Sony's Metreon Wows San Francisco
When engineers and product managers sit around the table at Silicon Valley meetings, it's not uncommon for people to be clicking away at laptops. In this technology-drenched atmosphere, if you want to make an impression, some laptops have more impact than others. For a while, the machine of choice was Toshiba. Then you started to see thinner IBM Thinkpads. These days the coolest laptop on the market is the Sony Vaio. The machines are thin, sleek, lightweight-with a crisp color image. Some models even sport a built-in digital camera. Why do you need a digital camera for taking notes? Why, to impress your co-workers, of course.
But if the Sony Vaio is an extension of its owner's personality, it is also emblematic of Sony's, as well. The company that Akio Morita started in the bleak days following World War II has made its name by coming up with products that are new or, as in the case of the Vaio, several steps more impressive than the competition. This has not always been a formula for success. Sony famously struck out with its Beta VCR format. On the other hand, the Sony Walkman spawned the industry of portable audiophile electronics. The Sony Trinitron television is often named the best in its class, and the Sony Playstation passed both Nintendo and Sega to become the number one game console machine. This is not a company to be trifled with.
Sony's modus operandi of technology one-upsmanship goes a long way to explain the four story, 350,000 square foot edifice built in the south of Market Street ("SoMa") area of San Francisco. Metreon is a kind of high tech mall, although the company has banished that term from the premises. Sony prefers to use the term "urban entertainment center." Whatever it is, Metreon is the first of its kind, with a smaller version under construction in Tokyo and another in Berlin.
The term Metreon comes from a combination of the words "metropolis" and eon, a Greek word for gathering place, i.
Opening last June, the complex fits handsomely within San Francisco's big redevelopment project, Yerba Buena Gardens. It sits across a grassy expanse from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and atop the underground ballroom of the Marriott Hotel. There are flat panel televisions scattered throughout, some of which show art from the museum, which you can also see from a massive window in the third floor theater lobby-15 Sony theaters, comprising the city's largest movie theater complex. The view, which also takes in a park and the cityscape of downtown, and gives park-goers a view of Metreon.
"We wanted to make sure that the edge of the park was very energized," said Alyosha Verzhbinsky, an architect with Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein Moris, one of two firms collaborating on the project. "It's very difficult to make the internal life of the building appear on the exterior. As far as the people designing the 'show' were concerned, it's all about the interior, so they first wanted to control everything from light to air-they wanted a black box. But having some of the show visible on the outside is not only free advertising, but gives life back to the city."
The complex employs about a thousand people, and has at least one Japanese touch-the ubiquitous stationing of employees, ("we don't call them employees, we call them crew members"), who seem to be everywhere greeting customers, ("we don't call them customers, we call them guests"). And while they don't bow, they put a friendly, almost in-your-face face on the complex.
Metreon can hold 3,200, uh, guests. The opening weekend racked up a daily attendance of 40,000 and a few months later, the place is still packed on weekends. In a city whose biggest industry is tourism, it's significant that many locals-who avoid the crowds at Fisherman's Wharf and Ghirardelli Square-have made their way to Metreon. Management expects that ultimately, the mix will be half tourists, half residents from within the Bay Area.
Metreon's striking entrance features what Sony refers to as its "home page"-massive curved aluminum wings suspended from the ceiling and stretched with a white fabric like a sail. Not yet operational on my visit, the wings will slowly pivot, with information on Metreon rear-projected onto the fabric. Metreon features two family-oriented features on popular books, Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, and David Macaulay's How Things Work.
For many people though, Metreon's chief attraction has the somber darkness of a dimly lit cave. The Airtight Garage is Metreon's center for cutting-edge techno-entertainment. It includes three interactive games developed exclusively for it (Quaternia, Badlands, and the especially popular HyperBowl, in which players steer a bowling ball rolling down city streets.), all based on the science fiction and fantasy designs from the French graphic novelist, Jean "Mobius" Giraud. Bandlands takes up an entire room filled with stations, which look like mining cars. A friend of mine, clearly overage, played the game once and was queasy hours later.
There is also plenty of shopping, including of course, Sony CDs and DVDs, and Playstation games. Sony Style, the Sony store at Metreon, features the usual assortment of Sony audio paraphernalia as well as 40,000 CDs, any of which can be listened to before purchase. The Sony Playstation Store features a "game tender" who will fetch any title you like, in librarian fashion, for you to play on one of 30 game stations. "The idea with the retail space is that this not a shopping mall, but a department store where you don't know where one store ends and another other store begins," said Verzhbinsky. "Things feed off each other and that creates a particular kind of synergy."
