Where [Digital] Worlds Collide
The Comcast Experience combines urban planning, environmental design, and public art to create a lively new gathering spot in downtown Philadelphia.
The new Robert A.M. Stern-designed Comcast Center tops off the Philadelphia skyline at 975 feet. And it breaks new ground on the ground floor as well, with an 85-ft.- by 25-ft. high-resolution video wall that turns a public transportation hub into a gigantic work of public art.
The Comcast Experience is the focal point of the building’s dramatic seven-story glass atrium, a hub for commuters arriving in downtown Philadelphia. It represents the first time that audio and video technology have been incorporated into a major urban building at such a large scale. The 10-million pixel video wall provides an 18-hour-a-day, high-definition palette for dynamic video content and computer-generated imagery.
It’s fast becoming a popular destination for commuters, workers, and spectators who want to relax and watch a show that celebrates life in the city and casts its workers as everyday heroes.
The Comcast Experience was conceived as a gift to the city from Comcast, the state’s largest employer and the building’s largest tenant, and the developer, Liberty Property Trust.
A core goal of the building design, as envisioned by John Gattuso, senior vice president of Liberty Property Trust, was to create a lobby/public space that would help energize downtown. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts wanted to create a “kinetic environment” in the lobby, and he turned to the Niles Creative Group (New York) to imagine content for a huge electronic display. Barco engineered and manufactured the 6,771 LED modules that make the spectacle possible.
Living up to the architecture
At 58 stories and nearly 1.4 million square feet, the Comcast Center looks like a gigantic faceted silver obelisk. It also shines inside, with a 110-ft.-high, light-flooded public winter garden that has become one of the city’s favorite watering holes. The lobby is a convergence of several urban spaces including a subway commuting station, a transit space for employees and visitors going into the building, and a gathering spot for those who pause to watch the show.
The Niles Creative Group’s vision for the Comcast Experience was as grand as the building itself. "We wanted to create a theatrical vision that would transform the Comcast corporate lobby into Philadelphia's Rockefeller Center," says executive producer/designer David Niles, who is best known for his work in television production and design.
To pull it off, the team created a rich library of high-resolution video footage, computer-generated imagery, real-time widgets, and a cast of virtual characters that add a touch of whimsy to the show.
An important aspect was the relationship between the video wall and the surrounding lobby space and atrium. The Niles team wanted to honor the beautiful architecture, including the grand lobby encased in reddish-blonde maple. They conceived a form of “virtual architecture,” creating video of the wood so that the Barco screens can blend seamlessly with the space. And that’s just the beginning of the show.
New media, new worlds
“It was exciting that both Comcast and Liberty approached this as a ‘new media’ project,” said Niles. “This meant that we weren’t just talking about digital signage, but the creation of an extraordinary environment in a public space, a spectacular and inspiring visual illusion that blurs the lines between reality and the unexpected.”
The Niles team created four different—but constantly interacting—visual planes for the video wall. The Behind the Wood Wall exists as if there was no wood wall and you could see right through it to scenes in nature and outer space, glimpses of city life, and local sports celebrities. The Wood Wall includes content such as flat art and two-dimensional text messages. The Audience Viewing Wood Wall is a world that exists slightly in front of the video wall and features entertaining vignettes of computer-generated imagery such as silk-rope acrobats and an intricate clock-assembly sequence. Finally, the Live Interactive Wall is a digital backdrop for live performances by real people, including concerts and seasonal events. The wall can be synchronized to the specific activities, providing a custom, dynamic backdrop.
The four content “worlds” mix and collide all day long, seeming to appear on the screen randomly, sometimes more than one at a time. Real-time community service information, including time, temperature, and weather messaging widgets, a Dow Jones ticker, and regional traffic reports, appear on the screen along with other vignettes.
The cast of characters
To add depth and a touch of whimsy to the content, Niles also created a cast of characters who star in a series of short video segments satirizing various work and entertainment moments. The characters, who represent average working Philadelphians, often interact with imagery from the other content modes. In a popular vignette that features a huge clock assembly, for example, the characters hang onto skyhooks helping to assemble the clock. In another scene they appear as window washers, lowering themselves on scaffolds against the video wall as if to clean it. Dressed in typical office attire, they dance atop elevator entrances and twirl on silver hoops hanging from the ceiling.
