in July 2007
By Jim Stokes
Photos by Andrew Bordwin
HBO Shop grabs attention in 'city that never sleeps.'
|Although the store is only 750 square feet, a lot of AV is packed into the space. Here we see the rear of the store (the cash register is on the left). Opposite sides of this area feature DLP projectors offering more HBO scenes.
From harried businesspeople to casual observers, one easily may be drawn into the AV signage emanating from the HBO (Home Box Office) Shop in Midtown Manhattan. It’s the cable television network’s first venture into retailing its product. And despite the store’s modest one-story digs, there’s a lot of carefully orchestrated media inside. It’s stylish. No blaring speakers. No hard sell program promos.
For instance, an excerpt from an HBO series plays on the large LED screen in the window. And, you’re drawn into the shop via supportive show clips playing on other vitrine monitors. Walking further inside, you’re intrigued by ever-changing color mood lighting. A media ribbon, along with moving images from two video projectors, further capture your attention. Controlled audio supports the images.
Enveloped in Media
Thus, store visitors are enveloped in a dynamic media experience as they shop for HBO-branded merchandise. There’s a wide range of choices, from coffee cups to clothing and accessories. Specifically, there are special products such as Sex and the City fragrance gift sets and handbags, Entourage limited-edition watches and memorable The Sopranos sweatshirts. Putting it all together, the retail store is an advanced technological marketing tool that enables HBO to bolster its branding which, therefore, helps the cable network to generate more subscribers.
“Location Location Location” is the oft-repeated maxim for retail venues. This 750-square-foot shop is placed strategically at ground level in the cable network’s headquarters at 1100 Sixth Avenue at 42nd Street, which is solidly in Manhattan’s corporate row, as well. Furthermore, the store is just a block away from the heart of bustling Times Square and adjacent to peaceful Bryant Park, home of the HBO summer film series.
As we arrived at the shop near weekend commuter-time on a Friday afternoon, the relative calm of HBO’s Bryant Park locale contrasted sharply with cranes, cement mixers and workers busily engaged across the street constructing a magnificent black tower. Meanwhile, passersby alternately watched the large storefront monitor, walked in, browsed and shopped in the cable network’s store. Although there were plenty of attention-getting outside forces, the creatively designed venue drew people inside.
Electrosonic Systems, Inc. (ESI), Long Island City NY, engineered the display system in HBO’s first retail store. David Girgenti, CTS, project manager, and Chris Keitel, commissioning engineer/programmer, were our ESI spokespersons. Speaking on behalf of HBO were Elaine Brown, VP Special Markets in Creative Services, and Nina Warren, creative director, Creative Services. Thanks also to Jeff Cusson, VP Corporate Affairs, and Laura Young, director of Corporate Affairs, for coordinating the interviews and information. Lisa Lloyd supervised the graphic design for the video.
In a separate box, we acknowledge the many creative minds and hands that supported this project. Unless otherwise noted, companies and representatives are in the greater New York City area.
From information supplied by Electrosonic, it’s noted that the HBO Shop design aim was to “provide an enveloping, dynamic media experience in a theatrical and scripted manner, while allowing [visitors] to purchase HBO-related merchandise.” For some users of video displays in a retail environment, acquisition of high quality content may be difficult; for HBO, however, that’s not a problem, because content is its business.
Electrosonic conducted a working demonstration of the retail store’s media system within the AV company’s New York-based office, which provided HBO with a tangible Q&A forum. In addition, Electrosonic was proactive early in the project in providing HBO’s content division with one-on-one Dataton WATCHOUT training. This allowed HBO to obtain a strong understanding of what the retail store’s media system was capable of doing.
And as we’ll see later, visitors experience custom-produced “pods” or program promos on the monitors, rather than the familiar network show promos. Accordingly, Electrosonic was contracted to JD Magen to design, engineer and install the video displays system. Interior design was by Gensler-Studio 585, with AV consultancy by Scharff Weisberg. Furthermore, the creative collaboration of Gensler, IF/Imaginary Forces and IF consultant Scott Paterson created a rich, immersive media experience. Electrosonic’s Chris Keitel will speak more about IF’s involvement later.
Four Large Vitrines
|The large LED display in the store's front window captures the eyes of passersby.
