David Crumley On How HUSH Studios Designs And Delivers Experiential Digital For Some Of World’s Biggest Brands
February 16, 2022 by Dave Haynes
Experience is one of those soft, squishy terms that gets used a lot in the context of digital signage – using displays and content to attract, engage and leave a desired impression with the people who go through a designed space.
There are many projects that get described as visual experiences that aren’t a lot more than screens on walls that are running stuff, but a Brooklyn company called HUSH Studios is absolutely in the business of designing and delivering visual experiences that can communicate the mission, values and products of big corporate clients.
HUSH has done interesting work in the corporate spaces of some of the biggest and most familiar brands in the United States and beyond. The company came on my radar after it pushed out a case study last year showing what was done at Uber’s newly opened corporate campus in San Francisco. It’s a digitally-driven space, but much more inventive than just a big fine pitch LED on a feature wall.
I had an interesting chat with David Crumley, the Austin, Texas-based Technology Director for HUSH. We get into the thinking and technology challenges of these kinds of projects, what works and why, and his life being the guy who has to make the big ideas into something that exists or can be made, that makes sense, fits a budget, and works reliably.
David, thank you for joining me. What does HUSH do, and what’s your role?
David Crumley: HUSH is an experiential design firm based in Brooklyn. Our mission is to design experiences for the most dynamic organizations in the world. Our work is around the globe. Our goal is to seamlessly integrate architecture and digital technology to create custom experiences for the workplace, employees, guests and transform the built environment with technology.
My role is the technical director and I focus on the kind of AV hardware and systems side of it and we have other technical directors that focus more on the software side.
So you would go onsite, do site surveys and all that, at least in normal times, and basically work with the big thinkers who say, “we want to do this” and you say, okay, or sure we can do that?
David Crumley: Yeah, that’s actually a great way of describing it, and how I often will talk with my team. We have an amazing creative team of art directors, architects that come up with amazing concepts, sketches or quick renders and then my job is to then look at that and figure out, okay, how do we make that? What technologies can we use? Hopefully it’s something that exists already, so it’s not building something from scratch, sometimes it is.
And then working with a huge ecosystem of partners on the client side and the build side to bring it all to life.
So at least part of your time is spent understanding the emerging technologies and building relationships with different vendors to understand whether these guys will deliver or they’re going to be a problem?
David Crumley: Exactly, right. We spent a lot of time working with LED manufacturers, lighting manufacturers, AV integrators, fabricators, physical computing partners all over the place to figure out, to know, and have a jumpstart on what products or options are out there. What will make the most sense to be permanently installed? Because our project has a lifespan of 10 plus years. So it’s crucial to have those relationships in that knowledge of all the hardware and technologies out there.
The company’s key statement is: we mix content, space and technology to communicate an organization’s mission, vision, and products.
I’m curious how you get to that, because there’s a lot of corporate mission statements out there that somehow managed to be lofty and, in their words, but also empty. Like I’ll look at their mission statement, I go, okay, what does that mean?
David Crumley: Yeah, that’s a good question and to be totally transparent, that is not my area of expertise. Thankfully, we have a huge team of strategists and creatives that spend a lot of time upfront working with the clients to distill that down, to figure out the essence of what we should be creating and what should be built and what the messaging should be to actually translate the company’s brand and mission and identity in to these experiences that can easily turn into something where it becomes more complex or convoluted.
I think HUSH does a really great job of distilling that down and finding the essence of what needs to be communicated and doing it in an artful and thoughtful way, which is one of the main reasons I’ve worked with them so long and enjoy the work we do there.
Do projects lead with digital or is it more a case of, it’s just a common outcome because the technology makes sense?
David Crumley: It’s a bit of both. We do start with digital, that is our bread and butter. We are excellent at taking data and content and using that to create amazing visualizations and content and lighting animations, and what not with these projects, but we also do a lot of strictly analog work as well. So super graphics, like fabricated elements that go within the building itself.
We have a few that have no digital components at all. It’s just strictly analog type work. It really depends on the space, the client, the brief, bost of our projects do have digital aspects.
Do the clients or potential clients come with a brief in mind? Do they have an idea that we want to do a huge video wall in our lobby or whatever or are they saying we want to communicate our mission, our brand, what should we do?
