How to get the most out of your budget TouchDesigner installation
I know over the years I’ve been adamant about using only the best gear you can get such as Quadro GPUs. This will almost always save you a lot of headache in the long run. But what do you do if you flat out just can’t afford those things? What if the “client” is a friend and it’s your first project? What if you’re trying to pay the bills and want to spend less money on hardware? Let’s take a look at some quick tips to help you get the most out of your budget TouchDesigner installations.
Lots of projects just need a lot of coverage. Whether the content is completely unique or not is secondary. You just want to fill a giant wall with projections or fill a bunch of screens with content. Trying to send unique signal to each and every single one is an easy way to spend money. Whether you go for a better GPU with more outputs (although you should be able to get something with 4 outputs these days on the cheap), or you’re looking at buying Datapath fx4, these things cost a lot of money. One easy thing you can do is use video splitters. The idea is that you send one signal into the input of a splitter, and you have the same signal coming out of multiple outputs from the little unit, like in the picture below:
Why is this useful? You can save money on the computer/video end of your hardware because video splitters are dirt cheap. If you have 4 outputs on a GPU, buy four 1×4 video splitters (1 in, 4 out), and all of a sudden you can get directly connected to 16 screens/projectors for cheap. Just make sure you buy multiple of the same splitter if you can, it can help avoid tearing or EDID issues when you have a bunch plugged in. The content wont be unique but you’ll have to be creative to make it work, and trust me it can work.
Use mirrors and lenses
Sometimes you need more coverage than you can afford with your projectors. Even trying to get the shortest throw possible isn’t enough. This is where mirrors come in. You can bounce your projection off of mirrors to do a number of things. The first being that you can probably gain another few feet of projection distance (which is a lot for a short throw) by using a flat mirror. Essentially you point your projector backwards away from the wall, shoot the image into the mirror, then move your mirror around and bounce the light back to the wall. The bigger the mirror, the easier this is…but then you also have a giant pane of glass randomly at your gig. So you’ll have to play this by ear. Usually small mirrors are pretty easy to protect, especially since they’ll be near your projector anyways and you’ll want to protect that as well. The other thing you can do is use a convex mirror if you don’t mind your image being warped. In cases where it’s more abstract content, you can also get a bit of extra spread by bouncing your image off a convex mirror. A convex mirror is one that is curved like the one below:
You’ve probably seen them inside of stores and they can be referred to as “security mirrors” sometimes. Without getting too deep into optics, you can bounce your projection image off of one, and it’ll get stretched and become bigger. You can see a visual example in the image below, where the red lines (light) go towards the curved mirror (blue curved line), and bounce off on an angle, effectively making your projections larger:
You’ll want to try to get First-surface mirrors (FSM) if you can, because it’ll avoid ghosting your image on itself.
A secondary hack I won’t get much into, because it’s a bit more difficult and a little more expensive, is using the counter-part of mirrors: lenses. You can find an online store that sells optical goods and buy a concave lens. You can jerry-rig the lens to sit right in front of your projector and it’ll expand your image for you. See the image below, and if it tickles your fancy, go do more reading on the topic!
Get creative with LEDs
LED ropes are becoming more and more affordable as time goes on. The controllers are becoming easier to use both in terms of hardware and software, so finding interesting ways you can program LEDs and build them into things is a really viable way to create interest effects inside of spaces. The newer LED ropes can even be purchased with a bit of weatherproofing which makes them really easy to install even on a budget. We’ve worked on installations that were nothing more than lots of LED ropes built into a nice glowing arches that you could walk through. If you’re feeling creative and want to go for something more abstract, compared to screens and projectors, it’s worth looking at some examples of LED products you can get like the ones at Environmental Lights, or anything that can work with PixelPushers, or similar.
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Optimize your project
Wow, the most boring trick ever! But it really is the key to doing budget TouchDesigner installations. The more optimized a project is, the less powerful gear it needs to run on. All of the huge projects we work on that output 15k x 4k resolution and render all kinds of things in realtime, I essentially fully develop on a laptop because I’m able to keep things optimized as I’m working. Near the end of a project. I transition over to the target hardware or another desktop I have for fine tuning and testing. But it goes to show that with a bit of commitment to optimization, you can make lower power hardware go a long way. I have written a ton about optimization over the years, including having a few workshops that focus on optimization or that teach things that can be used to optimize projects, so I won’t say much more here.
Tune your rig
My god could it get any more boring?? Tuning your rig might sound exciting, but it really just means follow any guide online for optimizing the speed of your operating system. I imagine if you’re working on a budget TouchDesigner installation, you may very well be using a personal computer, which probably had all kinds of software and such installed over the years. The first thing you’ll want to do is give it a real solid clean up. Remove unnecessary apps, go through system schedulers and make sure there isn’t constantly some kind of Google Chrome or nVidia shenanigans running to check for updates, tone down any extra compositing the OS might be doing like transparency, turn off automatic software updates, etc etc. Watchout has a good guide for Windows 10 systems, and I wrote about a few tricks in another post on Win 7 vs Win 10. I wrote my own experience getting my hands on Windows 10 LTSB, which removes a lot of the cruft from Windows 10, on eBay for about 10$.
Whether it’s your first gig, a project for a friend, or a client that really needs to get a lot done without a huge budget, there are a lot of tricks you can use to make it feel less painful for you and more amazing for the client. Working with mirrors, lenses, projectors, LEDs, and splitters, can give you a few tools to expand what you already have without breaking the bank. You can also get significant gains in terms of what you can do on cheaper computers by spending some time to optimize your project and tune your system. If you bring all these things together with a bit of creativity, you’ll have a lot of success in your low-budget projects!