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With the Microsoft Lounge at L.A. LIVE, a new technological vision blends Hollywood’s past and present

In downtown Los Angeles, 20 million people pass through AEG’s L.A. LIVE entertainment and sports district every year. This is a place where you can park your car all day and stay late – or even overnight at the hotel on-site. You can eat at a number of restaurants, cheer on favorite teams or dance to some of the world’s most popular musical acts at STAPLES Center across the street, and check out the red carpet celebrities attending award shows at Microsoft Theater.

And now, there’s a new addition to the campus: the recently revamped Microsoft Lounge, which occupies the once mostly empty lower lobby of the Microsoft Theater.

“It’d been a blank space, under-utilized, but it had great potential,” says Mike Bernstein, vice president of research for Wasserman, a full-service lifestyle consulting agency. “It needed some love and thought, and it took a real partnership to transform it to a space designed to engage and attract fans.”

When visitors go downstairs, they’re surrounded by the plush décor of old Hollywood speakeasies with antique furniture, brick walls, the workings of a 1930s piano encased in a glass coffee table sitting atop an antique 1920s Persian Heriz rug and 45 hanging lamps created from recycled cardboard.

They’ll also experience several artist installations that include a massive Kinect-powered wall of wooden tiles that moves based on your motions, a photo booth with social sharing features and a mosaic mural of images continually compiled from the latest visits.

“For fans who are attending events at Microsoft Theater upstairs, this will give them an intimate, premium experience that is very different than what they will see upstairs,” says Bernstein, who was brought in to do third-party valuation and find future opportunities for growth when Microsoft inherited the property from Nokia. “It will serve as a before-and-after destination, truly acting as a lounge, a place to relax and unwind.”

The Lounge can be used for multiple purposes even when the Theater is not hosting a larger event. It will be available to use as an ancillary hospitality space for other events happening in and around the L.A. LIVE district.

And for those who work there, it’s become a new place to brainstorm.

“Instead of sitting around in a sterile boardroom, we moved our production meeting to that space and ideas started to flow,” says Donald Graham, vice president of Events and Production for Microsoft Theater. “The lounge transitioned the way we do business.”

Graham says they now conduct meetings down there and host private corporate receptions on non-event days.

“Now it’s a place where people want to go,” he says. “We know events, Microsoft knows technology. They know how to touch customers through technology, and we touch people through events. We both have the same end goal: that the consumer walks away with a magical experience.”

For AEG, the partnership between it and Microsoft spurred the transformation of the space into an aesthetically inspiring, dynamic destination.

“We’re now getting other partners who tell us they can’t believe this transformation happened in such a short time,” Graham says. “They’re coming back with ideas for concession and bar areas, to match Microsoft, so it all runs together.”

Microsoft and AEG commissioned the Brooklyn, New York-based interactive studio VolvoxLabs to take on the project of filling out the space. (VolvoxLabs has previously worked with Microsoft on a music installation at CMJ Music Marathon.)

“We realized quickly that we could create something unique and leave a mark and get people to become part of the experience,” says VolvoxLabs’ Kamil Nawratil, creative director of Microsoft Lounge. He approached the project as if solving a puzzle, taking on different challenges. “The installations tell the story of the theater and Microsoft, and how people can interact with each element. It allows you to act out and express how you feel at the moment. It’s one of the biggest permanent pieces we’ve done, four standalone installations that form one cohesive piece.”

The first piece is a Microsoft-powered kinetic wood sculpture. Inspired by the Microsoft logo, it’s made up of 80 Ultramotion motors and 160 wooden tiles, and is reactive to visitors by using the Microsoft Kinect. The piece moves and illuminates with different colors in response to human motion.

“It’s living and breathing. As it converts rotary motion into linear motion, the wall moves dynamically,” says Nawratil. “Hidden behind the sculpture wall is a grid of motors, with custom LEDs. Each logo has two motors and LED pixels. The motors will push the wooden tiles out or back in, when you pass by, the Kinect turns your motion into physical waves following you on the sculpture, which is really surprising and fun in real time.”

The team learned how to treat the ash wood, which was sourced locally. They milled it in-house in Brooklyn, sanded and stained it, and shipped 10 modules to LA.