The design is based around four large vitrines suspended from the ceiling. Within these glass-paneled display cases are housed merchandise and large monitors. Feature Factory (Toronto, Canada) built the vitrine walls. For walk-by, razor-sharp viewing, a large screen, 4mm pitch Daktronics LED monitor faces the street. The other three 65-inch Panasonic monitors inside the store are mounted vertically in portrait format.
At the rear of the store, two of the walls are designated “mood walls,” which carry projected images via Christie DLP projectors. Then, along one side wall and part of the back wall, a 12-inch-high, 20-foot-long banner/media ribbon Daktronics 6mm LED display adds further animation to the space.
The entire video system is networked and runs as a single “show” using Dataton WATCHOUT to play out content at high resolution. Overall show control and housekeeping is by a separate show control computer running Medialon software. Lighting, designed by HDLC Lighting and Design One, played a big part in the appearance of the store. And it’s programmed to match the mood of the content and the time of day. The show control computer has a DMX output for lighting control. Much use was made of LED lighting from Color Kinetics to create striking color effects, which was provided by lighting designer Christien Methot of Design One. Audio, which is derived selectively from the video sources, is processed by BSS Soundweb and played through Tannoy ceiling speakers with a supportive subwoofer.
Behind the Scenes
“Tight spaces” is the operative phrase that describes some install challenges. Girgenti noted that, because of the small size of the shop, it required “tight coordination with the other trades that were also working in the space, which was fairly typical with any construction site. But this was even smaller [than usual].” Similarly, the control room was located in an old utility closet with close quarters. “It was very tight. The door opening was just wide enough to get the racks in.”
Back in the shop, other considerations included proper ventilation for the plasmas located in the vitrines “because they were going to be behind glass. So that was a little design challenge.” Space is one challenge, while weight is another. According to Girgenti, the large 96"x54" Daktronics LED display that occupies the shop’s street window weighs more than 600 pounds, so a rigging company installed it.
Regarding the 4mm LEDs comprising the window display, he explained, “In your typical LED display world, such as the big, splashy signs in Times Square, each of those LEDs is approximately 13mm or larger. They don’t have to be smaller because you’re standing so far away, and the resolution will still appear as a pretty decent image. But, when you’re standing up close [such as at the HBO Shop window], you need the LED to be much smaller [for good viewing].”
Similarly, the 6mm media ribbon is optimally sized to display HBO-branded content. “It’s not showing like a stock ticker. There’s more graphic to it, and video shows, as well.” Turning our attention to the Panasonic displays, Girgenti noted two reasons for their choice: “There was only a handful of displays to choose from. But for this installation, there was the history of Panasonic. We’ve used a lot of Panasonic in our installations. And the reliability of those displays was one of the deciding factors, aside from price. And, for the most part, all of the equipment is stable.”
According to Chris Keitel, “A lot of the imagery you see in the shop was created by Imaginary Forces. They developed pre-visualizations and renderings of what the store would look like from different angles. We [Electrosonic] worked closely with them. And they were quite helpful. [The project] took on a theatrical effect, which was absolutely part of the vision, and what we tried to achieve for the actual installation.” Keitel related that he began working on the project in July 2006, and the store opened the first week in December that year, in time for holiday season shopping.
“We integrated with Daktronics 6mm and 4mm LED systems, both of which were new, top-of-the-line technologies at that point. They were totally customized for this installation,” Keitel stated. Those were for the media ribbon and the window display, respectively.
He added, “We use Medialon and Dataton WATCHOUT frequently, independently as well as in combination. They’re built very well to work together, and they’ve been tested thoroughly in high availability situations. So we knew they were reliable enough.”
Ambient sound levels have been adjusted so patrons can hear program audio as well as converse. As we all know, optimum sound level is highly subjective. “Initially, my group of engineers came in and we [aimed] to get it flat [response] and sounding good. And then, in terms of setting the level, we had the sales director and the store manager bring groups of people through the store. They wanted to see how the store was progressing, [view] the construction and plan their strategy for merchandising.
“As they were walking through, we constantly had the sound running. And we took feedback from them, as to whether it should be louder or softer. It changed; it varied from day to day. But, eventually, we narrowed in on what felt right. That took a process of listening to [the sound level] for a long time and taking that into account before the store opened.” He pointed out that the HBO Shop sound is a mono mix with a low frequency filter. “It’s a single, ambient sound field with seven levels. So there are independent zones, on which we can control levels.”
