If you happen to be passing through Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal over the next two days, you will have the unique opportunity to experience what it’s like to see the Northern Lights in person—minus the cold.
The digital installation is part of a campaign to promote winter tourism to Canada, known for its glaciers, polar bear excursions, and mesmerizing Aurora Borealis. Thanks to an LED floor, mirrored ceiling, 360-degree audio system, and set of 3D sensors, visitors can get a sense of what it would be like to witness one of the world’s seven natural wonders.
Tourism plays a significant role in Canada’s economy, generating an estimated $104.9 billion in 2019 ($1.1 billion came from New Yorkers alone). But when the pandemic came crashing down, that number dropped by half. Now, the Canadian borders have reopened to the U.S., and the government tourism body Destination Canada is betting that a high-tech immersive experience will help New Yorkers experience a little of the Great White North.
The installation was designed by Moment Factory, a Montreal-based multimedia studio known for its dazzling sets for Madonna and Muse, as well as light shows like Vallea Lumina. This installation is part of Destination Canada’s CAD 14 million campaign (that’s $11.2 million in U.S. dollars), dedicated to winter tourism. It sits in the terminal’s majestic Vanderbilt Hall, right under its ornate, Art Deco chandeliers. “It’s an iconic space, and we’re trying to connect icons,” says Gloria Loree, the chief marketing officer of Destination Canada. (Every day, at least before Covid-19, some 700,000 people visited Grand Central, so the foot traffic played a part in the location scouting, too.)
The magic itself happens inside a nine-foot-tall black room. The star of the show is a mirrored ceiling that makes the room look twice as tall, and reflects a constellation of light patterns swirling and swaying on the LED flooring below. So when visitors enter the room, they essentially find themselves standing between two layers of Northern Lights. “We came up with the idea to surprise the audience and have the Northern Lights under them, too,” explains Patricia Tremblay, a creative director at Moment Factory.
The experience lasts about three minutes on a loop, and consists of three different themes: a dark, starry sky; a dazzling show of vibrant green and pink lights; and a climactic moment when Northern Lights can emanate from the very spot on which visitors are standing (all thanks to those 3D sensors). It’s all quite thrilling, but the mirrors mean that visitors are reflected in the ceiling, too, which was distracting when I was trying to get lost in the magic of a dancing sky. The point, I suppose, isn’t to get lost, but to interact with the lights in a way you can’t really do in nature. “Our goal was to have a creative take on the Northern Lights and give a different experience to the visitors because we cannot compete with the beauty of it,” says Tremblay.
In the same spirit, the designers opted for a soundscape that doesn’t try to imitate the howling winds of the North. Instead, it features a custom soundtrack with throat singing—a traditional Inuit vocal technique. Led by two teenage girls from Ottawa, Samantha Metcalfe and Cailyn Degrandpré of the singing duo Tarniriik, the music adds a cultural layer to the experience and pays homage to Canada’s Indigenous roots.
Indigenous communities have been especially hit by the devastating impact of Covid-19. Before the pandemic, Indigenous tourism was one of the fastest-growing sectors in Canada, increasing by more than 23% between 2014 and 2017. Now, the industry has lost a third of its workforce and been set back 30 years, according to the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada.
Tourism, of course, can be a double-edge sword, but Loree says that 1 in 10 jobs in Canada are in the tourism industry, and many communities rely on it to survive. For example, Churchill, Manitoba, has built an entire industry on the southern edge of the Arctic dedicated to polar bear sightings (so much so, that the city has been dubbed “Polar Bear Capital of the World” and draws thousands of tourists every year.)
Of course, it’s hard to measure whether a three-day installation in Grand Central can have a tangible impact on tourism. Loree says Destination Canada analyzes the number of times people search for Canada-related destinations, then uses that information to see how it correlates with the number of people who purchase a plane ticket, or book a hotel or experience, through Expedia. It’s not an exact science, but as Loree puts it, “Shame on us if we don’t do something.”
I’ve never seen the Northern Lights in person, and to be perfectly honest, I didn’t know I could experience them in Canada (though in my defense, I come from Europe, and we have Iceland for that). But I now know you can witness the phenomenon across the country, from Newfoundland and Labrador to Yellowknife in the Northern Territories.
My experience in Grand Central wasn’t quite the real deal—but if it were, I wouldn’t have to make the trip.
“Into The Northern Lights: An Immersive Experience” will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on December 10, and from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on December 11.