Tech, Love & Rock 'n' Roll

By Abigail A. Lorden | August 10, 2009

"Love All, Serve All," read the signs sprawled across the walls in every Hard Rock Cafe in the world. More than just a slogan, the words speak to the roots of the Hard Rock philosophy: to share an appreciation for music and spread goodwill everywhere the sun shines, and even where it don't. Like the music industry it pays homage to, parent-company Hard Rock International has a long-standing history of philanthropy, supporting humanitarian causes the world over. The signs that speak this mission hang in great company, alongside some of the music industry's most prized pieces of memorabilia: Jimi Hendrix's Flying V guitar, John Lennon's handwritten lyrics to "Help," and even one of Madonna's infamous bustiers.

These relics from music icons are an endemic part of the Hard Rock brand. As a part of its commitment to preserving music history, Hard Rock is caretaker to the world's most comprehensive, and still growing, music memorabilia collection. More than 70,000 pieces rotate among the restaurant's 150+ locations world wide, offering guests VIP access to classic guitars, stage costumes, handwritten music and lyric sheets, platinum and gold LPs, and more.

When the Orlando-based company opens its cafe on the Las Vegas Strip late this summer, it is not only throwing open the doors to its new flagship location, but also creating an interactive gateway into its massive memorabilia collection. Through a series of interactive, touch-enabled technologies, ranging from 19-inch touch screens at the dining table to a massive 18-foot touch-sensitive wall, Hard Rock is putting its catalogue of memorabilia on display in a revolutionary new way.

Memo 2.0: Taking it to the streets

"It all started last year with what we call 'Memo 2.0,'" [for memorabilia 2.0] and the rollout of Microsoft's new Silverlight (www.silverlight.net) technology, explains Joe Tenczar, senior director of technology and CIO for Hard Rock International. Silverlight is a web application framework, similar in scope to Adobe flash, that lets companies build custom apps. Hard Rock partnered with its brand agency Duncan/Channon (www.duncanchannon.com) and software developer Vertigo (www.vertigo.com) to create a custom Silverlight application for www.hardrock.com. The Memo 2.0 app (http://memorabilia.hardrock.com) allows users to get up-close-and-personal with more than one thousand pieces of memorabilia through Hard Rock's website. "We have killer content," says Tenczar. "This was the first step in showing it off beyond the four walls." Users can zoom in to see scratches on guitars and the fine print in letters, and get the back-story on each piece.

Memo 2.0 was the first step in what has since been dubbed Hard Rock Interactive, a project that aims to expand the reach of Hard Rock's memorabilia collection, and create deeper connections and brand recognition with guests. Not long after Memo 2.0 launched, Hard Rock's design and development team was challenged to create a distinctive experience for the new flagship cafe opening on the Vegas Strip.
 
"It needed to be big and it needed to be unique," recalls Tenczar. Hard Rock worked with its A/V partner, Technomedia Solutions (www.gotechnomedia.com), to connect with Obscura Digital (www.obscuradigital.com), which specializes in multi-touch interactive displays that create an immersive experience for users. "They create a lot of really sexy interactive technology and they were really excited about this massive project. The result was an 18-foot-wide by 4-foot-high, at 6 feet off the ground, multi, multi, multi-touch 'Rock Wall,'" Tenczar explains.

Rock Wall can be used by one person to blow up a piece of memorabilia as large as the screen, or optimized for six different user experiences at one time, though the technology has been tested for responsiveness to hundreds of simultaneous touches. "Imagine seeing Bob Dylan's Harley at more than life size; big impact," says Tenczar.

Rock Wall uses a single piece of Stewart projection glass, custom-made at the factory for Hard Rock, along with three Christie projectors, numerous lasers, and multiple IR cameras to create a unified projection and touch experience. "The graphics are driven by a Nvidia Quadro Plex and there are two other dedicated servers for localized content and physics. I have seen a lot of cool technology, but this still makes my jaw drop whenever I see it in person." And the technology is smart. "If I walk up to the screen, it will blow up where I am."

In the new Vegas location, Rock Wall will be located in the lobby waiting area, creating a great opportunity for guests to interact with the technology, and better understand the Hard Rock brand and its collection.
 
