Digital Ceilings Transform From The Top Down

Posted September 4, 2019

Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a Digital Ceiling!

How do you get people to look up, when a decade of smartphone use has trained them to look down? And even if you manage to grab their attention, why ask viewers to crane their necks towards surfaces they wouldn’t even notice otherwise? These are just some of the challenges that ESI Design faces when crafting its digital ceiling installations, and the solution to all of them is the same: focus on the experience.

That ability to fundamentally alter a viewer’s experience of the space is what sets digital ceilings apart. Digital ceilings can transform the entirety of a room and place viewers in a new kind of environment by upending viewer expectations about interior space and drawing their attention to areas they usually ignore. ESI Design’s work at 900 North Michigan Shops in Chicago, 85 Broad Street in New York City, and 221 Main Street in San Francisco exemplify this approach, and serve as examples for the transformative power of digital ceilings.


Virtual Skies, Real Experiences

900 North Michigan Shops is the prototypical example of a digital ceiling. Installed above a seven-story open space in a shopping mall, the 190-feet of ultra-high-definition LEDs as an artificial sky, a billboard for different businesses in the mall, and a captivating media art piece. Through its different content modes, the digital media highlights some of the fundamental goals of a digital ceiling.

Digital ceiling at 900 North Michigan Shops shows software-generated birds flying in never repeating patterns against a blue sky.Animations of flocking birds and swaying branches place the viewers in a simulated outdoor space. Short, artistic moments snap shoppers out of their focused hustle by transforming the entire atrium into a gallery. Kaleidoscopic graphics of products from various shops redefine the geometry of the space by surfacing advertisements in unexpected places. In each instance, the digital ceiling stops the viewer by forcing them to look up, captures their attention in that moment of pause, and, through the contrast between what they expected to see on the ceiling and what they actually witness, alters their experience of an otherwise conventional environment.

Above Your Head, Back In Time

The low-resolution digital ceiling at 85 Broad Street mimics the open sky with leafy green imagery.Like 900 North Michigan Shops, 85 Broad Street also aims to provide viewers with the experience of a different places, and then goes further by aiming to transport them through time. The digital ceiling at 85 Broad Street features a parade of diffused, low-resolution bars, and hangs above a recreated cobblestone path that commemorates a historic street once located on the site. The ceiling and the cobblestones work together to create the experience of walking through the city over the course of centuries, as the location transformed from Manhattan’s colonial city hall to the office building that stands today.

To simulate the past, the digital ceiling hosts media modes that create the sense of walking down a street outside, such as animated clouds and an arboreal canopy. But to evoke the contemporary hustle of America’s biggest city, the digital ceiling engages in more abstract space theming. These modes use linear, colorful motion graphics that zip along the bars and resemble the blur of passing taxis, speeding subway cars, and bustling street traffic. These modes reset the pace of the lobby and carry viewers from the past to the present.


Digital Ceilings, Digital Streets

While both 85 Broad and 900 North Michigan Shops uses their digital ceilings to mimic the open sky inside of buildings, 221 Main Street uses overhead media to break the boundaries between outside and inside. As much of a digital canopy as a digital ceiling, this installation displays crashing waves, twinkling skylines, and the Golden Gate Bridge to activate the street, draw attention to the building, and invite people into the property.

The digital ceiling at 221 Main Street breaks the boundary between inside and out, featuring a wave media mode.

As a viewer progresses from curbside to under the canopy to inside the lobby itself, the media counterprograms their physical journey to increasingly enclosed spaces with imagery of wide-open vistas and dynamic natural scenes. Through this immersive experience, the digital ceiling eases the feeling of trudging to work by preserving the visitor’s experience of being outside even as they pass deeper into the building. If 900 North Michigan Shops exemplifies the fundamentals of a digital ceiling, then 221 Main Street illustrates the everyday power of these experiential interventions.

Decorative ceilings are nothing new. After all, Michelangelo didn’t spend years messing around with the floor. But digital ceilings, with their ability to surprise and transform, represent a new frontier in experiential design. As ESI Design moves forward with its latest slate of interventions, we will continue to look for new ways to activate spaces with digital ceiling, create fully immersive experiences, and transform spaces from the top down.

Stuart Fox

Stuart Fox is a former content and activity designer at ESI Design. As familiar with digital storytelling as he is with words, as comfortable directing live action video as he is developing physical interactives, Stuart leverages every tool from his interdiscplinary experience to craft engaging, educational, emotional narratives.


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