New Production Experience
According to HBO’s Elaine Brown, the shop’s merchandise is an extension of the network’s TV series. “We want our customers to have an opportunity to purchase items from their favorite shows or just see what items are available.” The store is not only HBO’s first retail venue, it’s also the first time that the cable TV network has produced content in a nonlinear, tapeless environment. “That’s where Electrosonic comes in because we’ve used the WATCHOUT system application in order to showcase the video content. It was very challenging. The aspect ratios were different from anything we’d ever done before. Usually it’s 4:3 [here at HBO].
“Quite frankly, I was very pleased that my team was involved in this initiative, not only my team but also other departments: HBO studio productions and the engineers—all those folks who put together the nuts and bolts of it,” Brown offered. They include creative director Nina Warren and studio staffers Peter Consiglio and Mario Monello.
As mentioned, don’t expect to be immersed in broadcast show promos as you shop. Rather, HBO has custom-produced “pods,” which refers to the mini-programs seen on the store’s monitors. “The content is actually stunning,” declared Brown. “Of course, it’s all PG-rated because it’s shown in a public place. One of the things we wanted to do was not make it promotional, like the promotions you see on-air. We wanted to create images that were attractive, elegant and compelling: eye-catching to sort of stop people dead in their tracks and have them look inside the store.”
Inside the Pods
|Merchandise is displayed in a "band" around the store.
The pods, which are created on an Avid Express, play for one to two minutes on the store monitors. For instance, one dedicated to The Sopranos would be comprised of beautiful iconic imagery with long shots that fill the frame, making Tony and Carmella appear larger than life. There’d be a take of Tony toasting his family at dinner, over which you’d hear a sound bite, but not in lip sync, saying, “There’s nothing more important than family.” In another example, there’s a compelling shot from the series Rome, in which main characters Pullo and Voremus are walking over a hill, alongside their horses, with mountain-tops showing in the background. “That’s the kind of production that would hopefully make customers stay in the store, not only because they’d want to shop but also because of the imagery,” said Brown.
So, the pods are quite unlike the high impact, short takes in scene snippets shown in show promos. Otherwise, shoppers might very well feel that, at home, they can turn off the TV, but they’re entrapped by it in the store. And that would be the antithesis of what the HBO Shop is about. “We had to play the images long because, if the shots were cut together pretty quickly, it would run someone out of the store,” said Brown.
Although the screens play off each other, they don’t necessarily play the identical visual at the same time. Recall that there’s the huge LED at the front of the store and three vertical screens behind it. “The first [of those three] is sort of the ‘master’ pod. And the two others sort of play off that pod. So, even the shots that you see are not in sync. Each shot is sort of timed differently,” Brown explained. “And then the projection wall on either side toward the back of the store uses gallery photographs or portraits of the various characters that you see on the other media platforms on other screens. Thus, each platform sort of complements the other.” The media ribbon has an HBO logo and reflects the same palette seen on the video screen.
On our walk-through, creative director Nina Warren emphasized that the AV elements are “choreographed and Color Kinetics lighting are timed to enhance the imagery on the screens.” She noted that there are actually several modes of pod presentations. The Promotional Pod, which we’ve already covered, features beautiful iconography and accompanying sound bites. The Ambient Pod is all images, no sound bites. The Crescendo Pod is comprised of a variety of HBO series, films and product, designed to showcase the HBO brand. Then there’s a Rest Mode, where the shop goes into a calm and the screens sit on animation.
Finally, how is the store doing? According to Elaine Brown, it’s “absolutely successful.
“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback. We’re extremely proud of the video content and, from a corporate standpoint, [also proud] of how we all worked together as a team.”
Home Box Office
HBO (Home Box Office) is an American premium cable television network, headquartered in New York City. HBO airs theatrically released feature films, original television movies and various original series, including such memorable flagship programs as The Sopranos, Rome, The Wire and Sex and the City.
AV/broadcast mavens will find the cable network’s history particularly interesting. In 1965, Charles Dolan won the franchise to build a cable TV system in lower Manhattan, which became the first urban underground cable system in the US. HBO was born on November 8, 1972, when it broadcast a New York Rangers vs. Vancouver Canucks hockey game, and its first feature film, Sometimes a Great Notion.
Electrosonic Systems Inc.
