Experiential Light and Sound

April 23, 2007
Interactive LED system creates light and sound experience at Rockefeller Center

By Craig DiLouie

When Rockefeller Center in New York City prepared to reopen its top-floor observation decks, retailer Target saw a branding opportunity that became realized through an innovative, interactive, LED system designed by Electroland LLC.

Target had acquired a 20- by 20-foot room connecting the north and south observation decks on the 69th floor, called the Target Breezeway, and wanted to distinguish the space by making it experiential for people passing through.

"We were given an absolutely impossible task," says Cameron McNall, principal of Electroland, a firm that designs interior and large-scale urban installations typically with a strong technology component. First, he points out, the room has only one wall; two other sides are all doors, and the fourth side is all glass and visually connects with another space. "In addition to the lack of walls, the ceiling is only 8.5 feet tall, and it was determined that we could only have about 4 inches of ceiling depth to work with, and we could do nothing with the floors," he adds.

To make things even more challenging, the building team had 5 months to come up with a concept and get it built in time for the opening.

As each visitor enter the Target Breezeway space, he or she is auotmatically assigned a "personality" by a 3-D tracking system and is then followed by an individual signature of light colors and patterns.

McNall and partner Damon Seeley, interaction designer, conceptualized an immersive interactive light and sound experience. As each visitor enters the space, he or she is automatically assigned a "personality" by a 3-D tracking system and is then followed by an individual signature of light colors and patterns. Visitors, directly engaged by the space, can move around and watch their personal "avatar" respond to their movements on the glowing walls and ceiling. Meanwhile, the Target brand is represented by the company's bull's-eye logo on light fixtures integrated into the system; otherwise, the entire room is lighted with LEDs.

Lighting Takes the Lead
"How do you make this possible?" McNall recalls asking himself during the conceptual stage of the project. "How do you communicate interactivity without being intrusive? The Breezeway space is not a gallery or museum, so people have no forewarning about what they are walking into. We had to devise ways to grab people's attention immediately, and then give them a little more to explore."

The use of lighting as a leading interactive element also presented an additional challenge: The space received several hours of strong daylight each day. As a result, the lighting would have to be bright to avoid being overpowered by daylight.

One of the challenges of the system was to enable the lighting to be bright enough to grab attention despite a strong daylight component several hours each day.

To accomplish their ambitious concept, the design team decided on LEDs for three reasons: First, they regarded LEDs as extremely compact, long-lasting, and able to produce a lot of light for relatively little power. Second, LEDs can be easily dimmed and are capable of special color effects. Third, the resulting granularity of the LEDs enabled lighting effects scaled to each visitor.

"Because of the tight schedule until the opening and the zero tolerance for any delay, we had to go with mostly off-the-shelf light components that actually existed in warehouses and were ready to go," says Seeley. They decided on Color Kinetics' iColor Cove MX Powercore units, and found white strip lights from another vendor. The Target logo fixtures were custom-fabricated.

Approximately 1,300 of the Color Kinetics units were used within individually controllable 1-foot "pixels," with four units per pixel. Seeley and McNall lined the entire ceiling, one wall, and most of the other pilasters with this LED package. "It is a very intense concentration of more than 20,000 LEDs," Seeley adds.

Finely-tuned Theatrics
The next step was to make the room experiential by relating the LEDs to a control system that interacted with users of the space in some manner. The resulting complete system consists of a tracking system that translates video data to a control computer, which then provides data to data enablers that in turn control the lights.

The 3-D tracking system can track up to 30 people at a time.

Seeley and McNall engaged TYZX Inc., which provided a four-camera stereo vision tracking system. This system's job is to sense the location of up to 30 people in the space. A control computer translates the video into location data and control instructions using code written by the design team. The resulting data is then sent to Color Kinetics data enablers, which provide control signals to the lighting.

"With each interactive response, we had to ask: "How loud? How bright? How often? Where, and in what way?" Seeley points out. The process, he says, involved significant fine-tuning to get the timing and theatrical element just right.

Meanwhile, four JBL architectural speakers are embedded into the ceiling for sound, receiving signals from the same control computer. The Target logo fixtures are controlled by a customized low-voltage dimmer. And Electroland can continuously monitor the space remotely from their Los Angeles offices via a live webcam, and can upload and adjust new patterns from there. New patterns are tested regularly.

"The visitor response has been terrific. People understand immediately that they are in some sort of folly, and seem to enjoy the space, whether they just walk through it or remain to dance around and explore it more fully."   --  Damon Seeley, interaction designer, Electroland

"The visitor response has been terrific," says Seeley. "People understand immediately that they are in some sort of folly, and seem to enjoy the space, whether they just walk through it or remain to dance around and explore it more fully."

McNall adds: "The space represents an attempt to translate video-game interactivity, computer intelligence, and personalized electronic experiences into an environmental experience."

Craig DiLouie, a journalist, analyst, and consultant, is principal at ZING Communications Inc. (


Building Owner: Rockefeller Center

Client: Target Corp.

Design Team: Electroland LLC. Cameron McNall, principal; Damon Seeley, partner and interaction designer; Eitan Mendelowitz, programmer and junior designer

Photography: Electroland LLC.

Manufacturers: Color Kinetics (LED units), TYZX Inc. (tracking system)

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