Tech and the City

May 1, 2007
Digital displays, design make the HBO Shop as changeable as its shows are different

By Christine Lewers

HBO officials had more than an inkling that there was a market for "Sex and the City" handbags and "The Sopranos"* humidors.

"We had a lot of passersby stopping into the lobby of our headquarters wanting to purchase show-related merchandise," says James Costos, HBO's vice president of licensing and retail, explaining why the company decided to transform a small portion of its headquarters' lobby in New York into retail space. "We wanted to satisfy that hunger and also showcase the wide range of content we offer."

The resulting HBO Shop at 1100 Avenue of the Americas does both and more. The store, which opened in December 2006, is a multimedia marketing tool that grabs attention from the street and entices people into the store using a series of windowfront video displays. Inside, shoppers are immersed in show-themed environments created by lighting, audio, and video that change to make shoppers feel like they've traveled from, say, ancient Rome to northern New Jersey in moments.

To make it all happen, HBO partnered with Gensler's New York office and design agency Imaginary Forces. HBO had worked with Gensler on previous projects and Imaginary Forces was brought on board because of the company's reputation for integrating content with architecture in groundbreaking ways, says Costos.

"HBO told us, 'We don't want to be a shop that just sells stuff,'" says Gensler principal Lance Boge. "But the question was how do you make a visual experience that addresses the shows? They have multiple shows, and each has its own look and multiple personalities. They couldn't be changing shelving and merchandise all the time."

Instead, designers created an architectural template onto which integrated video, projection, and lighting could make the store change without changing the store. They did it by devising a way to "float" large-format video screens in the space and set a 30-foot-long LED ribbon into a perimeter wall. In addition, they encased the shop in acid-etched white glass walls that serve as a projection surface and also act as a sponge that soaks up the changing colors of overhead lights.

Medialon show control software directs the HBO Shop's audio, lighting, projection, LED, and plasma displays to create show-themed immersive environments for shoppers. Here, a 33-foot-long Daktronics media ribbon ends at the rear of the shop. The content it displays is designed to lead shoppers to the store's checkout area.

Glass Boxes
The small space challenged designers, says Boge. The shop is a mere 750 square feet, shaped as an upside-down L to accommodate HBO's ground-level security-camera room and a subway entrance next door.

Despite the shop's short stature, its main attraction is big. Four parallel, large-format screens displaying video recede from the storefront window to the right of the shop's entrance. By encasing the displays in glass vitrines attached to structural glass walls, designers kept the space looking open, deep, and clutter-free.

"We made a decision early on not to see merchandise from the street," says Boge. Items for sale are tucked behind screens, the idea being that the impact of the video displays would attract and draw people into the store, where merchandise is then revealed. From the street, the screens appear to be suspended in midair.

The layering from front to back of large-format video displays in the shop acts as a 3-D canvas for content.

As a group, the displays gave Imaginary Forces producers what they wanted: a large, 3-D canvas for content. "We came up with a notion, which was described at the beginning as 'serial video' - serial in the sense that you enter the store and there is layering of displays from front to back that lends itself to a wide variety of experiences. Sometimes you see the same thing, sometimes the screens are offset in time, and sometimes the screens show different scenes that relate to each other," says Imaginary Forces producer Abby Okin.

Anchoring the displays is a 5- by 9½-foot Daktronics ProStar® LED display set 3 feet back from the store's window. LED works in the front window because it's bright enough to compete with sunlight, says Daktronics project manager Josh Henslin. The pixels are so densely placed that the image stands up under viewing distances less than 3 feet. That's important here because the display is just feet away from pedestrians.

Behind the LED display and parallel to it are a series of three high-resolution 65-inch Panasonic plasma screens in portrait mode. All four displays are held in back-painted opaque glass vitrines of similar sizes, reflecting the dimensions of the larger LED. The LED vitrine is open on the display side, while opaque glass, with a portion remaining clear to reveal the plasma displays, covers the fronts of the three rear vitrines.

"Literally they're glass boxes," says project architect Carlos Espinosa about the vitrines, which were fabricated by Feature Factory and structurally engineered by Arup. Supporting the glass enclosures are metal frames bolted to the structural glass walls. Each wall is made up of two floor-to-ceiling sheets of ½-inch, ultraclear, low-iron glass with a laminated interlayer.

"In concept it's simple, but in execution it was rather complicated because you're working with glass and metal," says Espinosa. Holes for bolts to pass through the glass walls had to be made before the glass went through the tempering process. Venting was an issue, too. Thin metal grates were made to fit over the top of the vitrines to release heat. Conduit concealed by rectangular metal boxes passes from the ceiling through the grates.

The screens are connected architecturally by a low, floating ceiling that hovers above them and adds to the depth of the displays' grouping from inside and outside the store. The ceiling and the floor tiles beneath displays are gray, further focusing attention from the street onto the screens by visually boxing them off from the rest of the store's white floors and walls.

