diamond geezer

 Monday, March 07, 2022

Crossrail isn't only transforming transport, it's also changing the landscape around its stations. Take Tottenham Court Road, for example, where all the buildings between the Astoria and Centre Point were knocked down to facilitate a worksite and have since been rebuilt in modern form. The Dionysus chippie is now a bustling station entrance, the old fountains have been pierced by a prism of glass and to the rear of Denmark Street is the most abhorrent blot of all. It's called Outernet London, it's sheathed in garish gold and it's destined to become something you never realised the capital needed... an "immersive public environment".

Imagine a large auditorium you walk into off the street. It has four-storey wraparound screens, plus another covering the ceiling, so that audacious visual effects can play out all around you. Altogether it has 2000 square metres of LEDs at supposedly record-breaking pixel density, the idea being to act as a 360 degree cinema that'll hold your attention, wow and amaze. No tickets are required and no queueing is anticipated because the owners really want you to come inside. They've even aligned one of the entrances with the escalators coming up from Tottenham Court Road station's ticket hall in the hope you'll funnel straight in.

And don't think you'll escape if you're just passing by on Charing Cross Road. Two of the golden walls hide outward-facing screens and are also retractable, opening up the interior so you can see the animation from the pavement or the top of a passing bus. They hope passers-by will think "ooh that's interesting, I need a closer look" and duck inside to watch the dancing pixels. Their expectation is that 100 million people will visit annually, maybe only for a few minutes each but that's sufficient, job done.

If you've not worked out what this is yet, it's a cinema for brands.
"Outernet is first and foremost a broadcast experience, but on an epic scale. Through the world’s largest LED screens and a 360 environment, Outernet will provide brands unique story-telling formats that will evolve the future of advertising."
Once within these four digital walls you'll be served up a diet of marketing dazzle and sponsored content. You might be amazed by a giant shark, a living rainbow or a glowing starscape, maybe even some genuine art, but they'll only be there at the behest of a corporation whose slogan or logo will be flashing past you later. It'll be like Piccadilly Circus on steroids.

And you know what happens when people are faced by a monumental visual experience... they whip out their phones and press record, then upload their amazing video in the expectation of gaining likes. Kerching, objective achieved.
"Outernet is set to become one of London’s most visited attractions with an expected footfall of over 100m per year. Brand activations will be extensively captured on camera-phones and shared, driving global reach and huge earned media across social platforms."
You may not be mug enough to spread the word but sufficient millions will, slipping the ongoing brand narrative into the timelines of their followers and without expecting to be paid a penny. It's an almost faultless plan, alas, in much the same way that a crocodile is a perfect predator. You might not like what it does but you have to appreciate the way it does it.

There's more.
"Outernet is uniquely positioned as the focal point for integrated brand activation. Its global network is being developed specifically to enable brand storytelling on an unprecedented scale. Global product launches, live events, pop-up sampling, celebrity endorsements - brand moments work best when developed in creative and commercial partnership with Outernet’s world-class creative team and unique production capabilities."
A couple of adjacent spaces can be hired by whoever wants to pay, within which you might discover Samsung's latest range of phones, engage with Dua Lipa's next music release or witness the dawn of a new perfume. It was once said that the future of the High Street is as somewhere you go to engage with a brand you'll buy later, and this is very much the apotheosis of that trend.
"The era of 5G, AR, VR and the ‘Internet of Things’ has arrived. These culture-busting technologies require a space where retailers, entertainers and consumers can experience their benefits. Outernet will facilitate emerging technologies."
An entire city block has been erased to make way for this complex, bar the facades on two sides which have been retained to provide a heritage veneer. One of these sides is the legendary music nexus of Denmark Street, once known as Tin Pan Alley, where numerous rock legends played, jammed and recorded. It's still possible to buy a top class guitar in some of the original shops but others are now empty husks with reconstructed 21st century interiors. Look carefully and one unit has been knocked through to create the entrance to an arcade that'll connect through to the rest of the complex, and is again lined by enormous LED screens.

Even though it's currently blocked off, this 21 metre-long arcade is already playing video content. From outside you can see a sliver of pink sky above some kind of tropical environment, where every sixty seconds a bunch of digital balloons floats up and explodes in a burst of glittery fireworks. It's conceived as a brand tunnel and you can already imagine how visitors will stop, wave a camera-enabled device and wait for the best bit. They call this the Now Arcade, the separate spaces Now Trending and the big corner auditorium The Now Building.
"Outernet London is an immersive media and entertainment business boasting the world’s largest high-resolution wrap-around screens, a new 2000 capacity live events venue, the unique Denmark Street apartments and session rooms of Chateau Denmark, alongside proudly independent restaurants and bars, all situated right in the heart of Central London."
Yes there'll be food here too, with the Chinese restaurant on the top floor due to open for a soft launch at the end of the month. A fair chunk of the upper storeys has been given over to luxury apartments and "session rooms", where the moneyed can enjoy a short or long stay in breathtakingly garish surroundings. The blurb makes much of the site's musical connections, suggesting you can sleep where the Rolling Stones recorded their debut album or in the mews house where the Sex Pistols once lived, but one look at the associated imagery confirms that all aspects of raunch and anarchy have been wiped clean away.

The least cynical part of Outernet London is probably the music venue in the basement. It's called the 12 Bar Club and is named after a small Denmark Street club where Keane, Adele and the Libertines played before they were famous, but which was forced to close in 2015 so that this monstrosity could be built. Don't expect the former management to be involved or happy, they went bust a year after relocating to Islington. Do expect to read a lot more about gigs down below and product launches upstairs and everything Outernet-related in numerous Time Out column inches going forward.
"Located in the heart of London at the intersection of Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross Road, Outernet London offers visitors a unique multi-sensory experience using the very latest in broadcast screen technology that promises to evolve the nature of both immersive content and experiential advertising."
What simultaneously amazes and depresses me about this new development is that someone did the sums and worked out that a temple to advertising could turn a profit. This is a central London hotspot where you'd expect rents to peak, and yet a building that's essentially a big digital screen expects to rake in enough from brands to make it financially sustainable. Prepare to peer in and be appalled, and simultaneously to watch digital natives embrace the concept and share share share.

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