CONTRIBUTOR

The 25-story skyscraper known as One Times Square, former headquarters for the newspaper that gave the Midtown Manhattan plaza its name, is undergoing a radical renovation that will see the integration of advanced augmented reality (AR) experiences across 12 floors in a project called NextGen.

The 120-year-old building, also known as the “Ball Drop Building” thanks to the perpetual New Year’s Eve celebration that takes place on its roof, is largely windowless due to the myriad of digital screens blanketing the exterior facades.

One Times Square has stood largely empty for decades, but the radical $500 million renovation by real estate investment and management firm Jamestown will outfit the structure with an exterior glass elevator whisking visitors to multiple observation decks on the roof overlooking the city and the square. 

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Inside, the renovation will result in the NextGen a “ticketed, innovative, gamified, advertising, and entertainment experience” filled with various brands offering visitors immersive experiences. 

It starts on the building’s 14th floor and cascades down through elevators and stairs to the third floor, with guests using a specially designed application tying all the floors digitally together.

A “Learning AI Host”, created and managed by the owner of the building, will aid guests in navigating and engaging with the experience and brands.

This AI host serves various functions within the experience, including facilitating activities, providing directions and even guiding users around the city after they leave the building. 

Michael Phillips, president of Jamestown, explained the creation of immersive experiential spaces makes the windowless building functional again. 

“We’re able to take spaces that were no longer really functional without windows and make them a window into a cultural moment or an art moment – an experience people can engage with,” he said. 

Jamestown is partnering with Fly Studio, developer of a Times Square-focused AR program called Concrete Jungle, independent gaming company Behaviour, and AI creative studio Re-imagine to develop the virtual host and other immersive elements. 

“You’ll have the ability to take your smartphone and engage in those augmented experiences, unlocking other steps on your journey,” Phillips explained. “The app will also be linked to the experience on the rooftop observation deck.”

Tuong Nguyen, director analyst specializing in immersive technologies for research firm Gartner, said the big opportunity for retailers would be to offer consumers a truly unique experience in a part of the city that is known for over-the-top energy and commercial commotion. 

“The multibillion dollar question is what these brands and their tech partners need to do to create those truly ‘wow’ moments,” he said. “How do they combine their physical assets and their digital assets in a way that brings people into the moment and gives them what they want?”

From his perspective, there are several possibilities but an equal number of unanswered questions; for example, whether users will have to don VR or AR headsets, download apps or have a less onerous onboarding process to experience the immersive environments.

There’s also the question of adaptability, considering rapidly evolving capabilities of technology on both hardware and software sides—he cautions what may look impressive today could quickly fall out of fashion as AR and VR experiences grow and change. 

“Is it going to be cool and interesting next year as well?” he asked. “What is the long term vision that allows the project to evolve?” 

With the building opening planned for summer 2025, the NextGen floors are 30% leased, and the app is in development and beta testing. 

Phillips said there is a close focus during testing on Gen Z and Gen Alpha, explaining understanding the way they interact with the world as digital natives is crucial.

“It’s interesting to think about how to speak to a generation that just simply processes and consumes and absorbs information,” he said. “Times Square is always reinventing itself—this is another one of those moments.”