Real estate developers have long used scale models, drawings and photo-realistic visuals to help market their projects, but a massive new urban development in downtown Tampa kicks things up several notches to help lease everything from condos to office space.
The marketing center for the Water Street development is selling a $3.5 billion project that covers 56 acres of prime West Coast Florida property. When prospective buyers walk in, the lights come up on a presentation that blends projection mapping, visualized, real-time data and interactive digital signage.
The centerpiece is an elevated table that has some 450 3-D printed scale-model building, very specifically illuminated by a halo of a dozen laser projectors.
Instead of sales people walking clients through the space, and then heading to a meeting room to talk details, a custom iPad app controls what people see on the model - all drawn from real-time data sets.
I spent time recently speaking with Devin and Caitlin Wambolt, the D and C (I assume) in DCBOLT, the solutions provider that did the projection mapping. They were joined by Dorian Vee of IMERZA, which developed the custom program, sitting on top of 3D gaming technology.
All right, so I have three of you on a podcast. I don't think I've done that in the past. We've got folks from DCBolt and Dorian from IMERZA.
DCBolt’s Caitlin and Devin, can you tell me a bit about the company background and how you got to where you are now in terms of what you're doing?
Caitlin: Sure thing. So back in 2012, we started DCBolt, Devin and I were actually in Chicago. We were both going to 3D animation school, 3D animators nerds met in the classroom. From that point, we did our first project, we started DCBolt but our first project which was a nightclub in Chicago, where we designed a custom projection map stage, we did custom LED all throughout the nightclub. And from that point on, we were like, we're hooked.
Projection mapping was our baby. And we started getting into more of the custom content aspects of immersive design. Then we slowly found ourselves in Orlando, which is currently where we're based, where we're working with the parts doing a lot of custom animation, immersive media, things like that. And the rest is history.
Devin: Yeah, and this is Devin from DCBolt. Just to piggyback on that a little bit. My personal history and experience and background leading up to the 3D animation school was working for and with a couple of really key large AV integrators up in the Northeast region. So I essentially was getting my schooling on the world of AV and how systems worked, how to design them on a hardware level, the infrastructure requirements, how to run large projects.
At the same time, I was using that knowledge and experience to pay for the schooling needed to do the graphic element, learn the programs, learn the 3D world. And then around 2010-2011 is when projection mapping just started on the radar of people who were kind of familiar with both worlds of how projectors work, how to use them, and also how to make some custom graphics. We were able to start connecting dots and we started seeing some really really cool and interesting, one of a kind projects cropping up on the internet and YouTube. And I had actually just moved to Chicago, freshly in, I don't know, my second apartment, maybe I had a bunch of boxes leftover.
And I was either going to have to break the boxes down, throw them out, or I had just seen this really, really cool. It was actually a facade of a cityscape, projected onto these boxes. I forget exactly what the advertisement was, but it was an advertisement for something. And I remember being very wowed and in awe of this amazing video that I just witnessed on YouTube. And this is back before we had advertisements. This is back in the day and, and so I took the boxes that I had in my living room and I stacked them up in my apartment and I covered them in white paper. And I made my very first attempt at 3D projection mapping just using Photoshop and a projector that I happen to have leftover from a project. One thing led to another and before we knew it...
Caitlin: We were creating content for those boxes.
Devin: Yeah, we were using that project. I brought that project to the school and we started using it for all the different students to make content for. It was just a fun new thing, a new medium that people hadn't experienced yet. So one thing led to another, we ended up doing a couple nightclubs, made a bunch of videos and then eventually made our way down to Florida to help work on Harry Potter World.
Okay, yeah, that technical background is really important. I have run into motion graphic designers who have found their way into digital signage-ish projects, and they're obviously very good at the creative side of things, but they were just completely lost in the woods, when it came to some of the technical things, and particularly going back 9-10 years to the early days of projection mapping, it was really super complicated then.
If you didn't know what you're doing, you'd be total deer in the headlights.
Devin: Yeah, a lot of it was trial and error, and there weren't a lot of tutorials or people out there to reach out to for help.
Caitlin: No Point cloud.