The second installation is a 40-foot projection mapped wall made of high-density foam with three Barco RLM-W14 large venue projectors casting content on the façade, which can be tied to events happening at the venue.  Overhead three Kinects can also track user movements to transform their motion into artistic content, which is projected in real-time.

The third experience is a 4-monitor video wall equipped with a Kinect sensor and a touch screen interface. “It runs you through steps to take photos. It’s a digital green screen, essentially, and then you are being superimposed on backgrounds the AEG staff can pick,” Nawratil says. The display can align with artists or events happening at the venue at the same time, and visitors can then post the photos to social media. The installation also uses Microsoft Azure to store the images for those who opt-in.

The fourth installation is a digital mosaic mural and focuses on documentation and sharing, Nawratil says.

“We wanted people to become part of the experience, so as you take a photograph, you can see the ripple effect as it comes into a mosaic mural that spans 25 feet,” he says. “It holds 1,700 photos at the same time, from two more Barco projectors.”

The technology behind the scenes involves a dizzying array of motors, sensors, computers and wires. The installations required Azure programming, physical computing, hacking the Kinect (for inserting the right images in the right environment) and technical designers to make sure the motors behind the Momentum installation are moving the right ways. Volvox Labs developed custom software for AEG, so they can choose different modes for the installation and program specific colors connected to 150 meters of LED strips.

“We’re extremely proud. There are so many moving parts, and so far everything is working beautifully. And all this is run by a Microsoft Surface tablet with custom user interface to manually control effects and turn on-off all elements within the space” Nawratil says. “People are extremely interested in the photo booth. People love getting creative and putting themselves in different environments. Then when they see their photo among others on the mosaic mural it is a surprise to them. And then the Kinetic sculpture has a unique interaction, it’s such a massive piece. It essentially feels like it is with you, and is alive and breathing based on your movement. Since the installations are based on human interaction every visitors has their own personal experience, no single one similar to the other.”

To complement these installations, which have been live since August, Pasadena-based Tiffany Harris Designs channeled 20 years of experience in the industry to step up to the challenge.

“We wanted the vintage feel of old Hollywood, surrounded by the most advanced technology – old meets new,” says Shawn Sanford, senior director of Lifestyle Marketing for Microsoft. “I want every place that we build to be an incredible technology experience. I want people to see Microsoft the way I see it: full of creativity, the engine that brings your imagination to life. We’re not just about Windows or Office or even a device, we are about what those products can help you create. The tools we have within Microsoft give limitless possibilities of what could be.”

As a point of hometown pride, Harris took up that gauntlet, and went to work.

“There weren’t places for people to gather, sit and discover on their own. That was our challenge, to complement the space and technology,” Harris says.  “We wanted to juxtapose both by looking to the past, for a historical concept of LA. The technology is the only modern feature, so it really stood out. We can look to the future, but we don’t have to forget where we came from.”

To fill the 5,000 square feet of space in the lounge, Harris and project manager Michele Hall scoured flea markets and dealers across LA to fit the theme of 1920s Hollywood. Harris also engaged Graypants, a Seattle-based artisan, to design and produce custom light fixtures using recycled cardboard.

“Our goal was to make it look like the space has been there forever, so we embraced the imperfections of a lot of the pieces we bought,” says Harris, who is also a frequent visitor to L.A. LIVE.

Adds Hall, “At the heart of it, we wanted a space where people feel connected, to each other and the technology. That’s what the space now does, through offering guests different seating areas for smaller groups.”

In Microsoft, AEG found an active partner to execute the vision for a functional and fashionable use of this space.

“The partnership really challenged AEG to be better, to be more technology oriented,” says Eric Kohler, the vice president of Partnership Activation for the Global Partnerships division of AEG. He manages the day-to-day Microsoft partnership. “L.A. LIVE is so vital to AEG, and Microsoft has been an amazing partner. We’re able to collaborate. It’s a true partnership, not just a sponsorship. We’ve done creative and fun activations together, and this lounge is a true example of this partnership and what we can do to transform an under-utilized space to a cool speakeasy/living room vibe that celebrates LA’s rich and diverse history.”

The completed space, with the technology installations and the aesthetics provided by Harris, more than met Sanford’s challenge.

“It made tears come to my eyes,” Sanford says. “I’m a technologist at heart but this result exceeded any expectation I could ever put on it. It’s literally the most amazing place I’ve stepped into that represents what Microsoft stands for.”

All photos owned by Microsoft.