Published in December 2005

Top of the Rock
By John Miceli
Photos by Adrian Wilson

New technology delivers entertainment history in NYC’s Rockefeller Center.

The Multi Screen Theater is only part of the overall “experience.”

     Way atop one of the oldest buildings of its type in New York City lived a well-kept secret for many years. Once a place where people would meet to chat, read and enjoy the day in the bustling city, the Rockefeller Center Observation Deck had been closed to the public since 1986. Recently, this gem atop the General Electric Building has become a part of a new experimental exhibit that opened to the public on November 1, 2005. This is the same historic building where NBC first aired Saturday Night Live in October 1975 (and still does today), where the famous Rockettes entertain generation after generation during the holidays at Radio City Music Hall, and where pictures such as the construction crew hanging what appears to be a mile over the streets of New York on a girder were born.
     This building, its tenants and its creator bring a rich history worthy of a world-class destination. It’s the newest in New York City and the creation of Bob Weiss and his company, Design Island of Orlando FL, and Tishman Speyer, the project developer and operating entity for 30 Rockefeller Center. Weiss, a veteran of film, television and special venue-design development and execution, was brought on by Tishman Speyer, and was tasked with developing an experience that would be the supporting act for the soon to be reopened Observation Deck. The project had been in development for some time before Weiss called me to meet with him about it.
     At first glance, I thought the project was brilliant, filled with clever adventures such as the Beam Walk, Media Wall and Multi Screen Theater, but it wasn’t until I saw his vision for the Elevator Ride Experience that I knew this was quite different and special, and right up our alley. My company, Technomedia Solutions, Orlando FL, was brought in to work with the initial design, develop it, engineer it and deliver the final experience from an audiovisual standpoint. Needless to say, we were extremely excited when we were awarded the contract and could not wait to get to work.
     Our first task was to review the design for possible improvements and, of course, value engineering where possible. Senior project manager Mike Carroll, who had just finished working on the Time Warner Center, field engineer Charles Adkinson and I met with our client, Tishman Speyer’s Jim Shea, project manager Nancy Seruto (Seruto & Company, Pasadena CA) and Bob Weiss with a list of our ideas. We first looked at the Elevator Ride Experience, which takes guests by surprise as they enter what looks to be a normal elevator: The door closes and it plummets 67 floors to the ground, leaving a crazy mixture of lunch on the, that’s another attraction.
     Actually, this one looks like a typical elevator, with a frosted glass ceiling with white light illuminating the cabin. As you begin to travel up to the 67th floor, the light fades, the electrostatic LCD filament goes clear and four NEC projectors mounted on top of the elevator synchronize four streams of digital media that play together, taking you through the history of Rockefeller Center. The show lasts about a minute in each direction but packs so much in that you can’t help but be “wowed” by the time you reach your destination.

The Elevator Ride Experience only lasts about a minute in each direction, but wows its audience.

     Later, when you leave, you experience something that blew me away. We light the shaft with Color Kinetics Color Blast lights in a colorful look at the descending of 67 floors overhead. It’s a cool idea that Weiss created and perfected through precise programming with our team.
     We decided to explore removing as much of the AV and lighting hardware as possible from the elevators, to improve the life and serviceability of the system. As we learned later in the project, the equipment we removed would not have fit in the elevators due to limited space allotted for our systems. This was one of those hindsight gifts that really pays off. Using a General Electric FiberOptions fiber backbone, we were able to consolidate the control systems, simplify the design and bring the cost down considerably.
     Next, we looked at the current speaker design for the theater, and found that there would be limited isolation between the theater and surrounding spaces, and virtually no acoustical treatment to assist in controlling audio delivery. Rather than trying to fill the low end in the space from the two subwoofers in the preliminary design, we felt that distributing an array of subs with the full-range speakers overhead would contain the volume while giving the guests a full-impact experience. This is what I like to call “close proximity design,” for lack of a better term.
     We chose compact Klipsch satellite speakers with passively crossed over subwoofers in a matrix that would create a smooth area coverage without having a set of speakers or subs more then a few feet from any guest’s ears. This delivered the goal even better than I had expected and, again, brought the price of the systems down for the client.

The Media Wall in the entrance to the theater shows current information relevant to the
Elevator Ride Experience.

     The next challenge was the scale size and price of the projection portion of the theater. The original concept called for five projectors delivering end-to-end 4:3 aspect ratio NTSC video across a curved wall. In looking at this, I felt we could create a larger canvas of images in 16:9 using three Christie projectors, and we could use HD video to maintain more resolution in the program. The images were mostly historic, so the goal was to not lose any quality as the images decreased in size in the film program. I worked with Bob Weiss and Tim Steinouer of Design Island Associates on this idea, and we all agreed that this approach would improve the guest experience. It also actually brought the project cost down once again, so Jim Shea was pleased. Technomedia was also responsible for all media encoding, so we were able to assure all of the key elements from a technical side were kept at the highest level of quality at every step.
     The third notable revision made was to the display screens in the lower-level ticketing center, and the mezzanine media-wall portion. Originally, they were specified to use an MPEG digital video player in landscape orientation. We used Technomedia’s MediaNET EXP Digital Video network technology to create a true managed Private Video Network that would empower the client to communicate better with its guests. This system was set up with the media wall in landscape, and the ticketing area in portrait orientation.
     The media could now be dynamic so, at a moment’s notice, messages, images and graphics within files could be altered to communicate more precisely with guests. The system will support events at Roc Center along with the Top of the Rock venue, giving what would have been a very confined system much more flexibility to be a revenue motivator and experience advancement for the client.
     The Technomedia team responsible for designing and delivering the project include Mike Carroll, senior project manager; Todd Wheeler, Wheeler Projects Inc., project manager; Brad Cornish, project field engineer; Sean Lucke, design engineer/programmer; Christian Arboleda, field technician/programmer; Terry “Max” Kestel, field technician; Sean Bade, field technician; Pete Tinari, project administrator; Phil Lamothe, project administrator; Neil Smelko, MediaNET EXP product specialist/programmer; Boston Shoef, fabrication; Tracy O’Connell, fabrication and materials coordination; and Lauren Watson, logistic coordination.

John Miceli is president of Technomedia Solutions, Orlando FL, which specializes in the creation and integration of audiovisual media and technologies for location-based entertainment.

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