By Debra Kaufman

June 28, 2023

Reading Time:
6 Minutes

Welcome to Outernet, a new London entertainment complex that uses a range of cutting-edge technologies to create immersive art, events, and music. Since opening in November 2022, by February this year, “average daily foot falls across the Outernet district stood at 223,000 – or more than 1.5 million visitors per week,” making it one of the top attractions in the U.K., according to Outernet.

With its floor-to-ceiling LED 16K screens and 70 reactive loudspeakers, the Now Building is Outernet’s largest attraction. One recent installation, open to the public for Mental Health Awareness Week in May, was Monolith, an immersive world that tracked visitors’ movements and changed the displays in real time. Created by artist Jack Dartford, produced by Immersive Experience Company Chaos Inc., with sound design by Halina Rice, Monolith was produced by Outernet’s official charity ADOT, in partnership with suicide prevention organization Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM).

According to Chaos Inc. co-founder Stacia Pfeiffer, Monolith “delivered a living, breathing expression of the hidden world of the psyche.” “In planning the installation, we have made full use of the technical capability of Outernet’s impressive facilities, including a real-time, crowd-responsive particle system, making the audience a central figure in the generative nature of the piece,” she reports.

Monolith - Image courtesy Outernet

Outernet is the brainchild of two people: chairman Laurence Kirschel, a property developer who saw the possibilities of a new London venue, and chief executive Philip O’Ferrall, who has been developing the marriage of content and technology since 2020 to bring it to fruition. The Outernet team spent several years prior on the development of large LED screen technology that allows it today to run 26K resolution at two of the complex venues. “The huge screens are one of the key bits of the experience,” says Outernet chief technology officer Mike Whittaker.

In the Outernet district, the Now Building is the biggest and most prominent space, greeting visitors exiting the Centre Point and Tottenham Court Road London Underground and Elizabeth Line station. It features Aoto’s LED wrap-around,floor-to-ceiling screens. “We’re very much leveraging the technology we had and pushing it,” Whittaker says, adding that, “the exterior and interior screens are designed and operated as a 360-degree single screen.” “That enables you, to for example, fly an image of a jet around the screen seamlessly,” he says. The exterior screens offer a 5.8mm pitch and the interior screens a 3mm pixel pitch. At first glance, visitors can see both the external and interior immersive spaces, through glass walls on three sides. Those glass walls can be physically retracted,” says Whittaker. “Two of those kinetic walls are made up of 43 kinetic columns weighing 110 tons that can move at the speed of 225-millimeters a second, with a TAIT Navigator Automation Control Platform.”

Outernet - Image courtesy Outernet

Spatial audio, provided by French audio company L-Acoustics, is also key to the immersive experience. “We’ve got 320 channels of audio across the site, 96 of them in the main Now Building,” he reports. “Also in the Now Building, we have the ability to play with the sense of smell,” says Whittaker. “We can push through scents like the aroma on a forest walk or a beach or, for a brand experience, the aroma of coffee.”

Next to the Now building is the smaller Now Trending building, also lined with Ultra HDLED screens and often used as a companion space to the Now Building. “What we’ve done with our immersive metaverse types of experiences works across the Now Building and the Now Trending,” says Whittaker. “Now Trending is a more intimate, smaller space, but we’ve done immersive experiences such as car launches and entertainment events such as shooting music videos.”

Spaces in-between Pixels-Image courtest Outernet

Control of the imagery in both spaces is achieved with the Ventuz real-time engine. “One reason we went with Ventuz is that the product offers a broadcast quality level of reality,” says Whittaker. “We’re open 17 hours a day, so we’re on air from 7 am to midnight. We needed that broadcast level of reliability. But we also integrate the Unreal and Unity real-time engines too.” Experiences at Outernet perhaps land somewhere between “immersive” and the as-of-yet undefined “metaverse,” but Whittaker notes that, “I talk about experiences because of the memories they create. It’s about experiencing things in a different way, such as an immersive ambient party event that map DJs on another continent onto the walls, something we’ve done,” he says. “That was quite powerful.”

Whittaker says that the Outernet team always has its eye on new technologies, including holography. “It’s not just Outernet’s content but the brands that want to come in and use our screens,” he explains. “We’re about the platform and we want it to be enabling, not defining.”

Spaces in-between Pixels-Image courtesy Outernet

As to content, Outernet head of creative Alexandra Payne reports that the company’s internal Creative Studio team – composed of creatives, designers, producers, editors, real-time artists and technologists -- creates immersive experiences, editorial content, and entertainment. The company also partners with outside providers including Pixel Artworks, The Mill, Territory Studios, RSA Group and Hello Charlie. “We work closely with commercial brands and partners to create bespoke content, event experiences, adapt their pre-existing campaigns, and bring it to life on our screens,” she says. “We’ve created content for some of the world’s leading brands including IWC, Dove, Paramount, UNICEF and the BBC.”

Whittaker adds that, “what we set out to do – and have done fairly successfully – is create a technology-agnostics space.” Indeed, its many artistic, corporate and non-profit partners have already pushed Outernet’s technological and creative limits. “Our technology, our basic foundational level of capability, is a starting point for what the brand or artist builds on,” says Whittaker.

An example of that is a collaboration with the Royal College of Art (RCA), where students had an opportunity to exhibit their digital work throughout the Now Building. The five-day festival, which ran in February this year, featured art and performances from RCA digital direction graduate students using virtual reality, augmented reality, 360 videogames and multi-screen installations.

Heaven's Gate-Image courtesy Outernet

Other artist partnerships have included London-based artist Marco Brambilla who leveraged Outernet’s massive screens to debut “Heaven’s Gate,” a psychedelic panorama of historic moments in cinema; a multi-screen 360-degree music video “Sister” directed by illustrator/artist Alice Bloomfield, produced by Ridley Scott and Black Dog films for music group TSHA; The Summer Palace, a combination of Renaissance art, animation, particle simulation and 3D imagery by XR creative lead Agustin Vidal Saavedra of Glass Eye Productions; and, most recently, The Royally Big Portrait, a giant portrait of the new king created out of hundreds of thousands of individual images drawn by members of the public, by artist Sam Burnett and the BBC Children in Need organization. Visitors to this last event could find their own individual drawings on the portrait via iPads. Coronation was also streamed live in the Now Trending building.

“Bringing in real-life guest experiences with the metaverse is one thing we can offer,” Whittaker concludes. “I’m keen to explore Outernet as a device. I spent an hour with an Oculus and it wasn’t an experience I could share with the other person in the room with me. If I take the device off, I can have a shared metaverse experience. We’re looking at a different hybrid views. We’re looking at how to create the shared experience of a concert or sporting event without isolating ourselves. We want Outernet to be a place where we can experiment and find what works and what doesn’t.”