// IN DESIGN
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"I think there’s a real opportunity to create something beautiful, and this is an example of a real need for an amenity in a residential building—not just having more amenities but having appropriate amenities."
You’ve worked on aquariums, zoos, and installations at science museums. Did adding “luxury real estate” to the portfolio take you by surprise, or did it all translate organically?
In our early history, we defined ourselves as a “what”: a design-build firm for museums and zoos. We soon realized instead that Roto is a “why”: we exist to create genuine human connections in physical places, in part as an antidote to all things consumed on screens—mostly through images and sounds played on a smartphone that, while often engaging and addictive, are more superficial than we’d like. Understood in that context, the transition from museum exhibitions to designing amenities for luxury real estate is as natural as designing for playgrounds or flagship retail destinations, or anywhere people gather “IRL” to experience authentic connections.
At Waterline Square, you didn’t just create an indoor playground, but a full-on adventure with original characters and backstories. Tell us about that experience.
The development of an “explorer’s club” theme, featuring a seasoned-traveler character called “The Captain,” energized the creative direction for the project. Many proven, highly-repeatable interactive gags we borrowed from the best of our children’s museum galleries took on new forms and twists once we realized they could be themed as “collections” from worldwide adventures. They provided a clever aesthetic for the interior, based on props like oars, kites, surfboards, anchors and exotic masks, and answered a great many questions we would naturally have about the settings for what are called “pretend play” environments. Instead of the usual boat, car and castle, we landed on an island theme, a safari theme, and a jungle theme. The throwback to 18th and 19th- century popular children’s literature gave the space an extra kick for the adults also spending their time in the amenity.
What’s the craziest moment—or maybe a snag your team hit—in coming up with all that stuff?
The owner of Waterline Square generously invited the Roto creative team to imagine the “world’s greatest birthday party room,” which ended up featuring an 18-foot long custom-carved wooden table with matching chairs and a literal throne for the lucky birthday boy or girl, completely immersed in custom digital projections mapped to the interior walls, columns, soffits, and across an arched vaulted ceiling. Four separate immersive media designs were developed to entirely transform the room at the touch of a button, including a Conservatory, a Pirate Ship, a Princess Palace, and a Superhero Headquarters. We threw in fiber-optic stars, interactive magic mirrors, and massive surround sound speakers with vibration effects in the table and chairs, some of which were controlled at the arms of the throne. The technical package would have required something like 27 projectors and a theme-park quality media system to run it. By the time we were done, the execution budget became so outrageous it would have been cheaper to fly children to Paris for the next decade of birthdays. So naturally, that all got pared down to a very smart and flexible multipurpose space—but for a while there, “The Captain” was loving the adventure in it.
You've become an advocate for designers to create supersensory experiences that expand upon a single human sense, such as touch or sight, by integrating many senses together. As developers raise the bar and become increasingly competitive, how might you imagine incorporating supersensory experiences into “wow” amenities?
For amenities in residential projects, we’re talking about heavy repeat usage, not one-time attractions like a ticketed venue. How do we create innovative supersensory spaces that people love to be in, dwell in, and return to? One answer lies in fusing genres and inverting expectations, all in pursuit of greater comfort and emotional resonance. For example, have you ever listened to exceptional music inside an authentic high-end audio mastering suite? Complete with superior-quality sound reproduction and perfect acoustics? I’d love to get a massage in a space like that. Take the typical fitness suite, pool house, or rec room and consider what happens when you paint the walls in ever-changing high-resolution media art, reacting in real time to the movements and behaviors of the occupants.
Hypothetical: A Manhattan developer wants a game-changing community space and hands you a blank check to build whatever you want. What’s in it?
The runaway success of immersive art installations, from ARTECHOUSE in Chelsea to various extraordinary venues from Miami to Las Vegas, demonstrates the incredible appeal and staying power of transformative supersensory experience that explicitly cannot be duplicated on TVs, phones, and game consoles, not even in VR mode. These are fully tactile as well as visual and auditory worlds, and they’re also deeply social—places you go to experience and build memories together with friends and loved ones. We would build a version using technology nobody has seen before (stuff Roto has in the pipeline already for projects opening in 2024 and beyond), and the twist is this: you’re the artist, and the art is in expressing your own humanity and creativity. Either that, or the world’s greatest birthday party room.
"For amenities in residential projects, we’re talking about heavy repeat usage . . . How do we create innovative supersensory spaces that people love to be in, dwell in, and return to?"
A pioneer in experiential design, Roto has imagineered concepts for brands and attractions alike. At Manhattan’s Waterline Square, the Ohio-based firm leaned on their penchant for the themed and immersive to craft a rare amenity: an indoor children’s playground. Joseph Wisne, the firm’s co-founder, president, and CEO, shares the method to their madness and the amenity trends reshaping today’s large-scale residential projects.
Waterline Square’s Kids Aventure Club epitomizes Roto’s immersive design approach. The firm designed an interactive backstory to guide children through the 4,600-square-foot space, taking them on an interactive journey to exciting places around the world. Photo: Evan Joseph.
Early concept art for the Kids Adventure Club. Rendering courtesy of Roto.
The "Lightspeed Bridge," a highlight of Roto's Space Odyssey Exhibit at Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Photo: Chris Schneider.
The playroom at 70 Vestry Street, completed in 2018. Inspired by Tribeca itself, the playroom boasts a climber styled like a neighborhood block and a toddler zone for its younger visitors. Rendering courtesy of The Boundary.
The pirate-themed Kids Adventure Club grew from the idea to create "world’s greatest birthday party room." Photo: Evan Joseph.
Photo: The Charles Group.
// IN DESIGN
Explore new development at Corcoran.