Devin: But that was the fun of it, really, you know, it was raw. And, you know, shortly thereafter, more and more software started becoming available to help with mesh warping and alignment tools and different things like that, which essentially evolved to the point where we were able to do something like we did in Tampa Bay with Dorian and his team. So the brief answer to your question as a background, DCBolt, we really found ourselves in the niche where we speak the language and can really speak to and understand all of the things that a content media team needs to know in order to do their jobs. But we also speak the language and understand all the variables and different aspects involved with the infrastructure that comes along with making these systems.
A lot of people go and do a show or go and do an event and it has to be up and running for 6-12 hours and then they can break it down. When we design a system, we want it to be running 6-12 hours a day for up to 10 years. So there's a lot of different variables and redundancies and different things that we take into account as far as what brands that we choose to use and what kind of equipment we use, what's doing the video processing, the routing, the power backups, remote control, all of that comes into play. And then we can also relate all of those technical details to immediate team or to someone like Dorian’s team who has an amazing team of programmers, and they know everything they need to know about the video game world and we were able to converse with them and go back and forth and figure out the common ground of how to make get them what they need to get us what we need, so we can project on this city.
Right, and I would imagine that while you could probably get some gigs here and there in Chicago. If you want steady work with substantial budgets, you really ought to be in a place like Orlando or maybe Las Vegas, something like that, where these are the kinds of shows that as you said, may run for 10 years as opposed to one night for a brand launch or something.
Devin: Definitely and never to take away from those. There's just as much work and effort and talent for creating those productions. You know, it's just from our niche standpoint, we really specialize in installations that are meant to be permanently installed, at least or semi-permanently installed and used on a regular basis. We go for bulletproof design. So that's kind of where we set ourselves apart from most other companies that are similar to us.
Caitlin: We have the experience of the live show world, but we definitely prefer the permanent installation world.
Devin: The integration world, yeah.
So, Dorian tell me about your company.
Dorian: Hi, I'm Dorian Vee. I'm the co-founder and CTO of IMERZA, an experiential software company with primary focuses in the real estate and real estate development world. And our roots actually grew out of an architecture firm. In addition to a merger, we also have a design firm that's based in Sarasota, Florida. That's been around 30+ years and does a wide range of work from master planning through complex urban mixed use stuff.
And what happened was, a little shy of 10 years ago, we started to look towards interactive, real time 3D tech to really change the decision making process internally. And so we started writing our own software on top of game engines to go through any level of decision you can think of whether it's entitlements and approval decisions or finished selections and things like that. And then we started pulling in all sorts of different data and being able to visualize data in these yet to be physically built environments in the game engine. And what happened was our clients started dragging their potential buyers into our office and ultimately selling million-dollar residences out of our work room, which is, as you can imagine, by no means a residential sales center.
And it happened enough times that we realize there's obviously something there for sales and marketing. And we set out to build out this platform for both real estate developers but also real estate marketing. And actually, Devin and I met several years ago through a mutual friend in Boston. And he introduced me to Devin and we had in mind, for one of our architecture projects, this badass projection maps experience for this interior courtyard of this building. And we brought Devin down to consult on it and see how we could do it. Unfortunately, the Client ultimately wound up not doing it. But what was interesting on the Tampa project, Devin was approached by strategic property partners to consult.
And at the same time, they had approached us for our experiential tech to help them through development decisions. And then when the RFP finally went out, we realized Devin was consulting on it and gave him a call and said, why don't we team up for this? This is just a slam dunk. If we mix what you're doing with what we're doing, it'll be something that's never been done before.
All right. So you guys have referenced the Tampa project, so can you give me information on what that was all about? It's up and running now, correct?
Dorian: That is correct. The Tampa project is a marketing center. It is the marketing center for a multibillion dollar real estate development in downtown Tampa, Florida. The development itself consists of about 56 acres of privately owned real estate downtown. And the company that's doing it is Strategic Property Partners, for which one of the major partners is Jeff Vinik, who is the owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning and their marketing team has seen some cool projection map city stuff done in other cities worldwide.
