When people enter 900 North Michigan Shops on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, they may catch a glimpse of birds flying above the seven levels of high-end retail and dining. Except those aren’t real birds and that isn’t really the sky overhead. Created by New York-based ESI Design, the ceiling is, in fact, a 190-foot-long digital canopy of high-resolution LED displays, designed to draw visitors through the mall with eye-catching, high-resolution content, including lifelike, computer-generated flocks.

Such digital experiences increasingly permeate public life. What has come to be called “media architecture” — integrated audiovisual (AV) technology and lighting systems in the built environment — is a growing specialty influencing the design of retail spaces. The right combination of content, space, technology helps companies engage, inform, and entertain consumers in ways they couldn’t before.


Media architecture — you can think of it as digital signage taken to a next level of scale and immersion — combines the dynamism of digital installations with the placemaking of physical and architectural design. It can help transform a store and, in the process, influence shoppers’ attitudes or tell a brand’s unique story.

Media architecture can also include motion-activated or interactive technology that responds to customers as they pass. And with advances in display technology, it can assume unique shapes, wrap around building elements, or create digital halos overhead. No matter how it’s used, media architecture and the technology it entails should be integrated into the overall retail design in order to get the best results.

According to 2018 research into retail technology adoption by AVIXA, the Audiovisual and Integrated Experience Association, 47 percent of retailers surveyed said they planned to increase the amount of digital signage in their stores. When shoppers were asked what they thought of the many displays, videowalls, and other digital experiences in retail, more than half said it helped them learn about products and 41 percent said it added to their enjoyment of shopping in stores.

At the Oakley flagship store in New York, multimedia design firm Moment Factory employed media architecture to draw in people from the street outside. The unconventional installation comprises 27 LCD screens, running the length of the ceiling and hung at angles in nine rows of three. From outside, the displays appear as one large image. Inside, customers perceive nine retail zones that draw them toward the back of the store. From every viewpoint, customers are immersed in the Oakley brand, while precious wall and floor space remains available for sales and merchandising.

Experiential design firm Float4 was behind the media architecture at Bloomingdale’s Carousel pop-up store on the first floor of its New York City flagship. On facing sides of Bloomingdale’s Carousel are giant videowalls built with LG screens and measuring 10 feet high and 35 feet wide. The content on the video walls reflects the theme Bloomingdale’s plans for the space, and it combines pre-shot, live footage with graphics that move and change based on computer algorithms. The result is an immersive, dynamic experience the feels fresh each time a shopper enters.

At 900 North Michigan Shops, the media architecture in the building’s ceiling generates ambience and allows the property’s operator, JMB Realty, to ensure the visuals change and morph to promote retailers, products, and the city outside.

“Even though it’s 190 feet long and 10 high-resolution screens, we treat it as one cohesive canvas all the way across,” says Andrew Lazarow, Designer and AV Technologist for ESI Design.

Sometimes, the LED ceiling appears as the sky outside. “We developed with Float4 this idea of a digital skylight, where the birds — every time you come in — never fly the same pattern again,” Lazarow says. At other times, the digital skylight might feature products on sale throughout the mall, rendered and presented in dynamic, graphical ways. ESI Design provided a custom content management system so mall operators could upload existing images and have them included in computer-generated scenes.

Ultimately, the goal is greater engagement. Media architecture and audiovisual technologies effectively change the way people experience the world around them, whether in malls, stores, or other public areas, allowing brands to forge new bonds with customers. As retailers look to reimagine the in-store experience, media architecture helps bring their stories to life.

Joe’ Lloyd is Senior Director of Communications at AVIXA™, the Audiovisual and Integrated Experience Association. AVIXA and its members aim to help retailers create a more successful future through the integration of compelling audiovisual experiences. AVIXA represents the $247 billion global commercial AV industry and produces InfoComm trade shows around the world. For more information, visit www.avixa.org/retailAV.