David Crumley: It’s a bit of both, honestly.
We prefer whenever it’s the latter, because we have more of a blank page to work with and we can do those extensive strategy design concepts in phases and really figure out what makes sense for the client, their brand and for the space. But on the other side, we do get a lot of projects where the building is built, they have SPECT hardware, they have a big system, but they have nothing to go on it and so we come in to figure out what kind of content or what makes sense on it. So we do a bit of both of them as well.
I would imagine the latter is maybe not problematic because it’s work and it could still be interesting and all that, but to you you’re confined to what you can do, right?
David Crumley: Oh yeah, exactly.
Your company’s worked with a lot of very big global brands. Why do they come your way?
David Crumley: That’s a good question. I think they are drawn to the work we do that I kinda mentioned earlier where we will work closely with them to distill down what the message and what the concept is.
I think we do a great job of integrating media and content into the architecture, to where it’s not just screens on walls or big video wall, like you said, and for the clients that want to have that tight integration between architecture, technology, content, storytelling, I think that’s where we stand out and our body of work and luckily that gravitates with a lot of clients, and when they come to us, that’s what they want and that’s what we do well. And so we’re typically set up for success in that regard.
You mentioned storytelling. I found a lot of corporate lobby video walls and experiences or whatever, it’s not so much storytelling, at least with the early ones, it has been more about just the wow factor!
David Crumley: Yeah, that’s very true, like big, bold, fast content, just trying to do that initial kind of wow moment, like you said. And another approach we do is like a slow burn where there is a wow moment in the scale and the architectural elements, but we’re not showing all our cards or all the things that technology can do. It’s a bit restrained, both in the content and the tech and it allows the content to be a longer enjoyable thing, especially for employees that come into a lobby every day where they don’t see everything it can do the first time and it just becomes repetitive.
Yeah, it’s interesting when you say slow burn, because I often talk about how the wow factor jobs tend to have a best before date or an expiry date where it just becomes this very expensive, big piece of wallpaper. So, yeah, strategy is super important for that.
Let’s talk about a project that got HUSH on my radar, the global headquarters for Uber in San Francisco. Can you describe what was done there?
David Crumley: Yeah, so we were brought on very early. So it was one of those ideal situations that I mentioned, being a blank slate where the client knew they wanted to do something in their lobby for a new headquarters building built in San Francisco. It’s a multi-building complex and there’s one building called, MD2, that is the main entry point and it’s an amazingly designed building that has this beautiful open lobby space and they knew they wanted to have some sort of interactive installation there. And we were brought in to do strategy and figure out what made sense.
We did a bunch of concepts, but then they would narrow down to two that we luckily had the time, budget to actually build out and flesh out both of those concepts with full renders, motion tests, some initial drawings to really flesh them out and all the different content modes, presented our way up through the organization and got buy off on one of those concepts, which is called, The Stream and that was ultimately what was built and the concept behind that on a super high level was just translating Uber’s activities into beams of light and motion that would be constantly flowing through the lobby and resolving in a kind of high resolution canvas at one end of the lobby that could be used as a means of providing storytelling, not traditional content, but it would at least be a have the resolution and surface area to provide, video content and a mix of motion graphics and what-not.
So we worked on that project for, I think the design was about three years, design, construction fabrication, so it was a long-term project and we installed it last year and it officially launched this year, and components of it are being scaled to other Uber lobbies throughout the world that we are in the process of doing now.
I believe at one end, there’s a fine pitch LED video wall, if you want to call it a conventional video wall that you might find in a lobby, but a lot of what was done was custom fabricated LED almost like light tubes and things, right?
David Crumley: Yeah. So you’re exactly right on the LED wall. It’s a fairly standard LED wall but it’s about eight feet wide, about nine feet tall. And, above it, and throughout the lobby are these custom tubes. We worked with a fabricator called Machine Histories down in Los Angeles. And again, going back to the privilege and opportunity to have a long design process. And the time to prototype, we worked with them to create two prototypes of these LED tubes and they are utilizing the Martin DC strip, which HUSH has used on quite a few projects. And I’m a huge fan of it because it has long cable runs for the power supplies and 16 bit color depth, 60 frames per second,. So I knew I wanted to use that to begin with, but we had a challenge in that we needed to have the tubes as thin as possible, like everything in our architecture team wants to do as thin and sleek as possible, but we also needed to have the content viewable as close to 360 degrees around the tube so we spent a lot of time figuring out the right diffusion, the right placement of the LED, figuring out cable management actually almost productizing the tubes where we worked with the fabricator to make a custom PCB connector from tube to tube, so all the tubes can be easily removed and replaced for maintenance.
