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Reimagining the Mall Experience from the Top Down

A vertical mall on Chicago’s famed Michigan Avenue adds an immersive experience to re-engage shoppers



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Located in one of Chicago’s iconic buildings on the Magnificent Mile, 900 North Michigan Shops is a luxury shopping mall. Operated by JMB Realty Corporation, it faces the same challenges that all retailers are contending with in the era of the digital consumer: The property is currently undergoing a multi-phase renovation, and JMB called upon ESI Design to reinvigorate the space with immersive audiovisual experiences.

“JMB smartly understood that the business of selling objects has to change to the business of creating experiences,” says Senior Design and Audiovisual Technologist Michael Schneider, ESI Design. “That’s something that a space like a mall can do that’s unique. Your phone or your living room or your office environment can’t do what a large, dramatic space like a mall can.”

ESI’s overall strategy was to use audiovisual technology to completely transform the visitor experience and enhance the shopping center as a destination.

The centerpiece of that strategy is an awe-inspiring, 190-foot-long, 10-panel video ceiling that draws people in from the street and inspires them to take in an ever-changing panorama of natural and branded media elements. As they look around, they are made aware of the 70 shops and restaurants available — immersed in brand invitations.

Grab attention from the outside-in and the bottom-up.


At the mall’s revitalized Michigan Avenue entrance, ESI gave visitors a glimpse of the main atrium ceiling as they enter. “We built LED displays that are both durable and rigid, suspended horizontally,” says Schneider. “They can be lowered to allow access for maintenance and repairs.

Visitors first encounter two 20- by 20-foot LED panels in a lower lobby ceiling. In the larger central atrium beyond, there are eight more giant LED panels, six stories above shoppers’ heads.

“Once inside, your attention is drawn to the digital ceiling, so you take in the entire space immediately,” says Schneider. “Visitors flow easily to the first two levels, but it was much harder to draw people to the third through sixth levels. Part of our idea was to move people upward through the entire space, visually and experientially.”

The ceiling imagery created by ESI provides the wow factor that JMB was looking for. “We created a number of different moments where the ceiling almost disappears and becomes something [like] the outside world,” Schneider says. “So birds fly through and leaves rustle on trees. It’s all ultra high-definition content that’s filmed with the latest camera technology at 16K resolution.”

Then there is subtle branded messaging — tenant names and products presented in a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns. “We worked really hard to make the commercial messaging feel like an artistic layer on top of a continuous background,” says Schneider.

Branded content appears in the sky, emerging from the clouds as simple spirals that introduce brand names and the floors where the stores are located. There is also a dynamic system of beautiful kaleidoscopes, their designs derived from purely artistic elements, or from brand and product elements submitted by retailers within the space.


Initially, ESI Design created all of the ceiling content, but the content management system (CMS) they designed, developed by Float4, supports third-party content that can be easily uploaded and scheduled.

Sound plays a big part in the mall’s transformation, too.

“Every floor has its own audio,” says Schneider, “but we’ve reinforced it at the ceiling level with larger speakers that radiate more directional audio. During regular showstopper moments, the sound primarily starts from above, so people respond to the directionality at the ceiling level. Then, the experience spreads throughout the entire space, with more general ambient audio throughout the levels below.”

A lot of thought went into retailer signage below the ceiling. All of the stores face into the atrium on each of the six floors, with store signage set back. To help visitors more quickly discover a store, ESI Design created illuminated signage panels featuring retailer names, which were placed directly in front of each store facing out into the atrium, making every retailer appear more visible than before.

“It’s a two-part approach — invite people to the railing, and then make all of the signage visible from that vantage point,” says Schneider.

Virtual reality delivers real benefits.


To design such an ambitious undertaking, ESI Design leveraged the power of virtual reality. “We actually built the entire mall in VR,” says Schneider, “using VR goggles as a way for both our design team and the client to walk through the space.”

ESI has used VR in previous projects. Using in-house VR specialists, ESI can move architectural models into a virtual space quickly and map real-time media in that space.

 “I don’t think VR totally supersedes a physical mock-up,” he says. “But what it does do very well is help everyone understand viewing angles, perspectives and scale, and how design decisions can affect the overall space.”

Let social media speak for itself.

If the goal of mall owners is to create destinations, social media is very much a driving force. 900 North Michigan Shops enlisted ESI Design to help transform the nearly 30-year-old complex into a 21st Century attraction for Chicago residents, shoppers, diners and tourists. “It’s pretty incredible how everybody not only notices the experience, but responds to it and goes, ‘wow,’ and takes pictures and selfies,” says Schneider.

“I think selfies are a really interesting expression of peoples’ desire to merge their physical and digital worlds. People will use the selfie to interact with physical space, as long as that physical space is designed for continued dynamic engagement.”

Initial social media responses are positive indicators that the digital transformation of 900 North Michigan Shops validates the strategy to draw people out of their digital cocoons and into a real-world experience that they want to share.

Through the power of audiovisual experiences, 900 North Michigan Shops is one of a growing number of retail spaces that have evolved into a destination.

Brad Grimes is the Director of Communications for AVIXA, the Audiovisual and Interactive Experience Association AVIXA, the Audiovisual and Integrated Experience Association. AVIXA is helping retail designers create a more successful future through the integration of compelling audiovisual experiences. AVIXA represents the $178 billion global commercial AV industry and produces InfoComm trade shows around the world.

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