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Updated Oct 20, 2023

Projection Mapping: What It Is and Why Your Business Should Try It

Projection mapping offers a way to convey compelling messages anywhere, from restaurant tables to entire buildings.

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Neil Cumins, Business Ownership Insider and Senior Analyst
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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In an effort to connect with your heart, mind and wallet, big brands work hard to pack every minute of your day with ads and multimedia. One marketing tactic in their toolbox aims to create emotional and long-lasting impressions around events. Stunning graphics, 3D or 4D experiences or interactive installations help create some of the most memorable ones.

These remarkable experiences often involve projection mapping, which has been used in places as high-end as Buckingham Palace and the Sydney Opera House. The concept has been around for more than half a century, but it’s still only used occasionally due to issues surrounding cost and complexity. However, projection mapping can be compelling and unforgettable when it’s done effectively.

What is projection mapping?

Projection mapping is a video projection technique in which video footage is mapped onto a surface, turning common objects – such as buildings, runways, stages and even water – into astonishing displays. These surfaces become a canvas, playing off the surface’s shape and textures to create a delightful experience of light and illusion. In tandem with mapping software, these images can even be made into interactive features. When used in business, projection mapping is often considered a form of experiential marketing.

“Projection mapping immerses consumers into an experience,” said Paul Whitney, executive producer at bluemedia, a media company specializing in experiential activations for some of the world’s largest brands. “Research has shown that millennials, in particular, would rather invest in an experience than a product.” [Related article: Marketing to Millennials: How to Capture Gen Y Consumers]

When projection mapping first kicked off, it was limited to flat walls, but now companies that take advantage of it think far bigger and more creatively. They’re no longer limited to structures or specific materials. “Today, we have more flexibility than ever,” Whitney said. “The technology has grown tenfold. Back in the day, many of the things we did were not possible, but [modern] software allows us to do cool things.”

Consider a fashion show. Instead of using 30 mannequins with 30 outfits, projection mapping could be leveraged to creatively display a variety of outfits on two mannequins. The possibilities are seemingly endless. Businesses can now take on 360-degree dome projection, create immersive theatrical experiences, deliver showstopping concerts with audiovisuals, and produce far more memorable impressions than traditional forms of media allow.

Did You Know?Did you know
The first public example of projection mapping took place at Disneyland in 1969, with optical illusions projected onto a ghost train ride.

What is projection mapping software?

Once you choose or create an object to be projected, dedicated projection mapping software brings your vision to life. This specialized technology is used to spatially map a two- or three-dimensional object. The software mimics the real environment the object will be projected onto and can be used to create projection mapping ads, tell stories at events, and more. It can interact with a projector to display any type or size of image onto the surface of your chosen location. The software helps artists and advertisers add extra dimensions or create the illusion of movement across static objects. [Learn about some 3D printing applications for businesses.]

How does projection mapping work?

There are five key steps in the projection mapping process:

  1. Select your canvas. The first stage in projection mapping involves choosing your location and surface. The surface can be anything that allows your projection to come to life. People tend to choose canvases like stages, buildings and translucent backdrops.
  2. Plan the lighting. Once you’ve selected your canvas, you’ll need to use projection mapping software to calculate the level of brightness, pixel density and shadows, as well as create the metrics to be used for the projection.
  3. Develop content. Next, design the template for your projection and animate it, creating a concrete version of the visual story you’re seeking to tell.
  4. Set it up onsite. Once you’ve completed the development of the projection, it’s time to set things up physically. Go to the location of your event and use an alignment grid to ensure your projection will be clean and seamless.
  5. Finalize the presentation. Make tweaks to your content and projection based on the alignment grid, and test out the projection to decide if you want to make any further changes before showtime.
When planning a projection mapping event, give yourself a lead time of eight to 14 weeks, depending on the experience you want to create.

Projection mapping is often deployed in conjunction with other audiovisual effects. In Dubai, for instance, it’s used to illuminate iconic buildings such as hotels, often in tandem with laser presentations or waterfall shows, and usually synchronized with a musical soundtrack. When used indoors, it can underpin an art installation, add theater to a ballroom event, or bring museum pieces to life. At London’s V&A Museum, a machine-intelligent sand table became an interactive satellite-view landscape. Algorithmic software responded in real time to audiences moving sand around by modifying the projection – piling up sand resulted in a snowy mountain peak appearing, whereas digging a hole saw it instantly “fill” with water. 

How can projection mapping benefit businesses?

Projection mapping is not cheap. Activation can range from $150,000 to more than $1 million for the creative gurus, engineers, onsite resources and logistics required to pull off project mapping flawlessly. Businesses may be more willing to pay for such experiences when they’ve amassed the participants, social media followers and brand recognition that justify  the expense. Companies rely heavily on social media to piggyback on the event experience, creating a massive buzz that reaches far beyond the event location. A successful projection mapping display can also reach audiences conventional ad campaigns might miss, such as older demographics.

“Activations can be permanent or semipermanent,” Whitney said. “But brands will get ten times more media when they create these immersive experiences.” Whitney has spearheaded projection mapping experiences at the Super Bowl, the famous Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood and a life-size Noah’s Ark in Kentucky. As for the skeptics who question whether the investment is worth it, Whitney said they just have to “see it to believe it.”

Whereas simplicity is key to online advertising, the wow factor of projection mapping can increase word-of-mouth marketing, lead your company to go viral on social media, and provide a sensory experience that leaves lasting impressions and sparks brand loyalty. 

What are examples of projection mapping?

Here are some of the most famous examples of projection mapping.

  • Platinum Jubilee Celebration: To celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s 70-year reign in 2022, Buckingham Palace was used as a dynamic and dramatic backdrop to a live concert, temporarily transforming the historic building into the U.K.’s biggest screen.
  • Wear the Rose: This memorable projection was designed to support the English rugby team during the 2015 Rugby World Cup. The display was filled with beautiful projections of roses in various shapes, sizes and arrangements.
  • Ink Mapping: During the first-ever live event of tattoo video mapping in 2015, people were used as canvases, and various images of moving art and tattoos were projected onto their skin.
  • The Sydney Opera House: More than a decade ago, the exterior of this famed venue first served as a backdrop for an epic experience now known as the Facade Projection. In the years since, the structure has been used again and again for incredible projections.
Did You Know?Did you know
Even if they're backed by the best intentions, not all creative advertising attempts pay off. Companies like Snapple, Paramount and Vodafone have all seen some of their marketing gimmicks go horribly wrong.

Of course, projection mapping isn’t the only way for your business to stand out. Learn what good design can do for your business, and don’t overlook the latest tech trends that should influence your marketing. Thanks to innovations in recent years, projection mapping is just the tip of the iceberg.

Business News Daily editorial staff contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article. 

author image
Neil Cumins, Business Ownership Insider and Senior Analyst
Neil Cumins is an award-winning small business owner who has run a limited company for nearly two decades. Through his personal and professional experiences, he is well-versed in a range of B2B and B2C topics, from invoicing to advertising to the use of artificial intelligence. Prior to starting his own business, Cumins worked as a marketing executive. With deep insights into the ever-changing technology landscape, Cumins is particularly skilled at evaluating business software and guiding fellow entrepreneurs to the tools and strategies that will equip them for entrepreneurial success. Over the years, he has worked with some of the world’s biggest hardware and software manufacturers, as well as countless SaaS brands. Today, he also spends his time consulting on compensation and other business matters.
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