Microsoft's first retail outlet, microsoft sf, is also found at Metreon. Given Microsoft's financial resources, the company could have financed the entire building-a "Microsoft Metreon." But Microsoft, despite its reach, is still primarily confined to the PC desktop, while Sony, principally an entertainment company, is more accustomed to operating in the three dimensional world.
One of Sony's smartest moves with Metreon has nothing to do with technology. In San Francisco, food in general and restaurant dining in particular have become an unofficial religion. Installing a McDonald's or a Burger King within these hallowed walls would have sunk the Metreon to an the level of an urban Disneyland, which, for all its glitter, is a culinary hell. Instead, restaurants within Metreon are extensions of independently run restaurants found elsewhere within San Francisco. The Long Life Noodle Company, for example, has a "real life" counterpart on Steuart Street near Mission Street. And Jullian's South of Market is almost a parody of a sports bar, with giant screens (comprised of a 4 x 4 matrix) a la downtown Tokyo, covering an entire wall.
Born in Burbank, with a touch of Japan
The brain trust behind Metreon is Sony Development, a subsidiary of Sony Corporation of America, which itself is a division of Sony International. Sony Development is headquartered in Burbank, California-the home of Disney and Warner Bros. Studios and the capital of what is becoming known as "on location entertainment." "We operate under the Sony principles of operation and are very much influenced by the fact that our parent company is centered in Japan," said Timothy Rodrigues.
And so is Metreon just Sony's latest brand? Rodrigues says yes. "Just as the Sony Walkman is an entertainment 'black box,' Metreon is an entertainment black box-one you walk into and experience. We do follow certain Sony operating principles on what the entertainment is and the design philosophy of building 'good quality, high end, well made' things. Metreon is very consistent with that." But why start in San Francisco rather than in Japan? Rodrigues dodged that question, but perhaps an obvious answer is that when it comes to pop culture, you can't do much better than set up shop in the place where Disneyland, McDonald's, and the film industry as we know it were born. And why San Francisco rather than the more obvious choice of Los Angeles? In part that's because San Francisco begged, pitched, wheeled and dealed to attract Metreon here. The San Francisco Bay Area is also filled with technonerds, which can't hurt. And San Francisco's biggest industry is not sour dough bread or Chinese restaurants, but tourism, and most tourists stay within a quick cab ride of Metreon.
In walking around Metreon, you get the feeling that in some respects the place is one giant prototype. The Airtight Garage, for example, looks very much like a concept that Sony will, or at least could, replicate in shopping malls across the world. The same is true with the Sony Store and Microsoft's retail outlet. "We are consulting about a similar development in Tokyo where we are providing advice on the attractions and some of the design," said Rodrigues. "We're also involved in Sony Corporation Europe building its new headquarters in Berlin. Sony Development is providing consulting advice on putting attractions in there-not a whole Metreon, but a part of it. In Tokyo, it's a more extensive development and will look more like Metreon, but it's not designated to be a Metreon yet."
Metreon looks like hit. But will it turn a profit? "It's very difficult to make money in this business," said John Latta, president of the consulting firm 4th Wave in Alexandria, Virginia, which does market and technology analysis in this sector. "In the retail marketplace the key measure of success is income per square foot. If you talk about a typical retail store, they get about $200 a square foot in a mall. It's very hard for many of these entertainment facilities to reach that amount to get recovery." The problem, says Latta, is the huge investment and the high "refreshment"-that is, the need add and replace attractions to keep people coming back. His rule of thumb is that about a third of the content must be refreshed every year. With its modular design, Metreon looks designed for just such incremental change.
"There's a very good parallel between these facilities and movie theaters," he says. "Your objective as an operator is to get as many of the seats filled as possible. If you are a coin-op or a facility like a Metreon you want to get as much of the equipment being used by as many people for as long a part of the day as possible. That's when you make the most money. That means your income per square foot goes up. But the problem is, like a movie theater, it's driven by what movies become available. In that sense, game machines are very similar to the movie projectors-they bring in people based on their ability to display unique content."