Because of their surreal bent, the characters are among the most popular elements of the experience. "One of the rules of entertainment is that people like to watch other people doing things,” says Niles. “So we combined that with another rule, which is that people like to see people doing extraordinary things in a fun or surrealistic way. Our guiding point was to create imagery of the unexpected, which is what people really like to look at."
Never the same show twice
The video wall is on 18 hours a day but never repeats itself. "One way The Comcast Experience is unique is that it creates each show on an ongoing basis without human intervention,” explains Niles. "The content development's guiding hand is an AI (Artificial Intelligence) editing engine that scans its database of video vignettes and assembles montages that play out during specific time periods. The show is never the same twice."
The AI editing engine assembles combinations of images based on time of day (morning, noon, and evening) and the implied emotional state during that time. Each vignette has an attached meta tag that describes its visual content, time of day reference, and implied emotional state. Thus the AI editing engine is constantly reading and sorting meta tags into hourly presentations. For example, in the early morning when people are entering the building, the display shows more “charged” pieces to help them get their day started. In the afternoon, the tempo is slowed down a bit. “It's all designed to put a smile on people's faces and lift their spirits up as they go through the day," Niles adds.
The video wall has definitely achieved Comcast CEO Brian Roberts’ goal of creating a “kinetic environment.” It’s so successful, in fact, that it has become a downtown hot spot for Philadelphians and tourists alike.
"The public’s reaction has been amazing," says Emmora Irwin, co-producer on the Niles team. “A lot of people have become regulars who return several times a week to see it. Some even bring lawn chairs. Our audiences are so excited, people are even applauding after each show."
Comcast is also pleased that its gift to the city has been well received. "We’ve been stunned by the reaction,” says Karen Dougherty Buchholz, Comcast vice president of administration. “It’s been such a pleasure to see people gather in our lobby watching it, smiling, and applauding.” Comcast wants those smiles to stay, so Buchholz says the company is committed to developing new content over time to keep the wall fresh and excitin
[Sidebar] Behind the Screens
The Comcast installation has been described as the world’s largest four-millimeter LED wall. Manufactured by Barco, the 83.3-ft.-wide by 25.4-ft.-high wall is comprised of 6,771 Barco NX-4 LED modules. With 10 millon pixels mounted in a seamless flat array, the wall provides an extremely high degree of photo-realism—five times that of HDTV or three times the resolution of IMAX. Behind the scenes, Barco image processing equipment includes six DX-700 LED digitizers, seven Encore Video Processors and three MatrixPRO routers.
"This project raises the bar for integrating video displays in urban architectural environments,” says Steve Scorse, Barco’s vice president of sales and marketing. “We can now put an LED screen on a building that no longer looks like an LED screen, but more like a 'window' to other worlds. The screen resolution is good enough that the image content is photo-realistic even in a close-to-daylight environment."
Because of the level of photorealism made possible by high resolution, he adds, a screen can mimic stone, concrete, steel, or other architectural cladding. Thus, the building’s appearance can be defined more by an editorial decision than by the availability of natural materials. Equally so, screen content now plays a more important role, because of products like the NX-4's 4mm pitch, it creates an incentive for the grandeur of high-definition on a scale where digital imagery merges with its surrounding urban landscape.
--By Louis M. Brill, segdDESIGN No. 22, 2008
THE COMCAST EXPERIENCE
Clients: Comcast Corporation, Liberty Property Trust
Architecture: Robert A.M. Stern Architects (design architect); Kendall/Heaton Associates (associate architect)
Video Wall Concept, Design, and Production: Niles Creative Group
Concept and Design Team: David Niles (producer, director); John Dietrich (co-director/choreographer; Emmora Irwin (producer); Charles Slatkin and Zach Spira-Bauer (exterior photography); Stanley Tang, Tsai Yuan Lin, Manuel Gonzalez, Osvaldo Andreaus (computer graphics); Jim Murphy (sound design); Patty Zagarella (production manager); Matt Howard (project manager, content delivery system)
Suppliers: Barco (LED displays and image processing equipment); Medialon (scheduling software); Dataton Watchout (content server)
Photos: Niles Creative Group, Paul Berliner