April 1, 2009
The Big Apple Store
New York tourism gets a 21st-century interface.
The challenge of being a tourist is getting a map of the city inside your head. This is easier in New York than in most places—thanks to the grid—but in January it became easier still, at least for visitors to the city’s new official tourist office, in a storefront at the northern edge of Times Square. This isn’t Ye Olde New-York visitors’ center, filled with pictures of smiling hot-dog vendors, yellow cabs, and fake street signs. Rather, it’s a place for postmillennial digital New York, where everyone’s on the phone and the mayor’s an information tycoon.
Resembling an Apple Store that has run out of iPods, the room is empty except for five billiard-size tables and the underlit supergraphic i’s—for “information”—that float above them. The glow makes their message clear: step inside the network here. On some of the tables, touch-screen Google Maps displays offer listings selected by an in-house editorial team. The idea, says Jake Barton, whose media-design firm, Local Projects, cocreated the visitors’ center, is to deliver digital information in a way that reflects the act of walking around town. “It’s all about the actual experience of being in the city itself, but collapsed into this interface,” Barton explains. “It’s all space based.”
Visitors start by placing a cardboard puck in the middle of one of the electronic tables. Then they create their own itineraries by zooming in and out on the map, and send themselves the results via e-mail or text message. Black-clad reps stand by, ready to help. Guests can also carry their pucks to the back of the space and set them on one of two white pedestals, which cue either a printout, or a Google Earth fly-through projected on a video wall, of their soon-to-be-real journeys. It’s a polished combination of familiar technologies—touch-screen table, clickable map—but the bells and whistles matter less than the sense of geography. The tables lay out the electronic maps horizontally (like the city) and allow groups to gather around them. And the tactility of the puck makes plotting a course in this virtual city somewhat physical—a little more like navigating concrete streets.
Local Projects collaborated on the 2,000-square-foot, $1.8 million project with WXY Architecture + Urban Design, which is known for small parks and public buildings in New York—important because the information center has to act more like a public space than a store. “We needed to brand this as a space for information, versus a space where you either waited for something or bought things,” says Claire Weisz, the W in WXY. “We wanted a level of abstraction.” The point wasn’t simply to banish the kitsch but to keep people moving. However engaging the space or its technology, the visitors’ center never forgets that it’s designed to send tourists back out into the real city.