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The Lost Neon Signs Of Las Vegas, Resurrected

It’s not just Vegas celebs that are getting the hologram treatment.

Las Vegas is famous for its signs, which dazzle and delight along the Strip, advertising places of luxury, sin, and, exuberance. Even in the 1950s, the city was known for its signage, and designers created bombastic arrays of lights and neon for the city’s hotels and casinos.

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But when older buildings from that era started to be demolished, the designers of those old neon signs banded together and advocated for the city to save them. The collection of those vintage signs eventually turned into the Las Vegas Neon Museum, which has an outdoor “boneyard” that displays more than 200 signs, works of art that tell the story of the city itself.

[Photo: Las Vegas Neon Museum]
Many of these signs are old and broken, with smashed bulbs and neon that no longer lights up. But a new permanent installation at the museum uses projection mapping to give these historic signs a new life. Called Brilliant!, the installation was created by the experience designer Craig Winslow, who’s previously used the technology to recreate ghostly signs from previous eras on their modern-day buildings.

In Vegas, visitors enter the outdoor space to find the signs in their real, dilapidated state before they slowly start to light up, one by one. Surround- sound speakers make it seem like music–classics from Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dean Martin–is coming from the signs themselves. There’s one from the Golden Nugget, which was one of the biggest casinos in old Las Vegas, another from the Lady Luck casino, and a third from the Sweetheart hotel–all with vibrant colors, over-the-top typefaces, and come-hither designs. A giant horseshoe advertising Binion’s casino is one of the largest signs in the installation, and its claim to fame was that it featured eight miles of neon tubing in its heyday. “You’re immersed in this feeling of old vintage Las Vegas,” Winslow says.

All the light is coming from eight projectors, which are clustered on two different towers above the signs. Winslow painstakingly used a technique called structured light scanning to evaluate the field of view for each projector. He then used photography and drone video to recreate each sign, coding how and where each projector should light up to create the effect. The flickering animations that make the lights look like they’re slowly turning on were then added separately in a custom-built program for the project. “It was like making a half hour-long immersive music video,” Winslow says.

But from the images, it looks just like the signs have been turned on again. “[Visitors] swear these bulbs are lighting up. A couple minutes in, you don’t think about the towers or the projectors–it’s just happening,” Winslow says.

Projection mapping is a common and, for Winslow’s purposes, convenient form of augmented reality. It’s the same technology used to bring holograms to life on Vegas’s stages. Crucially, it doesn’t require anyone to wear glasses or goggles or headbands, like AR and VR do. “When done right it’s just something you can observe and be apart of,” he says. “It’s one of the most exciting mediums that’s blending together the digital and physical world in a way that’s very natural.”

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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