It’s easy to make the case that the Empire State Building (ESB) is the world’s most famous building. Since it opened in 1931, the ESB has captured the American imagination and been a fixture in popular culture, having been featured in more than 250 movies and TV shows—from the iconic climax of the 1933 film “King Kong” (and its many remakes), to the nostalgiafest “Ready Player One,” to more lighthearted, schlocky fare like “Sharknado 2.” It is one of New York NY’s most famous attractions, with more than four million annual visitors. And its world-famous lights have commemorated countless holidays and world events, both tragic and triumphant.
The ESB recently underwent a largescale reimagining intended to transform the journey from its ground floor up to its world-famous observation decks into an interactive multimedia experience befitting such an iconic destination. AV technology solutions provider Diversified was contracted to bring the Empire State Realty Trust’s vision to life, which included the design and installation of several interactive museum-like exhibits celebrating the ESB’s history and its cultural significance.
The Diversified team for the project was led by Project Manager Travis Heitchew, Lead Engineer Aaron Hickman and Site Supervisor Aubrey Dover. Diversified worked in conjunction with general contractor Skanska, exhibit design firms Thinc Designs and kubik maltbie, and content creator Squint/Opera.
According to Diversified, using AV technology to curate a complete visitor experience from the entrance to the observation decks on the 86th and 102nd floors was one of the main goals of the project. “The preexisting experience was really just a queue; you were just waiting to get to the top. And, as exciting as the top is, and as incredible the view up there is, they wanted to make it a journey [to get there],” Hickman said. “So, in adding the museum exhibits that highlight aspects of the building and aspects of the culture, the hope was to be able to create a user experience that was a journey from the bottom to the top.”
From the moment visitors enter the ESB on the ground floor, the wayfinding system is there to guide them through the entire experience. “Wayfinding was something that was very much on the forefront of [the client’s] mind because in a typical museum setting, guiding the visitor to where they need to go can be a challenge,” Hickman said. “And there was a really strong emphasis on working with Squint/Opera to create both seamless technology and content playback that would show people where to go, without having to station docents throughout the space and put up temporary signs. So, we placed a combination of both static and dynamic signage on the walls and overhead, and then made sure that the content that was driving those signs was accessible.”
There are wayfinding displays peppered throughout the exhibit spaces, from the ground floor all the way up to the observation decks. Hickman described the wayfinding system in depth. “Embedded in the floor, there are lines that subtly show you where to go, and people actually intuitively follow them. The lighting overhead follows those same lines. So, it’s like it’s illuminating your path up,” he explained. “The overhead digital wayfinding and the wall wayfinding are in line with those paths to show you where to go. Overhead wayfinding is Planar TVH 1.6 LED, and wall wayfinding is Planar UR7551-MX-ERO LED. Both are enclosed in a custom enclosure that [mimics] the Art Deco style of the building and has arrows that point where to go. So, not only is it a dynamic piece of signage that has LED video showing information, but the physical housing of it is also telling you where to go.”
The content-delivery system for the wayfinding displays was built with redundancy in mind. “What’s driving those displays is a custom content-management system [CMS] that was created by Squint/Opera, and it’s being played out by a combination of BrightSign XD1033 static media players and HP Z2 workstations,” Hickman said. “The wall wayfinding, which are larger 4K canvases, have more dynamic content that’s sort of data driven, so they’re pulling data feeds in and modifying that content in real time. Those are driven by HP workstations that are running the custom application. And that’s all being played out through Extron video matrices individual to each exhibit.”
Hickman explained, “[That allowed us] to provide a high level of redundancy and robustness and modularity in the systems, so that if one display or one type of exhibit went down, it didn’t take out the whole system. And then each system has a primary and backup player. For instance, if you have two overhead digital wayfinders, that’s two primary players, and then you’d have a shared backup. If the primary element fails, it automatically fails over to the backup player. You have a seamless transition that is virtually invisible to the end user, [which is important] because nobody wants a black screen. That just looks wrong.”
Next up is “World’s Most Famous Building,” which celebrates the ESB’s many appearances in film, television and other media. The exhibit is essentially a blackout space illuminated by a moving collage of images projection mapped onto an array of rectangular surfaces lining the walls. Visitors are awash in nostalgic scenes like Spider-Man web-slinging his way around Manhattan and Little Mac from “Punch- Out!!” jogging in his pink sweats; the ESB looms large in every clip.