They had this idea and they said, “Hey, we want to do something similar to that, but wouldn't it be cool if we could actually just show all of these data sets in real time, whether that be market data, real estate market data, whether that be demographic data, or even traffic data, things like that.” And nothing like that had been done before in a projection mapping scenario. These were things that we were doing with our technology, just on the game engine side of things. And they wanted to make this the centerpiece of their marketing center. So the concept was that we would 3D print a 16-foot diameter scale model of downtown Tampa, put in all of the buildings they're currently designing, build it modularly so that as their second and third phases get designed, we could then easily replace those buildings. But then projection maps all of this information and data and color and content onto that scale model, while at the same time showing related content on the surrounding video walls to that scale model.
Devin: Yeah, we did about a three month discovery process with SPP directly just to help define an eyesight and determine what is the map boundary going to be, what section of Tampa is going to be, even just to determine whether it was going to be a square versus a circle, you know, how large is this model going to be in the physical room. And then we worked with them and the architects to work backwards from the physical restrictions of the size and height of the ceilings in the room to essentially design a system and find all the proper lensing that we knew would be able to cover this entire model and all of its intricate little surfaces from 360 degrees.
Because their goal was to have people to walk all the way around this model, mitigating as much shadow casting as possible. So we went through a three month process discovery for that, and essentially determined the best approach and the most efficient approach for covering the surfaces from all the different angles with the least amount of projectors needed, but enough to give us the level of detail that we needed, while also doing the best to mitigate as many shadows as possible.
Caitlin: Right and it's a fine level of detail.
Devin: A very fine balance between the number of projectors, distance of image throws, lensing selections, and then how we kind of use the mapping software to merge that entire world together from the game engine, which Dorian's team worked on. And then we actually developed some custom bits of software to make the game engine talk directly through the projector mapping software.
Dorian: One of the other interesting things was that most projection mapped experiences, at least that I've seen, are meant to be viewed at a distance of at least 10 feet away. Whereas this is a table that you sometimes upwards a room full of 50 people are surrounding and are directly on top of and looking at and because of that it had to be a very, very fine detail of these models.
Caitlin: That dual construction of this is really fascinating to me as well because obviously this is a development where things are changing, there are phases that are already on the docket. We're talking about lots of changes. So down to the building, the individual building construction, that was a huge criterion for the client and down to the table being modular. So everything is really designed with room for growth, with room for those changes that we foresee.
Devin: Ties right back into us. We really like doing projects that have a 5-10 year shelf life and we enjoy the challenges that are brought forth by making sure we're designing with the future in mind. As the city evolves and develops physically, you look out the window, you see a new building, well, we are prepared with IMERZA to completely update everything both digitally and physically when it comes to the scale model as well.
Dorian: Yeah, and that's one of the super cool things about real time rendering, and what really gets me excited about it is if this were to be done, with traditional offline rendering and traditional media capabilities, that would have meant, if one of those buildings gets redesigned, which will inevitably happen, all of that content would have had to have been re-rendered. And then, you know, of course paid for and that would have gotten just extremely pricey. And being able to do this and push through all of this content, in real time at runtime was just such an enormous cost savings to the client then what other traditional media companies were proposing.
So when I've seen scale models of new developments, and admittedly I have not had a lot of cause to see many of them, but in my travels, I have bumped into them. They would most typically just be described as a scale model of a set of buildings that may be nested in a larger urban area.
And you can look at it from different angles and see the ones that are colored differently. And the other ones are kind of beige or whatever so you know these are the new buildings. With the property developers who said that's not enough, we need to do more than this to actively sell, is it about sizzle?
Dorian: It's about telling a story and showing data and showing how Tampa as a city is growing and the movements of people and where Millennials are settling, how the nearby buildings are performing over time both from a rent perspective, but also like an occupancy perspective.
One of the things that I found pretty interesting and that was a total surprise to me on the data side of things is once we started pulling in these data feeds, and we could then visualize them in a 3D form, not in you know, tabular, Excel sheets and that sort of thing, you start to see things that you wouldn't necessarily have expected, like, naturally, I would have expected that the buildings along the waterfront would have had a higher rent growth year over year. But then when we visualize it on the table, you could see that it actually it's the buildings that are in the downtown core that are actually having higher rent growth. And that's something that you absolutely couldn't do with the traditional scale model. And that was critical for them to be able to get the high priced rents they're looking for.
