Alumni Duo Light Up Las Vegas with Ingenuity, Invention

Monday, July 27, 2020
Michael Cox and Scott Ohlmiller stand by a lighted sign reading "Watchfire Signs" along with images of the lighted canopy over Fremont Street.

Watchfire Signs’ Michael Cox and Scott Ohlmiller are 2001 alumni who played key roles in the high-tech display that’s been dazzling Las Vegas’ Fremont Street Experience visitors since its unveiling on New Year’s Eve.

Las Vegas’ high rollers aren’t the only ones saying “go big or go home.”

It also could classify the massive engineering challenge that’s reaffirmed the City of Lights’ reputation, with the world’s largest video screen being updated into a spectacular high-tech display that’s dazzled awe-struck visitors since being unveiled on New Year’s Eve.

The technical know-how and can-do spirit of 2001 alumni Michael Cox and Scott Ohlmiller played key roles in Watchfire Signs’ development and installation of the unique light-emitting, diode-based canopy that’s transformed downtown Las Vegas’ popular Fremont Street Experience into a dramatic display providing clear and captivating content night and day.

“Everything about this project was big,” says Cox, the company’s senior manager of electrical engineering projects.

Not only was the project’s $30 million cost huge, but it also had the following massive dimensions:

• The canopy is 1,377 feet long (a little bigger than 4½ football fields).

• There are 49 million LEDs emitting light from 64,192 custom-made modules.

• A total of 16.3 million total pixels create a resolution quality of 15,104 by 1,088 – seven times brighter and four times sharper than the original from the early 2000s.

The end result is a display that’s used to showcase advertisements, live events, and concerts, and featured in a free musically driven light show that operates every hour beginning at dusk until midnight (1 a.m. during the summer) and lasts six minutes. Annually, more than 23 million visitors travel to Fremont Street to experience the canopy and adjacent casinos and restaurants.

Cox was among officials from Watchfire Signs that visited the location in August 2015 to get an idea of the project’s scope, examine the original display, and determine if the company could complete the many technical tasks – on time and within cost. After all, a project of this magnitude was unchartered territory for the Danville, Illinois-based company. Cox played a key role in developing the successful project bid, trying to design enough on paper to come up with an accurate system cost and defining project requirements.

“There were A LOT of unknowns, much more than any of our other projects,” states the electrical engineering alumnus.

Ohlmiller, the firm’s technical lead electrical engineer, created a new electronic control system for the display, featuring eight synchronized greater-than-high-definition sections. He also helped design the initial module prototype, assisted software engineers in the design of the project’s control system, including embedded software, and was as anxious as anyone while being on-site when the first of eight sections were turned on in Las Vegas for the first time.

“With the installation split into monthly phases, we needed to keep as much of the canopy as possible in operation throughout the installation, which required running synchronously off two different video systems,” says Ohlmiller, a computer engineering graduate who also has worked on large video displays in New York City’s Times Square and throughout Chicago. “We designed a completely new system that would keep each of the eight independent systems synchronized. The final control system is a combination of off-the-shelf components and a custom design that could be configured on-site after manufacturing.”

Through their efforts, Watchfire designed the project’s modules to be cut when fitting around pillars, wires, and other structural impediments so as to minimize the impact on the overall display. Perforations in each module also let daylight filter through and air circulate, critical for dispersing heat in Las Vegas’ desert location and illuminating the street below. High contrast materials and innovative light-trapping designs combine to make it possible to run content on the canopy during the day – something that was impossible with the previous design.

“We designed the wiring so that most of it was done here (Danville) and there wasn’t much to do in the field,” says Cox. “All data connections were designed with waterproof quick-connect fittings, so it is easy to install. The old system had large transformers that needed to be mounted and hardwired on top of the canopy. We removed all of that. Now everything is in or on each subframe.”

As you might imagine, the project’s construction also required ingenuity and teamwork. There were 59 shipments to deliver 1,000 subframes of modules. Each module was tested and calibrated prior to shipment. The first shipment arrived in April 2019 as workers began removing the old façade from the canopy. Installation began in May, with the goal of completing the canopy in eight discreet sections by December. Each section was completed and tested before preparations began on the next section. Back in Danville, Watchfire employees stayed one section ahead of the installation crew. As progress was made during the summer, content played on sections of both the new and old displays. Visitors were able to see the stark difference in brightness and resolution. The final shipment left the factory in October and the project was completed ahead of schedule and within budget.

“We are a team of innovators, combining new design with in-field excellence in service and support. This was an all-hands-on-deck project for Watchfire, and nearly every employee was involved in some way,” says Watchfire Signs President and Chief Executive Officer Steve Harriott. “We had to get very creative to develop a unique product that met all the distinctive needs for Fremont Street … Interest in this product has been very high and we’re looking forward to using it for other projects.”

Cox adds, “As a fairly small company, we’re often asked to understand things outside of our area of expertise. This project, especially, threw a few curve balls our way. There were things within our area, such as a unique power system, to other things not electrical related, such as reading architectural drawings to understand the existing system. The broad education from Rose-Hulman certainly helped in this specific project, as well as the day-to-day tasks that come our way.”

Click here to check out a video about the Fremont Street Experience. 

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