What Is Projection Mapping?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Projection mapping is the projection of a three dimensional scene onto a flat surface like a building. It requires carefully mapping the underlying surface to create projections without distortions caused by surface changes like doorways and curving ornamental architecture. The result is a highly visible image effectively painted across the structure, with three dimensional elements that can make it appear to come to life. This has applications for art, advertising, and a variety of other campaigns in public spaces.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

The first step in a projection mapping project is a map of the surface to be projected upon. This map can be fed into a computer program that will work with a set of projectors to adjust the image and create a smooth, uniform projection. The projection mappers can use a variety of techniques including animal, shooting and projecting real-time video, projecting video clips, and so forth to create the desired effect. Multiple projectors create a three dimensional image that is viewable from several angles. It is also possible to film the event for broadcast or distribution in other venues.

Ambitious projection mapping projects can interact with the structure or the bystanders. Animators might create a series of scenes that make buildings appear to sing and dance, burst open, and perform other acrobatics. When projection mapping is done at night with careful controls and the right lighting, the illusion can be highly convincing for passerby. Other displays may be user-configurable by participants who can interact with cell phones, tablet computers, and other devices to change what they see.

The advertising implications of projection mapping are potentially significant. Advertisers can use the technology to turn any surface into a billboard with equipment that sets up and breaks down quickly. These events tend to attract attention, and in some cases can lead to a viral video as people upload videos of what they see. This creates free advertising for the sponsoring company and generates buzz about its brands and activities.

Works of art can also integrate projection mapping. A projection can become part of a live performance piece, with characters who may appear to interact directly with the film in a carefully rehearsed production. The projection itself can also be the artwork. Political and social commentary can be distributed using this mechanism, which can allow activists to quickly grab attention by projecting on a major building, and fade away again before they can be apprehended.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@David09 - The one thing that I don’t look forward to is its use in advertising. Somehow, advertisers manage to exploit every form of new technology that comes upon the scene. Sorry, but it’s not art at that point, in my opinion; it’s just distracting background noise.


@nony - The concept of making a political statement using this technology intrigues me too.

It’s so common nowadays to see people use billboards to make statements of one kind or another. Imagine if the statement appeared on some other building.

I think it would be useful, because these projections can become very large from what I understand. In that sense, the size of the projection can reflect the import of the message you want to convey.

If it’s something like “Save the Earth” or something like that, I can see how a projection mapped onto a skyscraper would get that point across quite well.


@hamje32 - I can imagine that it would be stunning. Actually the way that you and the article both describe it, I am thinking that it would look like something similar to a hologram.

However, a hologram is separated from the surface it’s being projected from, whereas I get the impression that this form of projection relies on the underlying surface for part of its expression.


I’ve seen videos on the Internet of shows done with projection mapping, and the results were stunning.

In my opinion, these works of art surpass things like 3D theaters or things like that. The buildings that have the animations projected onto them seem to come alive, as they dance to music being played in the background.

Unlike 3D, you don’t need to wear glasses either. I think these are ideal entertainment platforms for a variety of settings. I can see projection mapping one day being used in Disney or other theme parks, too, if it has not been done so already.

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