Immersion Design: Then, Now and To Come

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Ron HarwoodIt all started with a mouse.

But as anyone who has ever taken their kids to Disney can readily confirm, that mouse has some serious charisma. Disney's extraordinary attention to detail, from immaculate landscaping to spectacular costumes and special effects, and its carefully choreographed presentation of sights, smells, sounds and experiences, have immortalized the “Magic Kingdom” and made Disney theme parks synonymous with place-making at its finest.

Disney was the first to understand the intricate and powerful connection between design and experience—to appreciate the fact that architecture can be a theatrical, multisensory framework, and to prove that design can create a truly immersive environment. Most importantly of all—long before the concept of “dwell time” gained traction in the world of commercial design—Disney realized that there is a direct relationship between the amount of time you spend and the amount of money you spend. It is no coincidence that today, more than a half century after the first Disneyland opened its doors, the Walt Disney Company generates more revenue than any other media and entertainment company in the world.

In recent years, some of the best architectural design and development professionals, in conjunction with lighting design and multimedia experts, have used essentially that same experiential approach—along with new technologies and creative design strategies—to do some very exciting work bringing true immersion design to a range of retail and mixed-use environments.

Past is Prologue

Gone are the 1970s and 1980s, when the grand scale and retail promise of the mall was enough to overcome utilitarian architecture and generate excitement and repeat visits. With more malls being built, competition heated up. Among the three big differentiators—location, tenants and attractions—it was the attractions that heated up into a retail arms race. Early innovations like food courts and kids' play areas were conveniences added in an attempt to stand out from the crowd and give shoppers a reason to come more often and stay longer. Eventually, those “extras” evolved to include special events like fashion shows and holiday celebrations. In the 1990s, rudimentary immersive elements such as more creative lighting and sound design began to gain traction, particularly in center courts and gathering places. By 2000, it wasn't just shopping centers; individual brands and stores began turn to more sophisticated immersive and experiential elements. Literally and figuratively, the stage was set for a big step forward.

Today, immersion design is becoming both more common and more effective. Innovative architects, developers and design specialists have executed newly sophisticated and refined strategies to achieve truly immersive design, integrating elements of physical and experiential architectural design into a coordinated and comprehensive “entertainment strategy”. So while the what—creating an experience to increase dwell time—has essentially remained, the how has taken dramatic leaps forward, and we're only just now seeing the beginning.

Cue the Lights

The trend has been largely driven by technological advances such as LED lighting, digital audio, intelligent wireless light and sound control systems; by more efficient and cost-effective elements such as fountains and water features; and by a more nuanced understanding of how to design and program in a way that reinforces a brand, defines a space and appeals to a target demographic. Both an art and a science, “immersion design” activates the built environment with multimedia and multisensory layers that resonate with people who move through the space. Immersion design goes beyond optics. It is no longer just about what you see; it is about what you feel. It is architectural pageantry—retail theater—and the audience is clamoring for more.

Signature global brands like M&M, Aeropostale and Nike have embraced immersion design in showstopping retail locations around the world, and iconic developments like the acclaimed Aria resort hotel and casino at CityCenter in Las Vegas and the iconic water- and board-sports branded Expo-Xplore mall in Durban, South Africa have used innovative immersive design strategies to great effect.

But perhaps no developments illustrate the power and potential of immersion design better than the spectacular Heron City projects in Europe. Heron City Can Drago in Barcelona, Spain and Heron City Kungens Kurva in Stockholm, Sweden are extraordinary retail and entertainment destinations that utilize theatrical lighting, coordinated audio and experiential elements as part of a synergistic entertainment strategy that energizes and elevates the built environment.

Immersion design is not all flash and fireworks. Sometimes it is just the strategic placement of a coffee shop, or the welcome convenience of a climate controlled space. As many malls have begun to face outward in recent years (i.e., town centers and lifestyle centers), immersion design specialists have integrated subtle touches that help evoke Main Street charm and commercial energy—an inspired interface of historically resonant architecture with new technology.