So when you're doing a sales presentation, in a more typical marketing center, you would take the prospective tenants into this area and show them the scale model and show them some elevations and everything else and then go to a meeting room and then run the Excel spreadsheets or PowerPoint decks that show all the different data components that you want to pitch versus this where, I guess, you could do the whole meeting just around the scale model, right?
Devin: One of the really great benefits of having the entire model and basically the entire section of the city that's being discussed in this gaming environment as well is that this is as close as we can get to an actual hologram going on and in front of them.
We've also been able to cater very special presentations in different storytelling modes depending on who the viewer is. So if it's a sales meeting versus if there's someone who maybe is interested in buying a condo or something at this top level of the new edition building, versus someone who owns the stadium right there and they want to see...
You know, Coca Cola comes in and they want to know, how is my branding going to look in the city? Well, you know, the immersive platform, we can upload a Coca Cola logo, and then they can visualize it on the model in front of them and all the renderings everything happens in real time. And you know, so depending on who the viewer is, we have many different modes that the presenter can go through to tell the story and they also have the ability to kind of shoot from the head. If something comes up, they can point at a building on a map and it will highlight directly on the model in front of them. They can drop the viewers almost anywhere and show them the view at certain times of a day and stuff that you just couldn't do in any other kind of working environment.
Caitlin: Right. Isolating floor levels too, and giving them that first person perspective of what it's going to be like to live in this building or what they're going to see. It’s huge and it makes for a really compelling sales tool.
Dorian: Yeah, and we have just been talking about the super cool part, which is the scale model but as part of the overall deliverable, there are also two touchscreens kiosks that users could navigate this future version of Tampa themselves also in the room, but yeah, just like Devin and Caitlin were saying, it's an incredibly flexible tool for storytelling.
They do have different teams. They've got a commercial team, that's all they care about, and their focus is commercial leasing. And then they have different real estate agencies that are interested in selling different residences. And then they've got a whole advertising team because obviously the stadium is right there. And we wrote a system that allows them to basically take a package of assets of billboards of digital signage, actual video mp4 files, and drop that into the content management system. And what it will do is, it will automatically ingest all of those assets and apply them to what Devin had mentioned, every specific billboard where it's supposed to go and suck in all of those video assets and do it all on the fly.
And it is controlled just off a tablet?
Dorian: It is off of a custom iPad controller that was written for the project.
So who manages the day-to-day? Obviously, you've mapped the data tables and everything, so that's okay. But as you described, you want to put in assets from Coca Cola or whatever, is that a managed service that you guys or one of your companies does or are the people at the real estate company doing that?
Dorian: We built a whole content management system that they can themselves upload new content to, they can create their own tours where they can say, I want to play this content then I want to see this on the table and I want to see these videos on the screens. So they can arrange all of that themselves. We haven't quite turned that over to them yet. We're still the gatekeepers on it for the first few months. But once everything's totally solidified, we'll turn that over to them and they will be running it on their own.
Devin: And on the systems side we've also built in a bunch of presets on the programming of the actual infrastructure so they can choose lighting presets, audio presets, there's some lighting under the table, they have control of so they can really choose and set select any specific presets they want. That ties back into the video game engine, so when they choose one thing, everything in the room is going to react to it. The lights go down, the sound comes on, the AV system itself integrates seamlessly with it.
Dorian: Yeah, for instance when they are talking about the parks and nearby parks, the soft under lighting glow of the table can turn green and you can hear birds chirping in the audio. It's very subtle, but definitely very effective things, creating that overall immersion and experience.
So how does your client measure that this is working and that the investment in time and money that they put into this is doing a better job?
Dorian: When you see 50 people enter the room and the system is off, everyone comes in, they all surround it. They're all milling about. Everyone's seen the scale model before and then the sales director hits the on button and the lights go dark and that system goes on. And 50 people at once go “whoa!” and start whipping out their phones. It was a pretty good proof of concept for them.
Yeah, sure, but there's a CFO in that company who's going to be saying, okay, that's all very nice, I'm glad people are excited, but is this selling more real estate for me?
Dorian: Yeah, I mean that is something that will get uncovered over time. Obviously, tools like this are going to be required in the near future. That's exactly why IMERZA as a company was created. The need to explain projects more in depth and the time of just being able to sell off a plan is gone. People expect to be able to experience the future and this project is on a whole nother level.
