Take the elevator to the top and enjoy the view. That’s been the main attraction at Seattle’s iconic Space Needle for pretty much all of its 52-year history.
The Needle hopes to change that starting this summer with a series of impressive digital enhancements.
“We want to be the and,” says Karen Olson, the Needle’s vice president of marketing. “An amazing view, and look at this.”
I took the ride up the 605-foot tower with Olson on a bright, clear day this week to get a look at the new digital features at the Seattle landmark.
I figured they would be creative but insignificant, particularly on that day. Who’s going to look at a screen when the city sparkles like this, and Mt. Rainier, Mt. Baker and even Mt. St. Helens are part of the show?
But it was a couple of these new features — not the stellar view — that made me go, “Whoa.”
The most surprising were the “Space Spots,” 18 circles on the ground — eight up top, and 10 on the Needle’s lower “Launchpad” — that invite visitors to download the Space Needle’s new app and point their phone’s camera. (You can also scan them from your computer screen.)
It’s augmented reality done just for kicks, but done very well.
Point your phone at a spot downstairs and you’ll see the Needle rise up out of the floor, maybe in moving clouds and rain, or a Jetsons-style re-imagining with orange ships buzzing around. Try a spot upstairs and you’ll look through a glass floor to Seattle Center or to the Sky City restaurant one floor down.
Move around the circles and the 3D animations stay smooth, urging you to pose in, take and share pictures.
The problem with the Space Spots is that they’re too new. Two staff “app-bassadors” were on hand to show off the feature to pausing visitors, and the Needle estimates that 5 percent of them have downloaded the app (a rough division of total downloads by total visitors). But I didn’t see anyone other than Olson and me check them out.
Ten percent of the Needle’s daily visitors have pinned their names and home cities on the screen’s global guestbook since it was installed a few weeks ago, adding to a sleek, easily browsable map record of many of the Space Needle’s more than 54 million total visitors.
The rest of the HD screen is a touchable, swipe-able, floor-to-ceiling photo collage of up to 2,300 Needle pictures, some as old as its construction, others as new as what visitors uploaded to spaceneedle.com a day before.
The screen, which was crowded with users, replaced a painted mural of celebrity visitors to the Space Needle over the years — highlighting a shift that digital technologies have made possible in shared cultural spaces like this one: Static exhibits that celebrated others can now be dynamic exhibits that let us celebrate ourselves.
A third eyebrow-raising feature, called the “520 Teleporter,” appeared on interactive screens facing the deck. Visitors can choose a Seattle landmark — the Seattle Aquarium, a houseboat, even a Sounders game — and swipe to move through a stunning interactive scene, powered by Microsoft PhotoSynth technology, that combines high quality panoramas of, say, a Sounders huddle, with paths from the locker room to the field and to the stands after a goal.
Another feature is a camera that will take selfies of deck visitors from a high, ideal angle, and high-res controllable HD cameras that pan and zoom to spots around the city. Kids were having a field day with one as I walked by.
One of the more ambitious new features, coming Aug. 11, is what the Needle is calling the “Zoomie.” By posing and remotely activating a few cameras stationed a mile away near Kerry Park, visitors will be able to take zoomable pictures of themselves with the entire Space Needle.
That’s going to be something.
The Needle is hosting parties for hotel concierges, tour guides and other nearby hospitality staff this week to show off the enhancements. Space Needle staff members are tracking app downloads, social sharing, feature use and other metrics to keep an eye on how well users respond.
No techie toy is going to beat the Needle’s unobstructed view of our city on a summer day.
But on a cloudy one, some of these might get pretty close.
Mónica Guzmán is a freelance journalist, speaker and award-winning digital life columnist for GeekWire. You can find her tweeting away @moniguzman, subscribe to her public Facebook posts at facebook.com/moniguzman or reach her via email. See this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.