100 million pixels of visual storytelling transformed a Dubai retail destination into a jaw-dropping immersive experience.
It’s a pretty big deal for a client to ask you to create a massive digital experience within a one-of-a-kind luxury retail environment. And it’s a really big deal when that retail environment is located in the heart of Dubai, a city known for its rare ability to continually expand, innovate—and define what a city of the future really looks like. That was the task CityWalk Dubai posed to Montreal-based Float4, a multidisciplinary studio that integrates digital experiences in physical spaces to amplify their identity.
Float4 readily accepted that challenge and exceeded expectations—including those of HOW’s International Design Awards judges, who awarded the project Best of Show. “CityWalk is an impressive combination of scale and craftsmanship,” says judge Leland Maschmeyer. “It’s rare for a work of art to reshape how you experience a physical space.” But that’s exactly what Float4’s contribution to CityWalk did.
BUILDING AN EXPERIENCE
Float4 strives to redefine conventions by designing and producing site-specific multimedia installations. “Our firm stands out in that we craft experiences that often have never been done before, and that’s thanks to the trusted relationships we develop with our clients,” says Alexandre Simionescu, Float4’s principal. “This aspect of novelty is also one of the elements that characterizes our corporate culture. Finding a way to do things that are challenging is something that sets our firm apart.”
CityWalk is an outdoor urban destination providing innovative retail and upscale dining for visitors and locals alike. It breaks the paradigm of standard retail environments and provides an outdoor meeting point, accessible to all. It’s also special because it provides access to a pedestrian retail experience that’s so common in many cities across the world, but that is quite rare in Dubai.
Float4’s objective for CityWalk was to create a multimedia infrastructure showcasing visually striking content in a luxury retail setting. The space encompasses an outdoor digital experience of more than 12 football fields in size, and includes more than 30 LED installations, nearly 30 projectors, and a water fountain show where content is projected onto water screens. All totaled, there are more than 100 million pixels of engaging, entertaining content that runs seamlessly on a digital structure that’s entirely custom-built.
CityWalk is comprised of three main areas—the Gateway, the Showstreet and the Place des Lumières—each set to elevate the customer’s experience throughout their journey.
As guests enter through the Gateway, CityWalk’s main entrance, they are immersed in an alley featuring two giant LED screens 93 yards in length, as well as a structure made up of LED hexagonal displays serving as a digital canopy. The large-scale screens display hypnotizing moving videos that morph content such as colorful galaxies and short stories into surrealistic, playful worlds that add an element of surprise.
The Showstreet, which connects the Gateway to the Place des Lumières, stretches nearly 109 yards and includes a ground projection provided by 12 high-definition projectors. This entertainment street is the focal point of the lighting scheme where floodlights are mounted at high level to provide playful, general ambient lighting to the floor, while integrated facade lighting ensures that vertical surfaces are well illuminated as part of a cohesive composition. The high-level projection on the floor allows for a flexible and creative layer of additional media for visitors, crafting an immersive showtime experience that interplays with the surrounding media screens and ceiling. This section can also easily be transformed into an interactive experience that reacts to guests’ movements.
The customer’s journey culminates in a circular space at the end of the Showstreet, also the highlight of the experience, which is the Place des Lumières. The space brings together more than 20 projectors and more than 100 lighting features into this 360-degree experience that gives the audience a multitude of viewpoints, making every occurrence unique. For five minutes every hour after dark, the Place des Lumières transforms into a show. At its center, an artificial pond comes to life when four computer-controlled hydraulic arms emerge from the water in sync with a custom built audio experience. Each arm, equipped with a system of nozzles, creates curtains of water on which projections are shown. When the show begins, people come from everywhere—every area, every alley—to gather around the fountain to enjoy the experience.
FINDING A WAY
So what does it take for a team of 20 to pull off such a massive high-tech project? “We had expertise in the field, which allows us to effectively tackle all the challenges that are inevitable with a project of this scale, and we also brought the right partners on board to deliver,” Simionescu says. “Our background in the video game industry, expertise in visual effects and hub of in-house creatives—in other words, our multidisciplinary talent—is what enabled us to push this project further. And collaboration is key to developing this type of project.”
About 50 people were involved in the year-and-a-half-long project. As executive producers, Float4 handled program strategy, content creation and technology infrastructure design. (The company has invested heavily in the development of its proprietary RealMotion platform, which has become the engine powering many of its projects for nearly a decade.) Float4 partnered with XYZ Cultural Technology to deliver the technological solution, and FLY and Gridspace to support the content. Other collaborators included Dubai-based RDK and Montreal-based LUZ Studio, Pixcom, La Majeure, Christie Digital and Freeworm Productions for everything from lighting design to soundtrack production.
While there’s no other single Float4 project that combines every element that can be found in City-Walk, the firm definitely drew upon a myriad of different aspects that they’ve done in the past. “Overall, it’s a very unique project that is hard to compare to anything else,” Simionescu says.
“We were tangential to the physical design of the space with this digital experience,” he continues. “The canvas and the audience were two of the main elements we looked at to draw inspiration from. Being sensitive to the culture was also a very important element, which did not constrain our creativity, but simply brought a different perspective.”
For instance, take the two content pieces showcased on the large screens during the Place des Lumières water show: “Future Now” is very much influenced by the vision of Dubai and its continuous evolution towards defining what a city of the future looks like. “Voyage into sound” echoes the importance of music in the local culture and how it has been used to tell stories over centuries as it transcends time.
One of the biggest challenges from a content creation and production standpoint was the sheer size of the space and the multitude of platforms (LED, projection mapping, xf projection, custom LED ceiling, lighting, etc.). “With more than 100 million pixels across 30 different media supports, our production pipeline had to be streamlined beyond anything we had encountered until now,” Simionescu says. “The creative process was also a challenge by the sheer size of the space and the multitude of viewing points. It becomes very hard to convey an idea effectively when there are so many unique elements in play. Without the proper tools, it becomes a cognitive overload and you simply can’t process the information effectively in order to make good decisions. From a technical perspective, the amount of pixels that had to be processed required a performance criteria that is often delivered at the expense of flexibility, which in our case was not an option.”
It’s clear, however, that those obstacles did not stand in the way of stellar creative and technical execution. While Float4 can’t disclose exact numbers, they say the advertising revenue alone has provided a significant return on investment. “As the largest digital integration in the Middle East and quite possibly the world, CityWalk will become an attraction even by Dubai’s standards,” Simionescu says. “From the moment we launched the show, the place has been full every night. People go there, they walk there, and it’s now a destination in and of itself.”
Simionescu describes seeing the final version of the experience for the first time as “euphoria.” The public reaction was extremely positive, and people kept approaching the interactive design team to ask when the show would play again. “Seeing people taking pictures of it is always a great sign, and asking when they could see it again was an even better one to indicate how well received it is,” he says.
Simionescu adds that his favorite thing about the project is that there’s simply nothing else like it, even in a city like Dubai that has no shortage of eccentric projects. “The sum of all our efforts and our greatest achievement is to have contributed to a project that defines Dubai,” he says. “CityWalk presented a huge opportunity for us to work directly with the client in a place that is renown for its grandiose achievements.”