But in the end, we ended up having over 2200 of the Martin 15 millimeter strips used in these tubes and there’s an overhead component that’s suspended from the ceiling that makes this a tube array above your head, as you walk in through the lobby. And that’s I think just under 90 feet long and at its highest point, it goes up to 25 feet.
The lobby has a single height area and then it opens up into a double or triple height space and the tube array actually bins up and goes up to the upper area over some suspended bridges. And then we also built a large wall behind the reception area using the same tubes that forms about a 22 foot high screen by 28 feet wide low-res with the same tubes, but it makes this huge statement that has a bit of transparency to see the stairs behind it in between the tubes and you can actually get behind the tubes and see the same content from both sides.
I don’t know the budget or anything else, but I assume that if Uber really wanted to have high-res tubes or just make the whole thing high-res, they would have the dollars to do that, but they’ve gone this way. Why was it done that way? They just liked the idea of keeping it low-res or is it more visually interesting that way?
David Crumley: There are a few criteria. One, the visual aspect since the architecture of the lobby has lots of slats and repeating linear elements that the tube array compliments really well.
To your point, the LEDs are premium LEDs from Martin, the tubes are custom fabricated, there’s a lot of work. So certainly that money could have been put toward more traditional LED displays or high-res, but having that kind of art more integrated into the architectural design as well as something that just looks different and unique to the space, and we also had another criteria to keep in mind is that this lobby is an unconditioned space and we could not add any additional cooling. So we were trying to keep heat energy consumption to a minimum within the space, which the LED strips are great for.
= So it’s an interesting overall discipline that HUSH has in that there are creative shops who produce the material for big LED video walls and corporate lobbies and so on and there are vendors who could come into that space to say, yeah, we can put a 1.2 pixel pitch wall right along the whole breadth of the lobby here and there, nut in order to really pull this together, you’ve got to be creative, you’ve got to have technology sourcing, and you’ve got to have a whole bunch of engineers in the middle to pull all this together right?
David Crumley: Yeah, and that’s one of the great things about HUSH is that we have architects on staff. We have more traditional art directors and designers, motion graphics designers, myself as the hardware background, creative technologists that do custom software dev. So running this actual experience as a custom piece of software that our team built in open frameworks and actually multiple applications written but that does a mix of rendered motion graphics as well as real time content that uses a whole interactive system that I haven’t even touched on.
So yeah, I feel like to do what we do, you have to have all these different kinds of departments and disciplines under one roof.
Yeah, if you don’t have that, can you really even be competitive in these kinds of jobs?
David Crumley: Yeah, it’s difficult, because if we didn’t have this mix, we e could potentially do the initial concept and then that would then have to be bid out to another firm to build and then potentially another firm to do the software. It becomes costly, I would imagine the cost would then be probably double what it was.
Yeah, and finger pointing!
David Crumley: Oh yeah, exactly. One throat to choke is a good and bad thing, but depending on whose throat it is.
You referenced content, I’m curious, when you talk about being able to visualize Uber’s activities, what’s going on there, are you tapping into an API that has analytics that are showing how many drivers are on the road right now or whatever?
David Crumley: We sourced data but there’s no live data feeding it, which we do a mix of content for our projects. Sometimes it’s the live API, sometimes it’s an existing data set. And with this, we use existing info to build our content around. We do have some things, future content modes we’re working on, that’ll pull more live data.
But the real time component of this, the interactive mode that I mentioned, is using an array of nine depth cameras that are in that overhead array, and as guests walk under that array, you are disrupting the stream of information flowing above you in the tubes. So you can see ripples within the content, and then as you approach the high-res screen at the end of the lobby, once you reach a certain threshold, it reveals a curtain animation that reveals a more traditional video content on the high-res wall. So you can actually trigger that content.
