Working within the mesmerizing mirror and light-filled environment designed by Kenzo, 'Unity' is an interactive installation that utilizes realtime visuals and guests’ own likeness to amplify their journey through the space. The goal was to engage visitors within a premium, high-tech experience, while ensuring the technology itself took a back seat to the breathtaking skyline, seamlessly tying into the wider surroundings.

Located on the 92nd floor, ‘Unity’ runs on a 47.5 x 12-foot Samsung digital LED wall, displaying a full-screen realtime animated cloudscape that pushes the boundaries of Unreal Engine’s built-in volumetrics system. Guests’ faces are rendered amongst midground and background cloud elements using hi-res scanned meshes as they enter the space. The technical art/CG team built out complex cloud formations that took into account lighting, atmosphere, background elements and camera, bringing Framestore’s premium visual quality to the project.

“One of the biggest challenges for us was to create photorealistic volumetric clouds that are heavily art directed and can run in real time at 60 frames per second – something that we had never previously seen accomplished at this scale or level of complexity,” said Cenk Kilar, Framestore Lead Artist. 

The installation presented a host of technical feats, at the forefront of which was rendering a realtime cloudscape across multiple screens spanning 11,520 x 2,880 pixels. The team also needed to create a pipeline that could support a behemoth 700 visitors per hour, seven days a week. To do this, they were tasked with optimizing texture size and compression rates to dynamically embed several user head volumes at any given moment, while supporting the full-screen moving cloudscape, running at 60hz. The team utilized Unreal’s nDisplay to sync visuals across multiple sections of the screen, ensuring that seams between each section remained invisible.

"From a technical perspective, optimization was our greatest focus,” said Claude Dareau, Framestore Lead Developer. “It saw an accumulation of incremental improvements that eventually got us to a place where we could run at the target frame rate. Some of these were clever tweaks or tricks in the shader, while others were compromises. For example, texture size and compression were extremely important, while some of the shader work was essential when it came to integrating those compromises within the assets."

The asset processing pipeline involves a 3D scan of the visitor’s head, a rendering process to convert the mesh into a volume texture using a custom OpenGL app, then processing for color texture. Each step only allows for a strict time window of approximately five seconds, so efficiency was key in order to avoid frame rate hitches.

“While we never shy away from a technical challenge at Framestore, the true honor has been to create an experience that complements and salutes the beauty, industry and electricity of Manhattan,” said Christine Cattano, Head of Immersive, US and Executive Producer at Framestore. “Working for so many weeks at the space and leaning my back against Central Park, the top of the Chrysler Building, overlooking the Empire State Building, I hope this experience inspires guests to look for the harmony between nature, technology and our aspirations.”

Framestore also created takeaway imagery for both the ‘Unity’ and ‘Transcendence’ experiences, enabling guests access to the perfect artistic photo of themselves within the mirror-filled room. For ‘Transcendence,’ the team created a pipeline to place guests and their accurate reflections in the space thanks to full-body 3D scans and a render of the room in Unreal Engine. With sweeping south-facing views of the city reflected throughout at various times of the day (sunrise, daylight, sunset, nighttime), visitors have the opportunity to capture the moment without anyone else impacting their shot – something that would otherwise be impossible to achieve on any given visit.

“We couldn’t have been more thrilled to work with Kenzo on such an incredibly innovative project,” said Vince Baertsoen, Framestore Global Head of CG and Creative Director. “Being part of what is such a unique New York experiential landmark was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The team built some groundbreaking technologies within and around Unreal Engine, seamlessly hidden behind a mesmerizing and meditative interactive content.”

Visitors can experience the permanent installation Air at on the 92nd floor of the SUMMIT observation deck One Vanderbilt – a must see for anyone who finds themselves in New York City.