating heart

The Al Wasl Plaza dome is the focal point of Expo 2020 Dubai which opened its doors on 1 October

A world expo is no small undertaking. And let’s be honest, the UAE doesn’t do things by halves. So, it should come as no great surprise that Expo 2020 Dubai is knocking down records left, right and centre. It’s the Middle East and Africa’s very first Expo, the first time at an Expo for every country – all 192 of them – to have their own pavilion, and the first one to still have had its doors closed nearly a year after the original scheduled opening date. Of course, this last point was a circumstance out of the organiser’s control. But it did mean that the entire complex had to be completed under vastly different conditions than what was originally envisioned.

And we can add one additional, albeit unofficial, accolade to the pile. Pro AVL MEA fully expects Expo 2020 Dubai to be the most interesting place to visit and experience cutting-edge audiovisual technology currently. Over the course of the upcoming issues, we’ll be taking a deeper dive into some of the individual projects within the various pavilions, but where better to start than at the “beating heart” of the huge Expo site.

Practically everything on the ground revolves around the uniquely designed Al Wasl Plaza. And given the great lengths that each individual pavilion has gone to in a bid to impress visitors, Al Wasl Plaza must go one further. The focal point of the almost city-sized complex deserved something that had never been done before. Furthermore, the dome construction would be tasked with hosting both the opening and closing Expo ceremonies, in addition to important cultural special events such as the upcoming 50th anniversary of the UAE’s formation.

Al Wasl means “connection” in Arabic – aptly illustrating the plaza’s focus. On the ground, three petal-shaped areas representing the main show themes of Sustainability, Opportunity and Mobility, interlink where the dome emerges from beneath the surface. The unique design of the structure was the brainchild of US-based architect Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill. Key considerations included the need to accommodate large crowds of people walking through the dome as well as project a powerful image, while at the same time not being too expansive. Ultimately, the chosen design pays homage to the Expo’s ring-themed logo. When viewed from directly overhead, the iconic logo is there for all to see.

Rising 67.5m into the air with a diameter of 135m (almost as wide as two Airbus A380 aircrafts wing-to-wing), it’s the dome’s use of a semi-transparent canvas covering designed by Obscura Digital where things start to get interesting. The covering ensures there is ample shade during the hottest part of the day while still retaining suitable natural light, but its deployment also heavily encouraged the use of projection mapping technology to create a truly unique immersive display. Images beamed onto the interior structure of the dome not only envelop those within, but can also be seen by visitors outside the plaza.

The key, naturally, to the success of such an experience would lie with the projection technology deployed. As the offcial projection and display partner for Expo 2020 Dubai, Christie projectors power the visuals inside the plaza. Christie’s EMEA director of sales, Entertainment, Joe Graziano takes up the story having been involved from early on. “Although it wasn’t known as Al Wasl at the time, our first involvement in the project dates back to GITEX 2017 where some local integrators were scoping out on behalf of the designers. But the project itself was conceptualised by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill architects in Chicago, working closely with US-based design company Obscura. Obscura put the overall projection design together and liaised with our guys in North America. It was only after a bit of back and forth that we realised we were all talking about the same project.”

Creative Technology Middle East (CTME) was awarded the AV integrator contract to provide the immersive projection and audio installation for the dome and worked closely with Christie to devise a solution capable of protecting the projectors against the UAE’s brutal summer sun and daytime temperatures.

A total of 252 Christie D4K40-RGB projectors are housed inside 42 bespoke, fully environmentally controlled projector pods arranged around the inside perimeter of the domed plaza. Each pod is two video channels, with each channel displayed via a triple-stack of projectors that results in 84 channels of video (each running at 2048x1080 resolution). Attached to the trellis structure 23m above the ground, the pods have an automated racking system that enables the projectors to be “ejected” for ease of service throughout their lifetime.

Having originally been designed to utilise 40 projectors, as the project matured from the initial design stages, the projector count rapidly rose. “The original design was based on a certain lux value that needed to be achieved,” explains Graziano. “When the project was then reviewed by some of the broadcast design companies, they quickly realised there wasn’t enough lux for them to be able to carry out an acceptable level of broadcasting within that environment. So, we went back to the drawing board and started to tweak the design. Ultimately, the projector count went up through the 200 barrier, and that all came about as part of a need to facilitate the projection to be bright enough and clear enough when in situ, but also for anybody watching any of the commentary on TV.” Controlling the projectors is Christie Conductor, an advanced control software solution for Christie 3DLP projectors. It can automatically power-up or -down projectors, as well as access interrogator logs, update firmware and perform health checks.

