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If Travis Threlkel looks like the prototypical rock star, sporting long hair, skinny black jeans, Ray-Bans whose tinted lenses have been replaced by prescription cheaters and a belt Keith Richards would covet, it’s because he was. The former lead guitarist of the Brian Jonestown Massacre has come a long way from the old soul lounges of San Francisco’s Lower Haight. Today Threlkel leads Obscura Digital, a company that’s rocking the world with enormous outdoor digital projections, extraordinary theatrical environments and cutting-edge touchscreen systems that are changing the way people interact with information and entertainment.

Based in a 38,000-square-foot warehouse in an industrial San Francisco neighborhood, Threlkel directs the efforts of 50 programmers, engineers, designers, animators, filmmakers, composers, industrial-strength tinkerers and a two-person team of architects. Threlkel’s journey has its roots in the humble light show. To create a scene at the clubs where his band played, Threlkel set up old movie projectors and aimed them at every available surface. As video cameras replaced 16mm and Super 8 home movie projectors, Threlkel discovered a bonanza of cast-offs in thrift stores. At one point he had more than 100 projectors. “I sort of A-D-D’d out,” he says with a laugh, as he explains how his hobby became an obsession and then a business.

As Threlkel experimented with projecting multiple films simultaneously onto 3-D surfaces, he discovered the geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller and realized their potential for immersive theater. “I hooked up a PlayStation to my first CRT video projector and realized I could render projected images of 3-D worlds that could work on every angle inside the spherical architecture of the dome and beyond,” Threlkel remembers. Working with manufacturer Pacific Domes to create a custom dome system, Threlkel became close friends with Chris Lejeune, Pacific Domes co-owner. Together the two launched a niche projection business in 2000, using custom domes that incorporate a patented negative-pressure spherical screen system, essentially vacuum-forming the screen into place against the spherical geodesic. Threlkel devised a thirteen-channel spherical camera system to capture content for the dome. To project the images, he created a robotic chandelier that physically animated nine synchronized projectors like marionettes controlled by a projectionist. Threlkel’s goal: create an immersive space where he could make and show films “free of the rectangle.”

It wasn’t long before Levi’s came calling to enlist Threlkel to support special events, concerts and installations, which marked Obscura Digital’s commercial debut. Soon Threlkel had a real business on his hands creating immersive experiences for NASA and Google. That meant “better tools, faster computers, more engineers and a real infrastructure,” Threlkel says.

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“Society has chosen a rectilinear format to crop every piece of information,” Threlkel says forlornly. “When I’m thinking, it’s all over the place.” Anyone who has seen the inside of Threlkel’s office and its cyclone of creative debris will attest to that. “I have nothing against the rectangle, but there’s gotta be more than that.”

In a world where just about anyone can rent a 20,000-lumen projector and blast a film onto a blank wall, Obscura Digital is working on a higher level. “We call it surround thinking,” Threlkel says. “We think spatially. And we work at scale, from a sculpture to a skyscraper. We’re about ideas, new tools, new technologies and new methods for creating content.” That includes film production for the upcoming movie 6, product design for a wall-sized digital display and collaboration tool called Bluescape and interactive educational exhibits that use proximity sensors and gestural commands to bring screens to life.

A skyscraper-sized project is exactly what Obscura Digital created for Coca-Cola’s 125th anniversary celebration, lighting up the night sky in Atlanta with a film that projected Coke pouring into and filling up a glass, floor by floor up the 26-story edifice that is Coca-Cola’s headquarters. The CEO described the project as the largest thank-you card in the world.

Because clients often don’t know what the technology is capable of, “we work backward from the client’s objective to find out what the idea is,” says Threlkel. After meeting with the client team and combing through the creative brief, he takes a deep breath and asks the client, “In a perfect world, what would total success above and beyond your expectations look like for this project?” It’s a question that raises the bar and—for the moment—eliminates real-world constraints. Eventually Obscura takes a long hard look at the actual budget, resources and time available to ground the ideation process, but when it comes to creative thinking, Threlkel likes “keeping it unreal as long as possible.” It’s an approach that generates fresh thinking and unexpected ways to capture people’s attention.

Ridiculous deadlines get better results. Too much time and things get diluted.”—Travis Threlkel

Threlkel says, “We always want everyone to be amazed, but steering that amazement toward the client’s objectives by working backward helps us track what’s important.” With each project Obscura Digital takes on, the creative team has an open field to explore. The only limit is their imagination. They’ve raised the bar for light shows at rock arenas with their work for world fusion band Beats Antique, which included Claymation, stop-motion animation, Indonesian-style shadow puppetry and filmed projection that became part of the band’s concert performance. In Sydney, they hired a street artist, equipped him with a Wacom tablet, synced it to a symphonic score and projected his work live on the Opera House walls. They’ve brought the analog game of billiards into the digital realm with CueLight, an overhead tracking system that projects imagery onto a pool table so that visual displays are synced to every shot and every ball on the table.