A Show in a Shop
Imaginary Forces had more than the storefront displays as a canvas for content. The shop features a 1¼- by 33-foot custom LED ribbon display by Daktronics set back into the wall about 1½ feet, creating an inlet where the display acts as a backdrop for props from the shows. The ribbon starts on the left entrance side of the store and makes a right turn at the rear of the store. Imagery displayed on it is continuous with motion designed to draw shoppers toward the back of the store, where two Chief-ceiling-mounted Christie digital video projectors throw 6-foot-high by 8-foot-wide video imagery onto facing walls.

"We provided HBO with creative guidelines on how we saw the video working," says Okin. These guidelines were developed as different play modes including:

  • Ambient - Showcases how the media performs without direct storytelling.
  • Promotional - Uses the media together to promote one or more specific shows, brand entities, or events.
  • Crescendo - Builds the entire store into a climatic crescendo moment highlighting the HBO brand.
  • Rest - Features a fully graphic treatment that provides a break from more intense visuals.

During these modes the LEDs, plasmas, and projection don't necessarily show the same content, but content might be related and works together by reacting and playing off each other.

Electrosonic Inc. used a Dataton Watchout system to produce and deliver content across multiple outputs. The system's production software lets HBO staff sequence and animate visuals created in other applications by dragging and dropping files onto a stage window. content is transferred and fed into the store's Medialon AV control system using a portable device.

From that point, Medialon communicates with all the shop's source devices. These include one display computer per display output in the store. Each display computer runs Dataton software that makes all calculations required for content created in one file to play back on displays of different sizes, shapes, resolutions, and splits. That way HBO staff can concentrate on the creative aspects of the programming, says Okin. "Given a three-dimensional immersive space in which every surface is a clean slate, you have to approach content development in a much different way," he says. "It's tricky to visualize without seeing it all around you in the space."

Setting the Stage with Color and Sound
Mood lighting and audio are also funneled through the Medialon control system and change to support whatever is showing on the displays. But getting light and sound to work correctly in the store took planning.

Designers wanted to use lighting to make the shop's 14-foot perimeter walls change color, says project designer Todd Rubin with Gensler. For example, when the displays feature scenes from The Sopranos, the walls would turn blood red.

Walls turn blood red as scenes from The Sopranos are displayed.

The design team set up lighting fixtures in their office to see how different types of glass would absorb colored light. They settled on back-painted glass (bone white and manufactured by Natali Glass) with an acid-etched front surface that soaks up the light like a screen. "That's what makes the space so dynamic," says Rubin.

Designers also needed to plan around the perimeter of the shop for a continuous ceiling cove to hold Color Kinetics ColorBlaze fixtures provided by architectural lighting design firm HDLC in New York. "It allowed for extreme color saturation and at the same time punched the light down the tall walls," says lighting designer Michael Castelli about the lights, which are from Color Kinetics' high-intensity RGB system, fully programmable to allow for special effects such as sparkles or pulsations of light to move across the walls.

High-intensity Color Kinetics ColorBlaze fixtures set into a continuous ceiling cove wash the store's back-painted, acid-etched walls in rich colors.

Castelli designed another system to light merchandise using RSA Lighting MR16 fixtures and a Lutron control system so "if you're buying a white T-shirt, it's cast with pure white light and not changing color with the store envelope," he says. To light objects in front of the media ribbon without washing it out, he tucked controlled distribution Winona V-line LEDs inside the white glass wall.

Making sure the shop's audio came through loud and clear was an issue, too, says Espinosa. "Early on in the job we realized we needed acoustic control because all the walls are glass," he says. Acoustic consultants recommended an acoustic plaster by German manufacturer Sto Silent that was troweled onto low-hanging ceiling boards above the large displays. "It only comes in an off-white color, but we wanted a gray ceiling to contrast with the white walls. It was a little difficult to paint, but it worked," he says.

So far the HBO Shop is working, too, says Costos, and it couldn't have been done without technology. "The design, implementation, and final product make it a consumer retail space like no other," he says. "There are thousands of people passing by and entering the store every month. Those impressions are invaluable."

*HBO®, THE SOPRANOS®, SEX AND THE CITY®, and the HBO SHOPTM are service marks of Home Box Office Inc. [back to article]

Finish materials (floor/wall/ceiling):
Audio/Visual - Daktronics
Ceilings - STO Corp.
Fixtures, Mannequins/Forms, Props & Decoratives - Feature Factory
Flooring - Stone Source
Lighting - Color Kinetics Inc., Winona Lighting, Lutron Electronics Inc.
Signage/Graphics - Beyond Signs
Wallcoverings and Materials - Natali Glass Inc.

Watch the video of this installation.

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