Projection Mapping Turns a Hockey Venue Into a Big Screen

Hockey attendance has been on the rise in recent years, in some markets  surpassing that of the NBA. Some might attribute that to NHL teams’ increased focus on the in-game experience. Contributing to that are recent upgrades to venue AV systems, such as the mammoth video screen installed last year at the Denver Avalanche’s Pepsi Center or the recent video and sound renovation at the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Nationwide Arena, which was named “the No. 2 stadium experience in professional sports” by ESPN The Magazine.

But hockey teams have been leading the charge on a unique form of in-venue entertainment: on-ice projection mapping. Most of the NHL’s 30 teams, including the L.A. Kings and Vancouver Canucks, have implemented multiprojector systems at least for opening-day and/or postseason-related events, and several have installed such systems permanently. Most recently, the Buffalo Sabres spent more than $1 million on AVL-systems improvements at the 19,070-seat First Niagara Center, half of which went to the projection systems, according to Brock McGinnis, systems division sales manager for Toronto-based AVL integrator Westbury National Show Systems, which did the Sabres’ installation.

The NHL’s Buffalo Sabres have implemented on-ice and banner projection systems at First Niagara Center.

The NHL’s Buffalo Sabres have implemented on-ice and banner projection systems at First Niagara Center.

“Ice is the most difficult surface to do projection on,” says Guy Wallace, who manages Westbury integration services as well as similar projection-mapping systems for the NHL’s New York Rangers, Edmonton Oilers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Calgary Flames, Ottawa Senators, Florida Panthers, and Anaheim Ducks. That’s because the approximately 1.5-in. depth of the ice diffuses light, making coherent images and motion hard to achieve.

The on-ice projection system in Buffalo comprises four Christie Roadster HD20-J three-chip DLP projectors, which Westbury specified for their high light output and extensive capabilities for imagery and geometry manipulation. A corner banner projection system — a new concept in the NHL — deploys Christie Roadster HD18-Ks to project images onto 40-ft. silk banners that fly in from the four corners of the arena. A High End Systems Hog 4 lighting console is integrated into the video system, enabling a single operator to run both the on-ice and banner systems.

“It’s become the control platform for the show-control system. We integrated it with their broadcast video, so it receives timecode,” Wallace explains. “When they play video back from video control, the lighting runs itself, sequenced to the video.”

All video playback is achieved through a pair of Catalyst media servers controlled by the Hog 4. A Vista Systems Spyder X20 handles all projection processing, and all HD-SDI video signals are sent from the operator’s booth up to the grid via fiber. All projector-control and DMX-over-ArtNet signals are sent via fiber from the booth to the grid as well between a pair of Cisco SG500 managed switches. Because the operator’s position was not within direct sight of the ice, Westbury custom-built a control desk to house a Hog 4 lighting controller with eight preview/confidence monitors and a Panasonic HD PTZ camera to provide the operator with an unobstructed view of the ice.

Wallace says the technology to enable good HD projection on ice is available, although implementing it can be costly: projectors are priced at more than $100,000 each once specialized lenses and software are included, and newer mapping system designs call for as many as six projectors. (He says Westbury is experimenting with designs that use as many as a dozen.) But the real problem, he says, is with content.

“The biggest mistake hockey teams make [with projection video] is showing hockey,” he adds. “They’re the least visually intelligible images you can use.” Better are brightly colored graphics and 3D images. “Use the videoboards for instant replays. You’re not going to get useful HD results on a 200-ft. surface.”

Unlike in the highly centralized NFL, NHL teams are mostly free to do what they want when it comes to in-venue technology. That has produced a cascading increase in implementation of projection mapping over the past five years, with teams experiencing it as visitors and bringing it to their home rinks. However, the costs mean that most teams only rent it for special events; Wallace estimates that fewer than a half dozen teams —Buffalo, Ottawa, and Montreal among them — have implemented projection-mapping equipment on a permanent basis through long-term lease or outright purchase.

“Not every team has the budget for that,” he notes, adding that this type of in-venue entertainment doesn’t translate into broadcast revenues.

But, as the cost of HD projectors comes down, the idea is spreading to minor and collegiate hockey leagues. According to McGinnis, Westbury has 19 quotes out for systems across that cohort, with small-venue packages priced around $250,000.

Wallace says the company’s next strategic move is to partner with media producers to increase the quality of the projected content.

“This is a whole other way to experience hockey,” says McGinnis. “And you have to be at the game to see it.”