“It’s a four-projector blend on a two-axis, curved, concave surface, but it’s a faceted surface,” Hickman described. “We went with Green Hippo as the playout and mapping engine because of their ability to do complex 3D geometry and warping, import custom UV meshes and have a consistent primary and failover redundancy. The display technology is Panasonic PT-RZ970 projectors, the same ones that we’re using everywhere else. Those have the ET-DLE060 short-throw lenses.” The display surfaces are MDF board painted with Screen Goo. An original audio score plays over six Community IC6-2082/26 speakers hidden in the shadows between the display surfaces.
According to Hickman, the projection-mapping setup ended up being a much more practical solution than what was originally planned. “The original concept was to have upwards of 75 various-sized LCD screens in different orientations, ranging from five inches all the way up to 75 inches,” he said. “It was a great concept, but it would be an enormous lift to be able to do that, in terms of installation, service and the amount of pixels that you’d have to drive. So, when we got onboarded, we looked at that and we raised these flags and said, ‘We think this might be better served as a projection map.’ And we did a proof of concept in our demo lab to show the client that we could do a projection map onto these multifaceted surfaces and mask out the in-between.”
Next up is a tribute to the ESB’s first and most iconic appearance on the silver screen: Visitors turn the corner and come face to face with Kong, “the Eighth Wonder of the World” himself, as he begins his tragic climb to the ESB’s peak. The appropriately named “King Kong” exhibit marries AVL with animatronics to provide visitors with an irresistibly Instagrammable photo op: They can even stand in for Fay Wray in the clutches of Kong’s mighty grip. According to Heitchew, the line for Kong selfies can get rather long.
“In this room, we have nine 98-inch Planar displays being powered by Alcorn McBride players,” Heitchew said. “We’re syncing all the content between all nine screens. You’ve got airplanes that fly by. King Kong goes from window to window. We also sync the lights—they flicker when he sneezes. And the hand twitches and vibrates, also. And that’s all being triggered off the Q-SYS system.” He continued, “Speaker-wise, you’ve got Dakota Audio MA5s—inside each one of the radiators, there’s a small speaker. And then, in the wall, you’ve got four Sonance IS4 C speakers.”
Beyond “King Kong” and down a corridor lined with images of the celebrities who have visited the ESB throughout the years, visitors can take the elevators up to the 80th-floor exhibits. On the 80th floor, one of the first exhibits visitors encounter is “NYC: Above and Beyond,” which features seven MultiTaction MT556XNB interactive kiosks. “This is a highly interactive area where people can plan their trip to New York City, to other sightseeing places, and get their itineraries printed,” Heitchew said. “The Multi-Taction blades actually move on a track. So, if they needed to be pushed out of the way for an event, you can slide everything back and forth.” To help tourists plan their trips, a Planar DL2 1.5 LED display on the wall shows prerecorded content about New York’s various attractions and the many culinary options available.
In the nearby “Artistry in Light” exhibit, a documentary about the ESB’s famous lighting ceremonies loops on four Planar displays. The displays are all playing synced content from Alcorn McBride media players, while synced audio plays via overhead Dakota FA-501 speakers. Also nearby is “Most Photographed,” which is essentially a 4800mm x 3375mm LED wall depicting a slideshow of famous and award-winning photographs of the ESB. “This is the exact same Planar TWA1.2 display that was downstairs in ‘Lighting Ceremony.’ It’s just one row bigger on the top,” Heitchew said. A single overhead Dakota FA-501 speaker handles the audio for this exhibit, and a Samsung PM32F display placed to the side of the LED wall provides information about the photographs.
Beyond there is the Stephen Wiltshire exhibit. Wiltshire, an artist known for his photographic memory and incredible landscapes, famously completed an 18-foot panorama drawing of New York City from memory after a 45-minute helicopter ride. This exhibit features a recreation of Wiltshire’s drawing on the wall, as well as a documentary about Wiltshire’s art that plays on a 75-inch NEC X754HB high-brightness display.
