For the world's skyscrapers, it's not enough to be the tallest. They often have to be the techiest in order to lure the tourist dollars up to their observation decks.
The tourists are more sophisticated than they used to be. "They're not just tech savvy, they're starving for more in-depth information and they want it available at the tip of their fingers," said Jean-Yves Ghazi, the Empire State Building's observatory director.
The year-old The View from The Shard in London has telescopes designed by NASA, interactive panels that call up views from different eras, and Google Earth-style maps that let visitors tap on any building to see what they're seeing far down below, spokeswoman Ana Karina Araque said. "We wanted to bring that view to life."
When the visitor decks open next year atop New York's One World Trade Center, technology "will to play a central role in the experience of the observatory," said Eric Gelfand, senior vice president of communications for Legends, the company that will operate the space. "It isn't just about an elevator ride and a view, it's about a story."
One World Observatory, which expects to attract 3.5 million visitors annually, is now scheduled to open in spring 2015 on floors 100 to 102 (approximately 1,250 feet above street level) of the tallest structure in the Western Hemisphere. The space will include several dining options, interactive exhibits and a "See Forever" theater showing a movie about New York. There will also be a multimedia gallery highlighting the building's engineering. Also: "the fastest elevator in the world" that will take guests to the 102nd floor in 60 seconds.
Even the Empire State Building, which hosted 4.3 million visitors in 2013, has just replaced its Tony the Cabbie audio tour with an interactive device that features information about landmarks, archived video of the tower's light shows and the ability to update to Twitter and Facebook through the skyscraper's gadget. Use of the device is included in the price of a regular $27 ticket to the 86th floor. (Guests can pay extra to access the enclosed 102nd floor and skip the lines.)
"It isn't just about an elevator ride and a view, it's about a story."
The new technology is family friendly. "If a younger child is able to to use an iPhone or an iPad, they should be able to use this," Ghazi said. It functions in eight languages, chosen based on the demographics of past visitors: English, Spanish, French, Italian, Mandarin, Portuguese, Japanese and Korean. Phase 2 of the gadget could come in 2015, Ghazi said.
"Technology, whether ground-breaking energy efficiency work, the most advanced programmable external LED light installation, or the new interactive visitor guide, is central to the Empire State Building's global brand for tenants and tourists alike," Anthony Malkin, chairman, president, and CEO of Empire State Realty Trust, said in an email to CNBC. "Understanding new technology and how to apply it is always front of mind in our planning."
The upcoming competition with the new tallest building downtown isn't lost of the operators of the Empire State.
In its annual report for 2013 the Empire State Realty Trust notes potential risks to revenues. "In addition, competition from observatory and/or broadcasting operations at One World Trade Center and, to a lesser extent, from the existing observatory at Rockefeller Center and the existing broadcasting facility at Four Times Square, could have a negative impact on revenues from our observatory operations and/or broadcasting revenues."
(One of Rockefeller Center's main tenants is NBC and other companies owned by CNBC parent company Comcast.)
The public filing also noted the 4.3 million visitors in 2013 (a 2.7 percent increase over 2012,) produced revenue of $101.8 million, a 10.8 percent increase from 2012. But technology — and the view — sometimes work well with the traditional crowd-pleasers. In London, operators of the Shard's observation deck added a champagne bar for Valentine's Day and it resulted in 38 wedding proposals. With that success, the 1,016-foot-tall building decided to make the bar permanent, Araque said.