April 28, 2017

How Unreal Engine Helped to Bring Chicago's Phenomenal Experiential Installation 150 Media Stream To Life

By Daniel Kayser

In conjunction with the public opening of Riverside Investment & Development's stunning 54-story office tower designed by architect Goettsch Partners, the Riverside organization recently revealed the phenomenal 150 Media Stream "living sculpture" and the remarkable creative technology behind it. Representing a giant leap forward for public art initiatives, this installation constitutes Chicago's largest video wall, while also providing exciting new exhibition opportunities for artists.

With its permanent home in the lobby of 150 North Riverside, the art installation's massive 3,000+ square foot canvas is comprised of 89 individual vertical LED displays of various heights and widths, as well as integration of negative space between each blade. The display system was designed by McCann Systems in cooperation with Digital Kitchen, and is curated by Riverside's Creative Director Yuge Zhou.

Together with Leviathan, the specialized creative agency commissioned to produce 150 Media Stream's content management system and contribute video content, Riverside and McCann Systems have shared how 150 Media Stream came to life, from design through completion.

150 Media Stream from Leviathan on Vimeo.

"The hybrid partnership behind 150 Media Stream has successfully launched a new, world class art exhibition featuring cutting edge visual content displayed as a living sculpture," explained Anthony Scacco, Executive Vice President for Riverside. "This one-of-a-kind Chicago installation and its artwork combine to express global ideas in original ways with each passing second. The results constantly, seamlessly deliver something beautiful, powerful and new... and that is exactly what we were hoping for."

"150 Media Stream features artistry from all around the globe" added Zhou. "Importantly, we are also delivering this artistry through very inventive uses of technology, and our visitors are finding the results to be mesmerizing and spectacular. The effect is an environmentally responsive kaleidoscope set within the gorgeous lobby of 150 North Riverside."

Delivering these results required McCann Systems, Digital Kitchen and Leviathan to coordinate numerous groundbreaking efforts over a span of many months. From designing and producing the installation itself to contributing customized management and delivery systems for 150 Media Stream's digital content, here are some highlights of the key milestones.


Thanks to the pioneering efforts of McCann Systems and Digital Kitchen, the physical aspects of the installation were conceived and rendered relatively early into the process. Even the first architectural renderings for 150 Media Stream packed a powerful visual punch, and yet, actually conceiving and producing its visual content involved considerable diligence and innovation.

For Leviathan's Jason White and his colleagues, the initial focus was on the installation as a three-dimensional sculpture set within a very unique environment. According to White's description, all video aspects of the installation were specifically conceived to complement spatial and environmental concerns. "The video elements were designed as integrated components of a sculpture that addressed everything from the shapes of the video blades to the physical surroundings of the entire installation," he confirmed.

150 Media Stream's kaleidoscopic effects stem directly from Riverside's initial vision of it as a revolving video art gallery. "Another of the initial requests was to have enough content to fill an entire week without ever seeing the same piece twice," Leviathan's president Chad Hutson explained. "To address these objectives, we knew that a generative visual approach was going to be key."


After establishing technical specifications to standardize the submissions of an impressive list of artistic contributors around 150 North Riverside's contemporary holistic vision, Leviathan's talents became contributors themselves, shooting, animating, editing, coding and orchestrating multiple data sources. In the hands of White as executive creative director, creative director Bradon Webb, and a team of specialized producers, engineers, designers, developers and artists, the deliverables evolved into an intelligent content library that will continue to transform over time. Using generative algorithms to heighten originality and relevance, the feed is programmed to address seasonal, monthly, weekly, daily and even real-time considerations.

"Overall, our content strategy was to be both visually enticing and conceptually interesting throughout every moment of the day – grouping and sequencing pieces so as to create a coherent new story every day," White said. "Coordinated with both active and passive timings, the content plays off of activity and dynamism in the lobby on a typical workday. We thought ahead about how our living sculpture will affect tenants' and visitors' moods from morning to night, day to day, week to week, month to month, and throughout years to come."



Since even the design of 150 Media Stream is unprecedented, McCann Systems' job in bringing it to life involved weeks and weeks of research and feasibility studies. "To address the many cutting-edge aspects of this project, we had to work closely with several manufacturers to design and the fabricate most of the physical components of the display, including everything from the printed circuit boards to the custom display cabinets," said Frank McCann, president and CEO of McCann Systems.

While the installation's engineering and fabrication played out, Leviathan was still obliged to continue development of dynamic content. Responding to these challenges, Leviathan's Webb and his teammates devised an ingenious solution using Epic Games' Unreal Engine 4.

"From end-to-end, our software toolkit involved using Derivative's TouchDesigner, GLSL shading language, Adobe's After Effects and Photoshop, Side Effects Software's Houdini, Autodesk Maya and Maxon's Cinema 4D," Webb began. "To allow our clients to walk through the lobby space, visualize the scale of the installation and preview our media design from any point of view before we began coding, we built out the entire lobby in 3D as a VR experience, using Unreal Engine. Details included having the marble and glass rendered in real-time with reflections, lighting and depth of field. Based on this being so helpful in honing in on the best content for the space, this is something we'll probably repeat for future projects."


Ultimately, the hardest working facet of Leviathan's solution appears in the content delivery system comprised of five synchronized workstations. Its simplistic form belies its ultra-sophisticated complexity. Whereas Leviathan's artworks often begin with traditional production methodologies, for 150 Media Stream, all content is digitized into code. "From there, the massive scale and resolution of this display requires that all the art and media assets be rendered and produced at extreme resolutions," Webb continued. "To render at 150 Media Stream's resolution, we had to distribute the load across four synced machines with a fifth machine serving as a backup. If any one machine goes down, the fifth one jumps in and resumes the rendering to prevent any downtime."

Described by McCann as a "seamless integration of art, architecture and technology," 150 Media Stream is a pinnacle achievement for everyone involved. Speaking for Leviathan, White summarized, "We are proud Chicagoans, and our love of Chicago's art community and this city shines through in this work. We strongly believe in Chicago's contemporary vision and are thrilled to be here during this vibrant era."


To find out more about Unreal Engine’s impact on the project, we caught up with Leviathan’s Senior Creative Director Bradon Webb.

Q: Why was building out the project in VR first important to ensuring its eventual success?

BW: One of the challenges we face with installation work is finding a way to display the work which varies in size and shape. It’s rarely confined to a 16:9 rectangle so rendering frames in the traditional style doesn’t cut it. VR is crucial because it provides a way to visualize not only what the space will look like, but how the work will activate the space from any angle. Walking our clients through the VR world put their minds at ease. Once they saw the lobby in VR it clicked, they got it.

Q: What were reactions like when the project was first viewed in VR?

BW: It was stunning. We started the project as a test not knowing the full capability, but what we were able to achieve surprised us all. I recall back when we created the VR lobby over a year ago, it’s accurate to the real life lobby. It's one of the rare instances where real life mimics VR.

Q: Which aspects of Unreal Engine did you rely on the most for this project?

BW: We used level Blueprints to create night and day versions of the lobby as well as the node graph to do switching between the content concepts. We leveraged the ability to move through space with a human POV camera. The real time reflections on the glass and marble surfaces and the motion blur and bloom brought it to life.  

Q: How many people from your team were working in Unreal Engine?

BW: The transition to Unreal Engine from our studio’s mostly Maya background has been pretty smooth. The Riverside VR project was executed by a single 3D artist which is an amazing feat!


For more details or to learn more about 150 Media Stream, please visit http://150mediastream.com.