With group headquarters in Minnetonka MN, Electrosonic Systems, Inc. (ESI), is an audiovisual company with a worldwide presence, specializing in the AV needs of corporate communications, command and control rooms, museums, retail display, theme parks and exhibitions. Electrosonic operates in three ways: as a systems integrator, product manufacturer, and provider of AV facilities management and contract servicing.
The AV company has offices strategically placed to serve its main geographic markets and provide round-the-clock support, with four offices in the United States, plus offices in the UK and the Far East. Although each office contains specialist resource (SIC), this can be deployed around the world as customer needs dictate.
Electrosonic’s Long Island City NY office provides sales, engineering, system assembly, installation, service and support to customers in the Eastern US, and worked on the HBO Shop project. The close proximity to its architect and design customers as well as government organizations allows Electrosonic to serve them with optimum responsiveness.
Additional AV/Creative Project Suppliers
• Interior Design Collaborators: Gensler Architects, New York City: Carlos Espinosa, architect; Imaginary Forces/IF, New York City: Abby Okin, producer; James Paterson, interaction consultant to IF
• AV Consultant: Scharff Weisberg, Long Island City NY: Original consultant was former firm president Josh Weisberg
• Building Contractor: JT Magen & Co., New York City: Patrick Reidy, project manager
• Electrical Contractor: Gallagher Electrical Contracting, New York City: Patrick Gallagher, project manager
• Color Kinetics Lighting: Design One Corp., New York City: Christien Method, lighting designer; Encore Lighting, Maspeth NY: Diane Paquet, specification sales for Color Kinetics
• Architectural Lighting Design: HDLC/hillman dibernardo leiter castelli, New York City: Michael Castelli, principal
• Vitrine Wall Builder: Feature Factory, Toronto, Canada: Craig Seeley, project manager
Vitrine 1 (Storefront Window)
1 Daktronics 4MM 96"x54" LED*
1 Dell 5100C display CPU
1 Middle Atlantic RSH computer rackmount
Vitrine 2,3,4 (Interior)
3 Chief wall mounts for plasma display
3 Dell 5100C display CPUs
3 Magenta UTX /AK500/PS VGA extenders kits
3 Middle Atlantic RSH computer rackmounts
3 Panasonic TH-65PHD8UY 65" plasma displays
1 Daktronics 6MM 240"x12" LED*
1 Dell 5100C display CPU
1 Middle Atlantic RSH computer rackmount
2 Chief ceiling mounts
2 Christie Digital DS +65 6500 lumen DLP projectors
1 Christie Digital 9082 0.8 fixed lens
1 Christie Digital 9086 2.5-4.0 zoom lens
Color Kinetics ColorPlay ceiling recessed lighting
2 Dell 5100C display CPUs
2 Magenta UTX /AK500/PS VGA extenders kits
2 Middle Atlantic RSH computer rackmounts
1 BSS BLU-80 Soundweb DSP
1 QSC CX-168 8-channel power amp
7 Tannoy CM601 TDC ceiling speakers
1 Tannoy VS 10 BP subwoofer
10 Dataton WATCHOUT 3150 display software indv. keys
1 Dell Power Edge 830 NAS 1 TB
1 Digiflex Ping Scanner Pro network utilities software 10 user
1 Netgear GSM7248 48-port layer 2 switch
1 Virtual Network Computer 4.0 RealVNC 25 User Enterprise Edition
1 Dell 5150C production CPU
1 Dell 5150C site manager CPU
1 ELC DT-221 DMX 512 merger
2 Medialon GD-SCMII show control computers
5 Middle Atlantic RSH CPU rackmount kits
1 Moxia 5610-8 serial to Ethernet device
1 Netgear WG302 802.11G WAP
1 Pathway 8895 DMX repeater
2 Sound Light PCI DMX 512 OP cards
1 Raloy RA19 19" rackmount LCD w/key, mouse
1 Raritan P2-UMT442 KVM switch
1 Raritan P2-UST KVM User station
14 Raritan P2-CIM/PS2 user interfaces
1 ContaClip terminal panels
1 Ortronics Cat6 patchbay
1 Ortronics Cat6 wall plates and jacks
1 Ortronics FO patchbay
*Owner furnished equipment
Edited from information supplied by Electrosonic Systems, Inc.
Sound & Communications Contributing Editor Jim Stokes has been involved in the AV industry for more than 30 years as an AV technician and writer.