Rising a majestic 1,250 feet from the epicenter of Manhattan Island, the Empire State Building is one of the most powerful symbols of New York City and perhaps the most recognizable building in the world. As such, an almost overwhelming mass of tourists pass through its doors each year—some 3.5 million—to make their way up to its famous observatories.
To make the experience for these visitors as impressive as the structure itself, The Empire State Building Observatory (ESBO) is debuting the results of a four-year, $165 million renovation that includes the addition of tech-driven features that enrich the vertical adventure and guide the rest of one’s stay in New York. These technology appointments were carried out through a collaboration between AV integrator Diversified and creative digital studio Squint/Opera.
“Managing the technology integration of the Empire State Building’s reimagination project was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Travis Heitchew, enterprise program manager at Diversified. “To bring modern and experiential exhibit technology to such a historic and iconic symbol for not only New York City, but the entire world, was a tremendous undertaking. I am so proud of the results and the Diversified team who stepped up to deliver a truly inspiring experience for all future ESBO visitors.”
“Most visitors, when they come to New York, the Empire State Building is the first place they go,” added Holly Houghton, head of production at Squint/Opera. “With this experience, visitors can orient themselves to the city and find unexpected places that they can go visit for the rest of their time.”
When guests arrive on the 80th floor, they come upon a series of touchscreen kiosks. Powered by data from NYC & Company, they serve up activity suggestions for tourists based on their length of stay in the city and their interests. “At the end they can either email it to themselves, scan a QR code, or just take a photo of it, and walk away with recommendations for 10 places to go that you never would have thought of,” Houghton said.
From there, visitors pass by some displays showing content such as a video on the design of the lighting systems that dramatically bring the building’s crown to life at night, as well as a massive 12-foot-long, 8-foot-high Leyard TWA Series LED video wall in a 5x4 configuration with a 1.2mm pixel pitch showcasing a selection of some of the best photographs of the Empire State Building in recent years. In these areas, directional pendant speakers provide audio while keeping noise bleed low.
Guests then progress to a circle of viewfinders, much like the ones located on the outdoor observatory deck on the 86th floor. Inside of each is a 360-degree video shot in a different location throughout the city, including Grand Central Terminal, Central Park, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Using accelerometers and spatial audio, visitors can pan through immersive representations of city landmarks that are visible from the building.
"Creating the audio for each of the different viewfinders meant capturing the real moments that happen at these iconic New York City locations every day and layering these recordings to recreate an immersive soundscape that really draws you into the heart of the city," said Rory White, composer and sound designer at Antfood, a creative audio studio that collaborated with Squint/Opera on the exhibits.
“The idea is as a visitor, you come here, go all through downstairs through the museum and galleries that tell you all about the building, then you come up here to the 80th floor, this is your first view,” Houghton said. “This is your first opportunity to take a breath, and look around. You’re technically still in line for the elevators to get to the 86th floor, but no one knows it.”
The experience doesn’t stop after coming down from the 86th or 102nd floor observatories, either. Their descent leads them back to the 80th floor, where they can use self-service kiosks to find and purchase their photos from their visit. According to Squint/Opera, these use facial recognition technology to locate each guest’s picture quickly.
Lastly, a series of interactive touchscreen kiosks with Intel RealSense cameras provide a parting treat for visitors. Displaying a dense mosaic of social media-tagged photos from the top of the building, users’ silhouettes are rendered live onscreen in the form of pointillism—with nighttime images making up the dark parts of their body’s outline. When touched, the displays magnify areas of images, so guests can look for their own posts.
“What began with the new observatory entrance opening in August 2018 is now as we intended: a fully educational and immersive journey which connects visitors from around the world to their emotional connections to the World’s Most Famous Building and helps them design their entire visit to New York City from the center of it all,” said Anthony E. Malkin, chairman and CEO of Empire State Realty Trust. “The completed Empire State Building Observatory elevates our guests’ experience, from our new entrance to the dramatic and exciting new 102nd floor. At 88 years young, the Empire State Building remains the icon of innovation, aspirations, and dreams, and is the vibrant ancestor of all tall buildings around the world.”