September 19, 2023

Building the Next Generation of Mobile Tours at Ground Zero

Space for All

The original Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church played an important role in New York City’s Greek community and beyond. A converted former tavern at the foot of the World Trade Center, Saint Nicholas served as an anchor for its devoted parish for decades while Manhattan’s financial district underwent a complete transformation around it. The church welcomed anyone, regardless of faith, and the tourists and office workers who visited found moments of respite. On 9/11, the original Saint Nicholas was the only religious institution that was destroyed.


21 years later, Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine opened to the public at the World Trade Center site, once again as a place of worship and reflection for all, a powerful symbol of rebirth in honor of those who lost their lives.


A Seamless Mobile Tour

The eye-catching, white-domed Shrine attracts community members as well as visitors from around the world. Our team was presented with the design challenge of sharing the rich story of the building and the handcrafted iconography of its interior with that audience without adding signs inside the Shrine. A mobile app would offer a strong alternative, but diverting visitors’ attention to their phone screens would make people less physically present in the experience. 


So, we asked: how do you create a mobile tour experience so wholly integrated with the physical space that using it simply feels like part of actually being there? What if the tour could unfold more like driving directions on Google Maps, where your physical surroundings and phone screen work together intuitively? 


We were excited about the possibilities of a highly integrated, seamless mobile tour that would complement a cultural experience so rich with history, heritage, and meaning. Our team began exploring high-res photogrammetry and interaction designs which would let a visitor be physically present in a space while using their phone to experience it in a totally different way. In order to recreate the most authentic version of the Shrine for the app, it became clear that we would need to fly a drone at the World Trade Center Campus.


From Dream to Reality

After 1.5 years of research, troubleshooting, and creative coordination, our team directed a diverse group of  partners to make the app’s dynamic visuals a reality through 3D photogrammetry—a method to recreate accurate 3D geometries by scanning objects and reconstructing them using mathematical techniques. G&A Senior Creative Technologist Luobin Wang researched the best approach for photogrammetry techniques and partners with possible existing relationships to the Port Authority (New York City is a no-fly zone, and for the World Trade Center area, there are even further restrictions). Paris-based Iconem, a specialty digitalization studio known for architectural photogrammetry of cultural heritage sites, was able to guide the 3D reconstruction, providing guidance and consultation at the site. New York-based Hirani Group—a construction-focused firm with an engineering background—was a strong fit for carrying out the drone scan. 


At last, the team submitted a flight plan to the Port Authority and obtained all the necessary approvals. Our Head of Film Vanessa Patchett provided overarching direction, Iconem and Luobin provided tech direction on-site, and the drone pilot executed the filming this past January. 3D photogrammetry was later completed with all of the data captured onsite, with multiple iterations to ensure highest quality.

Controlling the angle of drone photography.
The point cloud that was generated by all of the drone photography.
The team checking to see what the drone is flying over.
Using the drone was definitely vital to our capture. It would be a very different app without it. Photogrammetry is very accessible in a certain way right now, but there is this level of sophistication between the teams and how they were working.
Stephanie Land, G&A Senior Integrated Producer

A Closer Look

Like the newly-opened Shrine itself, the digital tour app aims to be accessible and welcoming for all. We paid special attention to the needs of the app’s remote users, appreciating that they won’t have the additional in-person guidance available from the physical space. Regardless of one’s level of familiarity with Greek Orthodox faith or the Church’s heritage, the content is approachable. A familiar voice provides the narration—news anchor and political commentator George Stephanopoulos, who is the son of a Greek Orthodox priest, guides users through the immersive walkthrough. 


A  selection of beautiful, informative short films will activate the Shrine for each visitor, whether they are on-location in downtown Manhattan or halfway across the world. This series, including archival footage, offers an inside look into the history, rebuilding process, and highlights of the Shrine’s interior. 


Upon opening the app, the tour begins with a cinematic shot from the sky that situates the Shrine in its surroundings and identifies its original location. It then circles the building and flies the viewer down and through the Shrine’s open door, welcoming us inside. Visitors are guided through the Narthex area where one can light a candle or make a donation, and then into the Nave. The interactive 3D model also offers a comprehensive look at the iconography adorning the church interior. These icons, hand-painted by master iconographer Father Loukas—a monk living on Mount Athos— reflect theological teachings, liturgical references, and the life of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint.


Unlimited Access

Thanks to the multi-disciplinary team that helped realize our creative approach, the virtual tour app will offer an immersive, 360° walkthrough that honors the Shrine’s past and celebrates the current physical space. By bringing an informative, engaging visit to the Shrine right to the palm of a visitor’s hand, anywhere in the world, the team is helping to further the mission to create an approachable, welcoming site of hope for all—a vision 21 years in the making.


Everwood Court Productions

Eriksen Translations Inc.

Eric O’Connell Photography

Hirani Group




Special Thanks to

Fr. Alexander Karloutsos

Mark Arey

Andrew Veniopoulos

Friends of Saint Nicholas

Nick Furris

Nicole Katchis

Patricia Moschos

Paul Karaisaridis

The Port Authority of NY & NJ

Steven Plate

Michael Donovan

Alan Reiss

Michael Mahesh