Reactive Media Installations Bring California Landscapes Indoors


A new reactive media installation has dramatically transformed a Silicon Valley-area office lobby into a motion-activated, immersive experience where deer skitter away when they catch sight of a passerby and the sun sets over the San Francisco Bay. At The Crossroads in San Mateo, California, three virtual landscapes brings California’s iconic outdoors inside with more than 20 different plants and animals. Each landscape reacts to people’s presence and activates in a lobby with no receptionist.

Nominating Company: ESI Design, New York, New York
Venue: The Crossroads, San Mateo, California
Project: The Crossroads
Category: Experiential Design & Planning

The Crossroads’ stunning media installation is part of a larger-scale renovation on the three building campus, each without a security desk or a receptionist in the lobby to greet visitors. ESI Design’s role was to create an immersive experience that unified the buildings and added a welcoming quality. The result is a highly ambitious media installation that responds to the presence of people. Created in a video game engine, the animated flora and fauna in the scenes are the most computationally advanced media installations done by the firm to date. In the style of vintage California travel posters, stunning virtual backdrops representing the Redwood Forest, Yosemite National Park, and California’s coastal scenery are activated. The scenes evolve in real time to match local weather and time of day with deer, bears, birds, blooming plants and changing skies all reacting to a full 24-hour day/night cycle, so the experience always feels fresh and relevant.

At The Crossroads, the installations in each building becomes the welcome for people in the space. Plants and animals in the fully realized 3D worlds react to people and ensure they never see the same thing twice. ESI Design pushed the envelope by using a video game engine to create fully realized 3D worlds using complex physics simulations and artificial intelligence. In creating the reactive elements, ESI Design utilized thermal FLIR cameras to track a person’s presence and velocity as they move through the space. The sun streaming into the lobbies created an interesting problem of “ghosts” that the designers had to work around.

ESI Design Crossroads pic

The installations are made up of seven 86-inch vertical 4K displays for each lobby, with each display serving as a “window” onto the landscapes. Using a customized version of Unreal Engine, the video game software that renders 3D simulations with uncannily accurate physics, we created three reactive-media digital panoramas that evolve constantly, responding to the presence of visitors, live weather data and other stimuli. The experience allows the plants to grow and the animals to roam and forage in natural, unpredictable ways. When someone walks in, a “gust of wind” rustles leaves in the foreground, and if someone moves quickly, the deer might be startled before bolting out of the frame. This makes the scenes feel organic and alive. Careful thought went into the selection and design of the local species for each landscape, like ferns, rhododendron, black-tailed deer, and blue jays.

The artificial intelligence created an astonishing, immersive experience for tenants to become active participants in the digital landscape. The media, along with new building IDs, work together to make public spaces more usable, welcoming and human. Counteracting the lack of receptionists, the media serves as a responsive welcome to visitors of the building. Because the media is designed for people to see and engage with over time, not just once, office workers develop a relationship with the animals. Video game “Easter eggs,” like an albino bear that is programmed to appear from time to time, offer visitors the thrill of a sighting and keep people interested and curious about the installation.

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