Imagine, if you can, a three-story-high, multi-sensory tower, sitting, like a downed spaceship on New York City’s 5th Avenue. Visible from the street and impossible to ignore, bright white lights call attention to 29 huge LED displays and 30 directional speakers blaring heartbeat sound effects to the narration of Olympic medalist and New York Marathon champion Shalone Flanagan. She breathlessly describes the feel of her shoes hitting the pavement and her ponytail rhythmically banging against her jersey.
Then, to a mix of flashing lights and a cacophony of images, BMX stuntman Nigel Sylvester recounts his first visit to Times Square. So went the Beacon Sculpture set up by Hovercraft Studio for Nike’s House of Innovation store in New York City, one of many art-meets-commerce, shopping-meets-digital experiences that Portland, Oregon’s Hovercraft Studio has done for their clients (and especially for the US sports giant).
Nike Beacon Sculpture, House of Innovation NYC
With a concept the media has labelled “phygital marketing,” Hovercraft Studio leads the way in creating a bond between the digital and physical retail world, a skill more and more necessary in post Covid times.
“We are decoupling the notion that digital in retail means creating an intersection or relationship with a screen of some kind,” says Zack Teachout, who founded the company in 2009 after cutting his teeth on the East Coast with important work in retail and environmental design. “Whether it’s a touch screen, an LED streaming content or one in the palm of your own hand,” Teachout continues, “we’ve been folding more and more physical interfaces and hands free interactions into our projects and have had some exciting results as the technologies have been less overt and more seamlessly integrated to elevate an experience.”
Nike Zoom at House of Innovation in NYC
Teachout and Hovercraft count the Beacon project as a highlight alongside All Start Weekend 2020 in Chicago where the studio ran five projects concurrently, launching projects with Nike, Jordan and Foot Locker. “This was just before Covid hit,” Teachout remembers, “And our team contributed across the project types from event to retail to interactive experience to animation and campaign.”
Jordan All Star 2020 HUB23 created by Hovercraft
Nike Adapt BB Trial, House of Innovation in New York City
Hovercraft now finds themselves in a very interesting position. Brick and mortar retail was already running on low fuel before a worldwide pandemic. Now, the situation is even more precarious. “Brick and mortar is going through massive change,” says Teachout. “Especially with the exponential pressure that Covid has put on it. Ecomm has come to dominate the transactional relationship that brands and customers historically had in-store, especially with shopping for necessities and essentials based on convenience, selection and availability. Nothing will ever replace going out in the world to explore, which is part of the allure of retail, you’ll inevitably stumble upon something you didn’t know about; a product, an experience or even a brand. Ecomm will never replace the satisfaction of hand selecting an item or experiencing a brand’s personality in a physical setting.
Coming out of Covid, we’re expecting to see people excited to get out and experience brick and mortar, especially from brands that are adapting to the new landscape and giving purpose beyond transaction.” Another example of this is the AR experience Hovercraft installed (again) at Nke’s House of Innovation: Nike shoppers can use their mobile phones to learn more about Nike products and interact with animated wildlife. By walking through an interactive geozone with a digital checklist, shoppers can track their progress through a series of AR challenges. By using their phones to scan QR codes located on the floor as they move throughout the space, shoppers will reveal animated figures and product information. Upon completion, they are rewarded with a physical gift brought to them by a masked store associate and a digital AR model of the Nike ‘ACG Hiker’ mascot they can keep on their phone.
AR experience at Nike ACG’s House of Innovation in New York City
While Teachout is adamant that not every space needs some sort of digital component and is “very against using tech for tech’s sake,” as he puts it, Hovercraft feels that when a digital play makes sense, it is because it “fills a void in the story or gives us the ability to express something in an engaging way.” Hovercraft aims to create memories, leave lasting impressions and inspire the viewer. “We actively talk about keeping the experience design focused on the end user,” says Teachout. “It’s easy to get caught up in the design process or lose sight of the user while navigating the many agendas as projects run through the varying checkpoints of large client teams. Afterall, brand equity comes in all forms.”
Nike Re-Creation Center c/o Virgil Abloh immersive audio tunnel
Hovercraft’s retail and brand clients find themselves in an exciting but somewhat scary space. “Many of our clients are intimidated with the process of moving through a project that has multiple interconnected workflows that are out of their expertise,” admits Teachout. “Moving through a campaign or a live action production is one thing, but developing something that has a spatial, technical, interaction, A/V and content layer on a swift timeline is another. I think it feels a bit like jumping in with blind faith on their part, but for us, it’s our comfort zone.”
Using past research and design elements to help brands get comfortable and fit their budgets has become part of Hovercraft’s day to day mission to bring all aspects of retail together in a state of technological awe. “A lot of the work we do goes beyond the transactional relationship that brands and customers have traditionally had in brick and mortar. This is critical because ecomm now dominates this relationship space because of convenience, selection and availability.” And Hovercraft plans to continue blowing our minds, making shopping fun again in a world champing at the bit to get back out into brick and mortar retail. Now that’s something we didn’t think we’d hear in 2021.