I recognize that you’re on the technical side of this, but I have to ask this anyways, experience is a really soft squishy kind of term. How does it get defined with these kinds of projects and how do you measure and know when you know something is working, that it is delivering an experience?
David Crumley: Oh, that is a great question. I’ll take a beat to think about that. Because I’m very much on the technical side and not on the more feelings side of it, for lack of a better term. But I think I personally look into social media posts or seeing what people’s reactions to the work we do and how photos are being shared and how they’re connecting to it and we, as a company, do analytics in terms of number of guests, their engagement time, what videos they trigger, dwell time, all those things, which we turn into actual intellectual reports for our clients to determine that.
But I think it’s more the kind of personal anecdotes that I find appealing, just how they talk about it’s this amazing experience they haven’t seen before, or even this particular experience is viewable through the storefront windows and this building is across the street from the arena where the Golden State Warriors play, so it gets a lot of pedestrian traffic. So you see a lot of photos of other people talking about it as well.
With the pandemic, we’ve had this shift of head offices being the Mecca, so to speak, and that’s where you go. Too many companies have people working from home. I’m curious if that has changed the business, changed the way you have to approach corporate spaces and are companies scaling back, or are they seeing this stuff as even more important?
David Crumley: I think it’s the latter. We were worried at first, a couple of years ago when everything happened. But then as we talked with clients and saw briefs coming out and seeing articles and blog posts from industry thought leaders, we came to realize and also we agree with the stance that things like what we do and Uber’s lobby and other headquarters, I think helped make the office a more appealing place to visit, because it’s to actually get employees there especially with content that is refreshed or ever-changing, or that’s data-driven because it’s something special to see and interact with.
And so luckily, since the pandemic started, the work we’ve been doing hasn’t slowed down and we’re still seeing briefs and clients wanting to do these types of engaging experiences in their offices, public space.
You mentioned content being refreshed, is that something that you have to really push on clients to understand that guys lighting this up is a great first step, but it’s a first step you need to budget and think about what’s on this display and what’s in this experience for, as you said earlier, 5-10 years?
David Crumley: Yeah, it’s extremely important. I think anything we do, we prepare a content matrix and we’ll propose evergreen content that can live throughout the life of experience and then also content that needs to be refreshed or changed or in the case of it being data-driven or built off on a data set, the frequency of that. So there’s kind of incentive to keep it fresh, like you said, and for a lot of our projects, after we deploy, we’ll build in a certain amount of time for content updates over the next year, two years. That’s part of the scope so we can help make sure that happens because it is easy a lot of times for it to be up, everyone’s happy and then forget about it.
Even though we build our own content management system and adjust it to each project, and even though it’s user-friendly to use and built to update, it’s not always used by every client, obviously. So it’s extremely important to do that and continue to update the content like you said.
What do you do in cases where you have a corporate client or potential client who already has a corporate digital signage network with standard flat panel screens in the sales area, maybe other areas as well and they’re using already have a CMS of some kind that they use and they have a certain way of doing things and you’re trying to plug into that, does it become problematic?
David Crumley: It’s tricky, I’m not going to lie. And we always get the requests like why can’t you just use the CMS we have? And it’s possible, it’s not easy and by the time you factor in all the customization that’s required, it’s typically more expensive than just using the custom CMS that we built and then editing it or adding features or modules to do everything that’s needed.
So we almost always will use our core CMS and in the scenario that you said that’s come up recently and we’re actually building a feature for our CSM so as you use it to create content that’s real time and targeting our custom displays, it will actually render out that content in a video format. And so the company can use their existing digital signage system to use that video as well so the content can be shared across.
So you would have a reverse API, so you could push stuff out to other systems?
David Crumley: Yeah, exactly.
Is there technology, let’s say super fine micro LEDs or the LEDs you’re starting to see embedded in architectural glass that you’re waiting on it to mature and then use?
David Crumley: Yeah, I feel like over the last two-three years, so many projects or clients or partners have recommended doing LED glass or the LED film that can be applied on glass and it’s getting close. We haven’t used it yet because it just hasn’t been the right resolution or the right brightness or for a myriad of reasons. I am certainly excited by it, but I’m not quite there yet to be able to spec it.
And even the OLED displays, we haven’t really spec’d those yet for the same reason, for content burn-in and just how they work, but I think this year, I’m starting to feel more comfortable with those and we’re starting to include those in some of our designs and proposals.
