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Digital Signage: Creating North America’s largest transparent LED screen

Photo by Trevor Lush, courtesy Moment Factory

By Peter Saunders
On New Year’s Eve, following a countdown to midnight in -30 C (-22 F) weather, the National Arts Centre (NAC) in Ottawa began displaying colourful, dynamic images on the Kipnes Lantern. The three-storey glass tower, which frames the performance facility’s new Elgin Street entrance, incorporates what is reportedly the largest transparent light-emitting diode (LED) screen anywhere in North America, specially designed to showcase productions from both the stages of the NAC and those of other performing arts organizations throughout the country.

“The Lantern showcases the breadth and excellence of music, theatre and dance being produced across Canada,” says the NAC’s CEO, Peter Herrndorf.

An architectural vision
The Lantern represents the latest phase in a $225-million renewal of the NAC, which is intended to transform a mid-century Brutalist structure into a more open and inviting facility. The building had faced the Rideau Canal, rather than Ottawa’s downtown core, ever since it opened in 1969. One of the goals of the renewal was to move the facility’s front door to Elgin Street.

“We were hired by the NAC to conduct feasibility studies in 2011,” explains Jennifer Mallard, a senior associate with Toronto-based Diamond Schmitt Architects. “The side of the building facing the city was opaque and we were tasked with establishing a new point of connection there.”

These studies led to the proposal for the addition of the three-storey hexagonal glass tower, echoing the existing building’s geometry. The idea of adding a see-through digital screen as a ‘fifth stage’ for the four-stage arts complex was developed by Donald Schmitt, one of the firm’s principals, and Herrndorf during the planning process.

“The see-through technology of the screen would complement the transparency established in the new public wings providing the connection with downtown Ottawa and views of nearby landmarks,” Schmitt explains.

Integrating the hardware
To turn the notion into reality, the architects considered a variety of technologies, including digital projection and window films, before turning their attention to transparent LED screens, which had been used in the entertainment industry and for other commercial purposes. Renderings were developed, based on the structure’s size and location, with sample images of dancing ballerinas, orchestra conductors and theatrical performances.

“For this application, it was important for the imagery to appear graceful, elegant, slow and not too commercial,” says Mallard.

After municipal authorities were satisfied the content would be appropriate for the site and the screen’s brightness would be fully adjustable (Mallard says the city’s urban design review panel was “very enthusiastic” about the idea), the NAC issued a request for proposals (RFP) for the hardware. The winning bid came from ClearLED in Burnaby, B.C., which—as its name suggests—specializes in the custom fabrication of transparent LED displays.

“We opened a design-build process with them, whereby test video reels were developed before anything was physically built,” says Mallard.

One key decision was to install the LEDs inside the tower, rather than engineer an outdoor-durable display.

“By eliminating the need for outdoor-proofing techniques, we were able to keep the printed circuit boards (PCBs)—to which the LEDs are soldered—as narrow as possible, so as to achieve both high resolution and a high level of transparency,” explains Jin Fan, CEO of ClearLED. “For this project, the PCBs are 2 mm (0.08 in.) thick and 6 mm (0.24 in.) wide. The pixel pitch is 16 mm (0.6 in.).”

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