Once seated at their booths, guests at the new Hard Rock Cafe Las Vegas can interact even more intimately with the collection via 19-inch touchscreen terminals mounted at the table, what the company has dubbed Booth Interactive.

Where the music lives
"On a plane back from our Berlin cafe last summer I did the proverbial 'back of a napkin' diagram of about a dozen specific areas of information we could share with our guests at their tables," explains Tenczar. Two clear content winners were to allow guests to explore the memorabilia collection, and to add guest control over the music videos that play in the cafe. "I figured the 'memo' would be a piece of cake, because we had already done Silverlight on hardrock.com," says Tenczar, noting that for the music component, Hard Rock again chose to partner with Duncan/Channon and Vertigo on a custom web application.

"Music control offered a fun challenge, because it introduced another technology system, our video distribution server (VDS). This is the computer that drives the music videos that play at every location." Webservice calls to and from the VDS create a sort of cue, or music playlist, telling the terminals in the booths what song has played recently or is playing, and likewise communicates back to the VDS what the guests have cued up as their next song selection. Modifications to the VDS were done by its original creators Coleman Technologies, Inc. (www.ctiusa.com).

"The fun part came when Rob Conti, our Director of IT Infrastructure, had to augment the information in the current VDS for consumption by the booths," says Tenczar. In order to translate well into the booth environment, several thousand music videos now had to have poster art, user-friendly titles, and other information not previously needed by the engine that drives video play.

On the processing side, each booth's touch terminal has its own computer, which Tenczar says presented quite a challenge when they had to install 40 units in the Vegas cafe. "We ended up using a little-known blade-type PC in enclosures of ten. It was the only way we could have fit them in the IT rooms."
 
The final piece, for now at least, of Hard Rock Interactive runs on Microsoft Surface (www.microsoft.com/surface). "Since we were now on even more of an 'interactive' mission than we were before, and since we had space in Vegas that would be perfect to show off our content in a living room-like environment, we chose Microsoft's Surface technology." Again, it was necessary to create custom applications because of the way the technology was meant to be used: 360 degrees by multiple users at one time, sometimes collaboratively. Hard Rock partnered with Vertigo to develop a Worldwide Memorabilia application. This allows guests to find a Hard Rock location on a spinning globe, see images of the inside and outside of the building, and see what memorabilia resides on the walls.

Hard tested, rock approved
Given the demanding foodservice environment, and the need for a robust framework housing detailed graphics, Hard Rock was rigorous in its testing process. They set up a lab in their corporate office break room (which looks like a mini Hard Rock Cafe) to put the technologies through the courses, and watch and learn as employees interacted with them.

"One of my favorite tests is what I call the 'rib sauce test,' because if an interactive technology can withstand its use by rib-sauced fingers, it should be just fine in the field." The rib-sauce test led to some "creatively-placed" silicone caulking in the booth touchscreens. "As soon as we plugged-in our Surface unit for the first time and made sure it was calibrated, I poured a half of a cup of coffee onto it. It created some shock in the room, but we really need to battle test these things." As for the Surface unit's durability, Tenczar reports that it held up quite well. "This thing is meant to be in bars and hotels," he adds. In fact, the Surface units are rated to withstand up to 300 pounds of weight. "We fully expect that people are going to stand on these. We won't condone it, but we fully expect that this will happen. This is Hard Rock."

As for future locations for Hard Rock Interactive technologies, Tenczar says that the company will look to implement in as many locations that have the space to accommodate, "provided that the technology is the success we think it will be." Booth Interactive was piloted in Hard Rock Cafe Dallas, which opened in July, and the company is looking at bringing several units to its Berlin relocation, as well as a smaller version of Rock Wall. Interactive technologies are also expected to be a part of the new cafes opening in Waikiki and Seattle.

So far, however, it's the Las Vegas location that has been the most exciting for Tenczar and his team to launch. "This is a three-story cafe in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip where we decided to unveil the whole 'Hard Rock Interactive.' Yes, we piloted the Booth Interactive experience in Dallas, but it went from 10 [units] in Dallas to 40 in Vegas. There probably aren't a lot of restaurants that have a full-time IT/ AV person on-location. This is the start of a new era for Hard Rock and I am excited to be a part of it."
 

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