And yeah, the micro LED, I’m extremely interested in. We had a project last year where I tried to use it, which didn’t go super well because the product just didn’t live up to expectations. But I think again in another year, I think we’ll be close if they can get the kind of coating process down to be consistent across it. But I have not seen that yet.
You’re using a lot of LEDs. Do you have to worry about proximity to people? Are you encouraged by the increasing number of manufacturers who are doing these kinds of coated modules?
David Crumley: Yeah, I’m interested in the coating. That’s what I was referring to, not being consistent across the panels yet to where we had a project where it had the coating, but then it almost looked like you painted a brick wall with different shades of paint.
Since we tie it so tightly into the architecture, we try to incorporate ways to naturally keep people away. So like for Uber, for example, we have a nice trim piece around and then the interactive spot for you to deal with it is 10 feet away and, it’s a natural stopping point and so it’s just using the human nature of not getting too close to a big, bright wall to help protect it.
Do all the business systems now seem to be a lot more secure, but open through APIs. Are you able to get out a lot more data?
David Crumley: Yes and no. It’s still a little tricky in most regards to get truly live data from a lot of companies for exactly what you said for security, privacy reasons. And then just making sure that data format of the API doesn’t change drastically, that’s been a big challenge for us. So typically, we’ll use live data, but it’ll be in a way that can be formatted or have an intermediary step to then make sure it continues to work with our software app.
Through these last two years I would imagine the standard practice when you’re working on a project like the Uber one that started well before the pandemic, you would go onsite, you’d be in San Francisco for two weeks or whatever, figuring all this out.
Have various HUSH people had to mostly do this remotely?
David Crumley: It was a mix. We started the design process before and then we did a few site visits before everything shut down. And then we luckily did the prototype review the year before, I guess it was 2019 that we did a lot of the prototype reviews, both in LA and our studio in New York with the client and then during construction, we were not on site until it was essentially installed or close to being installed. And we had a small team that went during the tube and hardware installation. So myself included, I was on site for a couple of weeks at, but it was still a very small team and limited, and we had to do multiple trips spread out over a long period of time, but it was close to normal, but it was still very hard and tricky and you never knew who was actually gonna be able to be on site because of COVID protocol and which team you’re going to be working with.
Last question, if you can even answer this, what is HUSH working on that you’re allowed to talk about?
David Crumley: That’s a good question. I mentioned we’re scaling the streamed experience that we did for Uber’s headquarters to multiple locations and that’s wrapping up now for the main locations and it doesn’t have the tubes, it has various just direct view LED walls, but what’s nice about that is they’re each a little different because they’re all tied into the architecture of the space. One is a fairly traditional, single flat wall, but another one has a mitered 90 degree corner and is a very long canvas, I think the resolution’s a little less than 7,000 by 900 pixels, so ultra wide format. And then another one has a radius corner around the wall because that’s how the architecture was. And it was nice on our end that we developed the software to smartly scale the content across all these different aspect ratios, so that’s deploying now.
We have a few projects for some financial institutions that are launching now that one of those uses LED strips, this time from S&A, along with a direct view LED wall that is incorporated into these kinds of fins that does this kind of reflected light back on the wall behind it, which is really nice. Hopefully I will be able to talk about it more in another month or two. And then, we have some other things early in the concept phase, but probably not allowed to talk about any of that.
Yeah, I would imagine when you talk about account wins and all that, in certain respects, it’s a much bigger win when you also have the contract about being allowed to talk about it until it’s done.
David Crumley: Exactly. And that’s, going back to the Uber project, it’s nice that it’s ground level, public accessible. So many of our projects are on the top floor that you have to get through security or be invited to see. So, we love the ones that are a little more public facing.
Yeah, me too. There’s been a few times when, like the LAX airport with the international terminal with all the work Moment Factory did there, I wanted to see it, but I had to go through post security on a flight to Japan or something if I wanted to see it. So never have.
David Crumley: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I’ve been to LAX so many times. I’ve not been in the Bradley terminal to see it. And then one time I tried to get to it and had a long layover and tried to connect my terminal to it and it was an exercise in futility and I could never get there.
All right, David, thank you so much for spending some time with me.
David Crumley: It was my pleasure.