The Wiltshire exhibit features a high-brightness display because the 80th floor has a lot of windows, and that particular display is located in an area that is highly prone to glare. This was just one of the ways Diversified addressed the unique lighting profile of the 80th floor. “We had Buro Happold come in and do a light study on this floor,” Heitchew explained. “Having them do that light study was a key part of being able to select the right programing and technology for the 80th floor.”
Heitchew continued, “One of the cool things we have on the 80th floor is called Night Mode. We’re looking at an astronomical clock, and, whenever sunset hits on the Empire State Building, all the screens on the 80th floor dim. That way, we don’t take away from the sunset view outside, and we don’t get glare off the windows. It’s actually really cool to be in there right when sunset hits and watch everything—the lights change, the content changes and so does the brightness of the screens.”
The marquee exhibit on the 80th floor is called “Scenes of NYC.” It features seven tower viewers—the type typically found at the top of tall tourist attractions—manufactured by Tower Optical Company. Much like the site-survey transits on the second floor, each of these tower viewers actually has an Ikan S7H seven-inch LCD screen inside it. The viewers are all oriented toward famous New York landmarks, and, when visitors look through them, the screen inside displays a view of the landmark as if the visitor were looking at it through binoculars. This exhibit was also a close collaboration between Diversified and kubik maltbie.
“The cool thing is, kubik maltbie put Arduino boxes in there, so we’re measuring the amount of the turn and the pivot up and down. And Squint/Opera programmed the content so that it tracks with that. So, it’s not like you’re just looking at a flat image when you look through the viewer. You can pan and tilt the image, and it moves with you,” Heitchew said. “There are also speakers [embedded in the viewers]. So, when you walk up to the eyepiece, you’re not only seeing but [also] hearing what you’re looking at. It’s almost like a version of VR.”
Wrapping up the 80th floor is “Share Your Experience.” Four 75-inch Planar UR7551-MXTOUCH touchscreen displays are mounted within archways along the hallway, and visitors can post their pictures and selfies to social media with #EmpireStateBuilding to see their pictures pop up on these displays. “We have both touch capabilities here and two Intel RealSense D435 depth cameras. If you’re within a three-foot radius, the monitor reacts to you as you’re walking by. So, it kind of draws you back over to it and says, ‘Hey, come interact with me!’” Heitchew said. “We’ve got HP Z8 computers with very high-end graphics cards running that, and we’re processing a ton of data.”
From there, the only things left on the ESB tour are the 86th- and 102nd-floor observation decks. However, the views up there don’t need any AV assistance to create an unforgettable experience.
Heitchew wrapped up our discussion of the ESB upgrade by describing the control system, as well as how the system is operated and maintained. “About 90 percent of the control is show control going through Medialon and Q-SYS,” he said. “Q-SYS is our audio, which talks to Medialon via triggers, triggering different audio or video events to happen. The building is staffed with onsite AV technicians who have the ability, through iPads and Medialon web panels, to control the system from anywhere in the building.”
He continued, “There are four rack rooms of equipment that control all this. We’re on the building’s network. We’re not on a segregated AV network, but we have about six virtual local area networks [VLANs]—everything from control VLANs, to audio VLANs, to video VLANs. We also installed 32 Avigilon cameras that we use for monitoring the exhibits. And everything has a backup, as far as critical-path items, like playback engines and the CMS. If one of the HP machines were to fail or the CMS were to fail, we’re monitoring the heartbeats of all this equipment, and within 10 seconds of failing, it would automatically switch to a backup player so the screens wouldn’t go dark.”
All told, this was a memorable project for Diversified, and the team couldn’t have asked for a more amazing job site. “We can attest to the views up there,” Heitchew shared. “Almost every night—especially in the winter, around 4 o’clock, when the sun starts setting, and there was nobody up there except us—you’d kind of stop working, because every day was a different sunset. It was pretty cool.”
Article Credit – Sound & Communications
Image Credit – Sound & Communications
Image caption – The “Construction” exhibit is a 360-degree immersive space intended to recreate the feeling of working on one of the upper floors of the ESB site while it was being built. LED walls surround the exhibit, playing out prerecorded scenes. The room is populated by bronze sculptures of construction workers, and visitors are encouraged to pose for pictures with them.