Detroit auto show: Times Square under a roof

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Call it Times Square under a roof.

When Cobo Center’s doors open to the public Saturday, Detroit auto show visitors will be treated to a mind-blowing, high-def video-palooza: floor-to-ceiling screens, digitally wrapped columns and 360-degree displays.

With an expected 800,000 visitors crowding into the 700,000-square-foot show through Jan. 24, the experience rivals a stroll down Broadway — if its forest of jumbotrons advertising plays, movies and perfume were all showing car ads instead.

“This is transformative. It supersedes anything at a major concert or the Super Bowl,” said John Tulloch, senior vice president and executive producer of Auburn Hills-based George P. Johnson, which helped Fiat Chrysler Automobiles set up its pixel-tacular stage. “Our display is at an Olympic level never seen at an auto show anywhere in the world.”

The razzle-dazzle is the product of new tech, a video arms race and the biggest shuffle in floor space in a decade after show regulars like Mini Cooper, Bentley, Jaguar, Land Rover and Tesla dropped out.

“Exhibitors spent $200 million on displays this year,” said Rod Alberts, executive director of the North American International Auto Show. “We changed up the floor plan, and 80 percent of the manufacturers came in with new displays.”

Leading the way are the Detroit Big Three automakers who want to show their hometown a wave of cutting-edge products from the versatile Chrysler Pacifica minivan to the stunning Buick Avista concept. But foreign manufacturers like Infiniti, VW and Mercedes also want to wow at the biggest auto show in the globe’s richest market.

The results are multimillion-dollar stages masterminded by the best entertainment talent on the planet.

Fiat Chrysler’s biggest-in-show stand is a global effort coordinating companies including: GPJ, which has organized displays at the Olympics, Times Square and London’s Piccadilly Square; Lite Structures, an English global aerial architecture company; Seibo, a Los Angeles video display shop; and New York’s James Klein Events, which has produced shows for music festivals, MTV and more.

The 60,000-square-foot showcase — more than an acre and a half — contains 30 million pixels of high-definition LED screens, 40 miles of cable and a backroom control panel that Fiat Chrysler show and events manager Bo Puffer said “looks like it came out of a 747 aircraft.”

In addition to floor-to-ceiling LED screens, Seibo wrapped columns with 3-D video that GPJ’s Tulloch says is “game-changing technology.”

Executing a theme brainstormed by Fiat Chrysler, the round pillars help connect LED circles above every brand display into a sort of “gear mechanism” that links all seven FCA brands.

Every hour their screens are synchronized into a single 18-minute LED “superstorm” showing 21/2 minutes of video from each brand. It was not uncommon during preview week to see visitors videotaping it with their smartphones.

According to Troy-based Foresight Research, 50 percent to 55 percent of visitors purchase or lease a car within a year of attending an auto show.

“The best way we can use these displays is to immerse our customers into it,” Puffer said.

Ford estimates attendees will spend an average of 45 minutes at its massive display, which was totally remade for the first time in 10 years.

Eighteen months in the making, its centerpiece is a 360-degree, ultra-high-def LED screen — flanked by two-story LED walls — that acts as an exhibit halo. Every hour, the front LED banks close like sliding doors, sealing off the 360-degree display for a “Fusion takeover moment” that highlights Ford’s updated midsize sedan.

Ford worked with London’s Imagination Group, which has also staged NFL games in Europe.

“This is by far the biggest structural build we’ve ever done,” said Garett Carr, Ford’s display coordinator.

Ford actually dug two escalator pits to whisk showgoers to a second-floor balcony where kids can put together Ford GT snap kits in the shadow of the supercar and Ford F-150 Raptor.

Inside Hall C, luxury rivals Mercedes and Cadillac are engaged in a retina-searing LED arms race. Cadillac brought to this year’s fight a stunning, semicircular “oculus” LED wall, where it is showing off new toys like the Cadillac CT6 and XT5.

Infiniti, too, got the bends. To match the sexy curves of its new Q50 and Q60, Infiniti installed a sweeping, 112-foot-by-16-foot megascreen display. It features videos on a 3.9 mm pixel pitch — much tighter than the 20-40 mm-spaced displays typically used at rock concerts and Times Square. The display was coordinated by XL Video in Los Angeles.

“We use a much tighter pixel pitch because our customers are standing just inches from the screen,” said Joe Samfilippo, senior manager, Brand Engagement, at Infinity, who says it reflects the attention to detail in their products.

Drink it all in. While automakers say they will take elements of their displays on the road, Detroit, Frankfurt and Shanghai are the mothers of all auto exhibits. “Most other shows don’t allow us quite so much space and flexibility,” says Cadillac communications manager David Caldwell.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne.

Detroit auto show

Public show: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. (no admittance after 9 p.m.) Saturday through Jan. 23; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. (no admittance after 6 p.m.) Jan. 24

Admission: $13 adults; $7 age 7-12, and age 65 and over; free age 6 and under

Location: Cobo Center, 1 Washington Blvd., Detroit