And so, in a sense, these facilities are like software, with new features and bug fixes always scheduled for the next release-because you either add new features, or get buried by something even newer and grander. In America this year, five major league baseball parks, including San Francisco's 3Com ("Candlestick") Park, are scheduled to close-replaced by newer facilities built for millions of dollars each. So call it Metreon 1.
Location-based entertainment- An interview with Randy Pausch, Carnegie-Mellon University
Randy Pausch is an associate professor with Carnegie-Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute. A software designer specializing in interactive applications, his clients include his former employer, Walt Disney Company and its Disney Quest interactive theme parks. Both that venture and Metreon-particularly its Airtight Garage-are part of what some are calling LBE: "location based entertainment."
- What is exactly is LBE?
Bowling is one example. You can't do it home. You probably want to do it with a bunch of your friends. You're going to spend an afternoon, not a whole day, doing it. And the amount of money you're going to spend is commensurate at the low end of what people associate with LBE. But when the term is used in the modern convention, it implies some kind of high-tech involvement.
LBE includes Sony Metreon, GameWorks, and Disney Quest which has two sites open now and has a third slated to open within the next year. The have a business plan that takes them to 30 sites. Another example of location-based entertainment is Chuck E Cheese, which is LBE for kids.
- No matter how good a Sony Playstation gets, people are still looking for more. Is that what is fueling LBE?
- Partly. The question is: Why would people leave their home when they will be able to play on a Sony Playstation 2. What you don't get with a home video game are exotic input devices, a space to play it in because you are still in your living room, and the controlled context that these places can provide.
- LBE requires a designed space and experience. If someone walks out of your LBE and calls it an "arcade," you haven't necessarily failed as a designer, but you've just built an arcade.-and that's been done before. The real challenge is to have somebody walk out and say: "I don't know what to call that but it was cool and I'm going to tell my friends to go do it too."
- Before Disneyland there were amusement parks, which were seedy places you did not want your children to go. Then we had Disneyland and no one knew what to call it. It was kind of like an amusement park, but not seedy. It's the same sort of thing with LBE: when it is done right, gives people the feeling it's sort of an arcade-but the term doesn't fit because there was stuff there for me and I'm, say, a 55 year-old-woman. When you get your customers to say things like that, you've hit the nail on the head.
- Is it just the demography that's different or also the experience?
- They're interlinked. By definition it's a different experience if the whole family can do it together. Theme parks are not places you go alone to have experiences, they are places you go to have experiences with your friends or family. If you want to have a really miserable day, go to a high-end theme park by yourself. You will feel really bad by the end of the day because you have no one to share the experience with.
- Sony Metreon has combined games with shopping. Does LBE have to be pure entertainment?
- Sony has certainly gone heavier into the shopping end of it than most, but take a look at Dave and Busters. They are basically a restaurant, bar, arcade and casino. That's the feeling you have. It's very much a young persons place - a place you could go either with a date or to find one. It feels different than other LBE destinations partly because of the full-service bar and restaurant. So there are a number of ways to play it. No one I know of is trying to do LBE without food, and that includes bowling alleys. If they didn't serve food, people couldn't stay as many hours as they want to.
- Is this also about extending brands, in the case of Disney and Sony?
- Absolutely. If you have a brand it makes it easier to get started because people know the name. It makes it harder because people have expectations. The bigger your brand, the sharper both edges of that sword are.
It's trying to get the family out of the house. This sounds the opposite of the cocooning phenomenon [where people stay at home for the entertainment.]
Sure. Much has been made of cocooning, but VCRs didn't really hurt movie sales in theaters. That's because there is something about being in a room full of people having a shared experience. Cocooning only goes but so far. We are social animals more than we are anything else. People don't go to shopping malls just because there are a lot of stores there. Would you go to a shopping mall where you were the only person? There would be no lines, but it would be a very different experience. Just being in a shopping mall full of people is, in and of itself, to some level entertaining-even if it doesn't seem that way if you are doing your Christmas shopping on December 24th.
- Sony Development set up shop in Burbank. Why there?
- It's the center of the LBE industry: the Burbank/
Glendale area has become the entertainment capital of the world. They are all out there, which makes is real easy to steal people from one another. For example, Dreamworks opened their new animation facility literally a block from Disney Imagineering. That was one of the most aggressive real estate in-your-face moves I've ever seen in my life. Sony is not quite that close. Their headquarters are more in downtown Burbank.