The vast scale and pixel density of the projection saw CTME deploy 16 disguise gx2 media servers for the generative content playout. The system has inbuilt redundancy in the disguise media servers with video transport via a Thinklogical 160x160 crosspoint fibre matrix. Andrew Nu, CTME’s business development manager, explains: “One of the goals of Expo 2020 is ‘sustainability’ and of course to deliver creativity and innovation. We achieved this by minimising cable requirements with both the video and audio systems connected via a fibre network. Additionally, the air-conditioned projection pods are monitored by the site-wide BMS system 24/7 to ensure that the cooling systems are operating efficiently.”

But even the most impressive visual spectacle would be lacking without a well-thought-out audio accompaniment, and in this regard the Expo organisers called on the best. A fully immersive audio experience to pair with the visuals on the 360° projection canvas was designed by Scott Willsallen’s Auditoria. To provide the required immersive audio capabilities under the dome, CTME installed 27 loudspeaker arrays each comprising 16 L-Acoustics Kiva II cabinets. The arrays are installed at a high level, equally spaced around the dome and secured with a bespoke rigging system. In addition, there are six pods, similar in look to the projection pods, that each contain four L-Acoustic KS28 subwoofers in a cardioid array. All components have been colour matched to the dome to blend in with the architecture. L-Acoustics’ L-ISA Immersive Processor delivers the required spatial processing, enabling the Auditoria team to create incredibly detailed spatial resolution over such a large audience area. Audio content playback is handled by a dual-redundant Merging Technologies Ovation solution, which also generates timecode for triggering video playback on the disguise servers. Signal distribution is taken care of via a redundant fibre ring to drive signals from the DiGiCo SD12 audio, Area4 and SD-MiNi Racks to the L-Acoustic LA4X and LA12X controllers. This equipment is distributed across the main control room and three remote amplifier rooms which have been strategically placed to reduce cabling to the speaker arrays. The system has multiple levels of signal path with an AVB system using Luminex, AED on DiGiCo, with RME M32 DA Pro and M32 AD Pro as an analogue backup to the amplifiers.

While some of Expo 2020’s site will only be used for the six month-long “event period”, Al Wasl Plaza has been designed and built to remain as a legacy experience post-Expo, when the area transitions to become District 2020. With an initial project life of at least three functional years, the technology needed to be futureproof and the materials used resilient. With the internal temperature of the trellis expecting to reach over 75°C at times, careful consideration of materials proved to be just as important in ensuring the longevity of the installation. The technology needed to meld with the aesthetics of the architecture to go unnoticed when not in use. Careful coordination with all contractors allowed colour-matching key items to assist with this “invisibility” consideration.

An initial taste of what visitors could expect to greet them when the Expo properly opened was first showcased to stakeholders back in January 2020 during the dome’s inauguration, long before the word coronavirus entered the everyday lexicon.

The real test came on 30 September. With more than 5,000 attendees onsite and over a million online viewers, the Al Wasl Plaza lit up to signify the official opening of the Expo.

Christie’s president and CTO, Zoran Veselic, attended the opening ceremonies and said: “The opening truly confirmed Christie’s mission ‘We innovate, illuminate and inspire exceptional experiences’. Seeing our pure laser projectors in action was absolutely extraordinary.”

After more than two years of constant on-the-ground presence, the success of the opening ceremony means all the team involved can finally take a step back and appreciate the creation of Al Wasl. “The successful completion of Al Wasl Plaza’s immersive experience has been achieved with the support from Expo, the designers/architects and the other contractors all working in unison with a ‘can do’ approach which has resulted in an amazing project,” comments Andy Reardon, CTME’s managing director. “We are proud to have also won the 2020 AV Award for Events and Entertainment Project of the Year for the inauguration event and the 2020 AVard award for best public integration on this project.”

Expo 2020 Dubai opened its doors to the world on 1 October, and the event is well underway having welcomed visitors from across the globe. The operational hub for the event is the Expo Operations Centre (EOC) which coordinates activities for the key operational team and is home to three videowalls powered by Christie products, including 12 4K 30,000-lumen projectors and Christie Terra transport, processing and control solutions all supported by Christie Professional Services.

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