Performing with holograms

3D image projection technology is making its way to the Department of Drama

Erik Einsiedel - 27 October 2020

Imagine performers being able to wear an infinite array of costumes by having different outfits projected onto them, that looked and moved in realistic ways. Or the ability to create worlds and environments that could react to performers on stage, without the need for physical set pieces.

An example of the possibilities offered by projected media for live performances.

The seemingly boundless applications of projected media in live performances is what Drama instructor Jeff Osterlin is excited to explore. Osterlin’s research focuses on technical theatre practices including lighting, computer media and projection mapping, and how this technology can interact with live performers.

This expertise helped him and fellow theatre instructor Guido Tondino secure $98,000 in grant funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) to acquire this advanced projection technology for the Department of Drama. The $98,000 grant is part of a combined $3.4 million in CFI funding being allocated across 16 University of Alberta projects, including the new Sound3 Lab in the Department of Music. Other funding for the projection project comes from the Alberta Economic Development Corporation, in-kind donations, and from the Department of Drama. A matching $98,000 was also secured from Alberta Economic Development and Trade, as part of the John R. Evans Leaders Fund.

The first application Osterlin plans to create is an “infinity room” — an enclosed room that creates the illusion of endless space.

“Imagine walking into a room with four walls,” Osterlin explains. “It goes black, the projector turns on, and suddenly you’re standing in the middle of a grassy field, with a sky that goes on forever. All you see is grass and sky.”

The effect is achieved using a setup of multiple laser projectors, a newer and more powerful technology compared to the bulb projectors commonly found in most theatres. Osterlin plans to combine these projectors with a special system of motion sensing cameras that can map three-dimensional objects and movement, causing the projections to react in real time.

The projector system will also be portable. With the help of the Drama Department’s head carpenter, Darrell Cooksey, the team has welded together their own custom projector mount (which they lovingly call the “Cooksinator-3000”). The mount not only enables portability between theatre spaces, but also grants 360 degrees of swivel motion, allowing them to aim the projector in any direction needed.

“The setup had to be flexible, because we’re not going to use the projector the same way every time,” says Osterlin. “We’re going to come up with new ways to use it. We may even find ways to create holograms on stage.”

This advanced technology also means new and far-reaching learning opportunities for Faculty of Arts students.

“This new technology will give students ideas about how to innovate within the industry,” says Osterlin. “I’m only a catalyst for ideas. The real ideas are going to come from the students, not me.”

With full funding for the project already secured, Osterlin has one year to acquire all the projection equipment, with a five-year plan to implement it across different projects. The first phase of the technology integration will culminate in 2023, where Osterlin plans to send a group of students and dancers to perform at the Prague Quadrennial, a major event that celebrates the art of scenic design.

Stay tuned to Arts News and the Department of Drama Facebook page for the latest updates on the projection project.