Seattle DSF Mixer Gets The Understory On Amazon’s Spheres

May 9, 2019 by Dave Haynes

It took going to Seattle to remember and realize a few things about the city and region.

First, there are some really big, impactful companies out here – like Amazon, Microsoft, Costco, Boeing and a little coffee chain called Starbucks.

Second, there’s more of a signage ecosystem than is maybe obvious.

I am in Seattle for the Digital Signage Federation quarterly-ish board meetings, and part of what the DSF does when its exec gets together is hold a meet and greet mixer. That was last night and we had a full room of people trading business cards and stories.

Part of the attraction was a chance to hear the technical and content background of Understory, the digital signage-driven visitor center for the urban greenhouse Spheres project at Amazon’s new HQ digs in downtown Seattle.

That downtown, by the way, continues to have many, many colorful characters. I sat having a coffee yesterday morning, taking in the purple hair, the knit hat-wearing hipsters and plus-sized people wearing stuff that was way too small.

Back to the mixer …

The teeny but excellent experiential design studio Belle and Wissel, which is based in Seattle, had all of 90 days to go from zero to done on creating a space, tech and content for the center.

They brought in the local signage people from the big US integrator Whitlock, and pulled off a finished product that wins awards. Understory is a free exhibit immediately below the Spheres that allows visitors to learn about the thinking behind the big, egg-like glass structures that are filled with rare plants.

It is a giant break and huddle meeting space for Amazon staffers – only periodically open to the general public.

The main feature is a curved set of LED panels – 1.5mm modules sourced down the highway in Portland, from Planar/Leyard. The screens – which run 4K custom content about Spheres and its flora – are driven by YCD’s software.

The content is complemented by triggered lighting and focused sound speakers – so that if you step on to a circle that lights up on the floor, you can hear audio scripted by a botanist.

Belle and Wissel also developed a custom CMS for some interactive screens used around the center.

Very impressive, and the crowd at the mixer had a ton of questions.

Understory is on the same city block as an Amazon Go store, so I got the app and scanned my way into the shop.

It’s a weird experience. My first reaction was a big shrug, as it is a nicely-designed, somewhat minimalist neighbourhood market full of grab’n’go food and personal items.

It takes a little thinking and perspective to take in and appreciate that while there is nothing all that overtly whiz-bangy about a Go store (there’s zero signage or interactive, at least that I noticed), there is a huge amount of tech happening out of view.

Sensors detect if you pick up an item and also if you put it back. I did that. Looked around. Walked out. Looked at the Go app, and it had a receipt for me noting I bought nothing.

Very interesting for people working in retail, and a sign of how, perhaps, broader retailing will go. But if you want to nerd out on seeing all the tech at a Go store, you will be disappointed. Apart from the access gates that are like what you see in office towers, there’s really nothing to see. Which is maybe the point.

Up early for Day 2 of meetings. Then heading south to visit Leyard in Portland and see Pat Hellberg, the digital signage vet who kinda sorta retired from our industry and is now very happily Pat The Wine Guy.

  1. Spence Graham says:

    I’m sitting across the table from you. Grin. Have a bagel.

Leave a comment