Details, Details, Details

While every project is different, there is an inherent level of artistry and creative design experience and expertise behind all great immersion design. Every great immersion design project shares certain defining elements:

Brand Identity

The edgy, gleamingly urban chic at Aeropostale's Times Square location and the sleek, active energy of a Nike Store illustrate how immersion design can articulate a brand feeling and extend it into the environment. Great immersion design interprets a brand as an experience, and reflects that brand identity in lighting, sound and projection systems, as well as physical design elements.

Thematic Consistency

Quality immersion design tells a story. It articulates an idea. It conveys a mood. Success depends largely on the degree to which lights, music, multimedia elements, and the built environment work together to consistently and cohesively tell that story. But it should be consistent with the overall theme of the environment at large.

Holistic Approach

In the past, lighting, audio and other ambient elements were added in layers. Immersion design demands a holistic design approach, with all stakeholders involved and engaged in the process from the earliest conceptual stages of a development project. The best immersion design specialists can assist not only with design, but with implementation, project management, procurement and logistics. Immersion design includes all aspects of the “end game”—opening day and the years that follow.

Technical Expertise

The hardware and software must match the vision. Even the most creative and coordinated conceptual design strategy is doomed to failure without the sophisticated technology and programmable control systems that make it work.

Flexible Design

Probably the most common reason for unsuccessful, uninspired or underperforming immersion design is inflexibility. Designing an adaptive system and a space that is inherently customizable is key, both for the ability to provide daily time and demographically relevant variations or seasonally appropriate lighting, and for the capacity to be able to respond to economic and demographic changes with updated programming—without having to significantly alter, abandon or reinvest in the system as circumstances warrant.

Dollars and Sense?

Immersion design is an investment. But when executed successfully, it is an investment that pays—not costs. The best immersion design experts have found that their work can consistently boost pro-forma predictions for traffic and revenue by approximately 30 percent, while experience shows that the investment is at or below five percent of construction when integration occurs in the concept phase.

Great design is its own attraction: a mechanism to get people in the door and keep them there longer. Just as people are willing to drive and fly across the country to spend time with Mickey, they will drive an extra 20 minutes across town for the excitement and experience of a great space.

And it is not just shoppers who will go the extra mile to be a part of a memorable environment. At Aberdeen Centre in Vancouver, where the spectacular Center Court contains the world's first fully animated ceiling, fused with a 90-foot performance water feature and a dynamic audio system, center management has been able to actually increase rental rates around the Court.

To realize its true value, hardware and software schemes should be designed in a way that they can be easily modified. There should be an implied evolution of the system to enable it to evolve over time, with mechanisms for reprogramming and updating; even uploading soundtracks, water and lighting remotely. When immersion design fails to realize strong ROI it is almost always the result of inexperienced or unqualified designers who don't have the artistry, the retail understanding or the flexibility to design and implement an open-ended system. Communication with the owner and managers of a center to glean changing demographics and traffic patterns should continue on an annual basis.

Back to the Future

Immersion design has a bright future—and not just because of the LEDs. As new wireless and other technologies continue to improve at an exponential pace, immersion design specialists will be able to draw from a bigger and better palette. With even more options, and designs limited only by our imaginations, we are likely to see even more creativity, interactivity and customization. At a time when personalization has never been more popular or more prevalent, we are likely beginning to see that extend to our retail and mixed-use spaces. Forget the iPod, how about the iMall? Macro- and micro-scale design will evolve to function on a dynamic, personal level.

Digital signage and multimedia will convey dramatically more detailed information and become more engaging and interactive. Instead of simply telling you where you are, they will tell you what is happening and how you can become a part of it—as wayfinding becomes playfinding.

Ultimately, immersion design will continue to expand its impact and importance, not only influencing where you go—but how you feel and what you do once you get there.

Ron Harwood is president and founder of Farmington Hills, Mich.-based Illuminating Concepts, one of the world's largest lighting and multi-media design firms, where Michael Schulman serves as managing director of creative services. Founded in 1981, the company is a full-service design and implementation firm providing award-winning lighting, multi-media and entertainment systems for architectural, retail, environmental, public and theatrical environments worldwide.

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