Now six months ago, pre-pandemic, people would have looked at this and said, “okay, this is the future, this is how commercial real estate is going to be sold”, but then pandemic hit and huge swathes of the population started working from home and companies started announcing we're just going to let people work from home forever now and commercial property groups started thinking, “Oh dear god, our leasing rates are going to drop to the floor.” So how does this fit into the “new normal”?
Dorian: Yeah, there's a lot of that going on and it's been pretty interesting on the real estate market to see how the pandemic has affected it. Interestingly, the housing markets actually picked up traction, at least in Florida. With the commercial leasing side really, it's not so much that anything has slowed down, they're just rethinking how you design your elevators and how you design the communal areas.
We have not seen from our side any bit of slowdown really even on the investment side. Since COVID hit, we've landed six new projects and surprisingly, we totally expected it to slow down but if anything it's picked up. It was absolutely unfortunate for the SPP guys that the month after this amazing marketing center opened, COVID hit and they had to shut it down but they are open again and they're starting to give presentations again. Fortunately, because a lot of these tools were written in software, they could, during that couple months period where they were down, they could give remote presentations to people that couldn't be there in the marketing center. They could still see the content. They just couldn't see it in person.
Go ahead, Caitlin.
Caitlin: I was just gonna say yeah, if nothing else, this pandemic has just given so many people all the time they needed to be more creative and more expressive and creating more immersive experiences that will really sell the idea so I feel like, just like IMERZA, DCBolt really hasn't slowed down and now we're seeing even more interest because people have more time to really put more thought into solutions like these. So just piggybacking off of what Dorian said, I think, yeah, if nothing else, the time has been really helpful for a lot of companies to think up more creative solutions.
Devin: To be completely honest. Having the little break in time actually gave us the time we needed to get a breather. We were pedal to the metal to get the Tampa project done on the timeline we had and so we feel so blessed that we actually had it done and launched before the timeline.
Dorian: Which was a ridiculous timeline by the way. (Laughter)
Devin: I forget the total number of 3D printers but at one point, we had over two hundred 3D printers going at the same time for different locations across the country.
Caitlin: But it was worth it.
Devin: Yeah, it's been a nice breath of fresh air for us. We certainly have many things coming out of this and it doesn't feel like it slowed down, but I'm scared to think of how fast we'd be going right now without the COVID pumping up the brakes.
I'm just looking for the silver lining but I feel like everything's gonna pick back up. I don't think that this is going to be a permanent new world that we're living in and people are always going to want to continue to develop real estate and come up with new marketing centers and new ways of conveying new ideas.
Just by that short pre-COVID one month that we had, we saw so many people get excited in ways that they haven't been excited before about real estate and visualizing data even. A lot of times these are boring conversations that people have in conference rooms looking at spreadsheets, and now they're standing around them actually getting excited about a boring topic like restaurant revenues and things like that, that normally people don't care to even discuss but now they can visualize it. They can say, “Oh, that's where my friend lives down that street. There's a great restaurant. There’s a new footpath there” and it's kind of literally stepping outside of the box gaining a new perspective on, in this case, the entire city, and all the people who are city planning, making big decisions, it gives them the opportunity to look at it from a different perspective, literally walk all the way around it if they want to, and discuss it with everybody in the same room. And I don't think that the value in that is ever gonna go away.
Dorian: I think another and it's not related to COVID but more so than the Tampa project, we pushed a lot of technological limits. And there was an enormous amount of innovation that happened on this project both from just the the projection mapping point of view and pushing all of this real time content at the pixel density that we were doing that to just how do you get multiple real time computers with high end GPUs in their frame locked running at 90 frames a second and all of this sort of stuff.
So there was a heck of a lot of innovation that happened, that, that we can carry through into new projects. And what I do find interesting and some of the conversations that we're having with companies is, you know, just these types of experiences are ones that can be enjoyed by people that are standing 5-6 feet apart and shared, immersive experiences. So I do think we'll actually see a bit more of this type of content, whether it's projected onto a table or outward onto the walls or something like that. These types of experiences, I think, we're gonna see more of them.
Alright guys, thank you very much for your time. I'm sorry to cut you off there but we try to keep it to 30-35 minutes and I'm sure we could have talked for three hours.