Obscura Digital’s ambition, vision and ability to execute at scale have taken it around the world, from temples of high art such as the Guggenheim to the very real temple Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the United Arab Emirates, the team covered walls 900 feet long and minarets 400 feet tall in illuminations to evoke the magic of 1,001 nights.

At the Sydney Opera House, Obscura Digital worked with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas to stage a performance featuring the 101 members of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. The ensemble was brought together by an open audition on YouTube—the musicians videoed themselves playing music from the set and were selected by online votes from the viewing public. The performance in Sydney featured players from 30 countries performing orchestral warhorses such as Stravinsky’s The Firebird and Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.”

Not since Stanley Kubrick used a Strauss waltz in 2001: A Space Odyssey has classical music seemed so cool. Combining architectural mapping of the opera house’s interior and exterior, the Obscura Digital team projected a video light show on the iconic “sails” of the Sydney Opera House exterior synced to the live performance taking place inside the concert hall. Audience members lucky enough to score a seat were enveloped in a phantasm of projected light that covered the entire cavernous opera house ceiling as the orchestra played. “For once we weren’t selling anything,” Threlkel says. “The project was just about beauty.”

Seen by 33 million people in the largest-ever YouTube live stream, the event was, in the words of creative director Garth Williams, “a signature example of Obscura Digital’s style—passionate, artistic, wonderful and a logistical miracle to pull off.” Time to completion: two months. With a complete machine shop and production facility in Oakland, California, Obscura Digital can execute its vision quickly, fabricating every piece of hardware it needs from scratch. Once a client signs off, “it’s just go time,” Threlkel says. And that’s fine with him. “Ridiculous deadlines get better results. Too much time and things get diluted.”

“Society has chosen a rectilinear format to crop every piece of information. I have nothing against the rectangle, but there’s gotta be more than that.”—Travis Threlkel

To ensure Obscura Digital doesn’t get pigeonholed as the “projection mapping guys,” the company is pushing hard into areas such as interactive sculpture, public information systems, museum and educational exhibits, and new visions for collaborative workspaces. With each new project they take on, Obscura is changing the way people interact with and absorb information. The team recently completed a wall-sized educational installation for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission; Emergence, a projected film that opened the new Exploratorium, San Francisco’s hands-on science museum; and Flying on Water, an immersive, inter-active exhibit to complement the 2013 America’s Cup sailing race on San Francisco Bay, a project that earned a place in CA’s Interactive Annual 20.

George Jetson had a flying car, but he would have wanted a Bluescape, the wall-sized flat-panel presentation system that marks Obscura Digital’s first foray into product design. Bluescape works like a whiteboard on steroids, creating a virtual workspace where remote teams can collaborate, display media and write their notes on the fly. Think of the gestural interface Tom Cruise used in Minority Report, without the annoying gloves, and you begin to get the picture.

“Designed for alpha people who work the wall,” Threlkel says, “Bluescape provides an aura of influence where ideas are limitless.” The room-sized version of the multi-touch, seamless display creates the equivalent of 160 acres of visual workspace. Bluescape was created in partnership with office furniture maker Haworth, but all development was done by Obscura Digital, in a process that took more than two and a half years. As futuristic as it sounds, Bluescape is shipping now. As William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

Threlkel’s career is about to come full circle with a project that has taken him from behind the projector and put him in front of the camera. He’s soon to be featured in a documentary titled 6. Produced by the Oceanic Preservation Society, the same team that created the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, about the Japanese fishing industry’s slaughter of dolphins and porpoises, 6 promises a mash-up of documentary filmmaking, street provocation and covert action, combining art and activism to raise awareness about endangered species and mass extinction. To tell the story on a grand scale, 6 makes use of urban spaces as a canvas. And that’s where Obscura Digital comes in.

Using a 220-volt remote-controlled projector that runs for hours on the back of a black Tesla Model S, Obscura Digital projected film onto cityscapes and the glass towers of what Threlkel calls “environmental criminals’ headquarters.” In a tour de force of agitprop, Obscura Digital even managed to project onto the vapors pouring out of oil refineries and coal-fired power plant smokestacks. It’s a bravura performance for the film and a metaphor for the work of Obscura Digital: evanescent, impermanent and brilliantly illuminated. ca
Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at sam@wordstrong.com.

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