Smoke and Mirrors

Doobie Nights uses art and technology to create a one-of-a-kind virtual reality shopping experience

Doobie Nights could be the only cannabis retail store where shoppers might want to toke up before visiting.

Using immersive, cutting-edge technology and thousands of LED lights, the Santa Rosa, California shop envelopes customers in a limitless array of shopping experiences. One day the store could be set in a jungle, the next it’s the Great Barrier Reef or the Red Square Nebula. Rather than settling on a single theme, Doobie Nights owners Damon Crain and Brandon Levine created a blank canvas, then utilized production methods normally reserved for music festivals and theme parks to give customers “start-to-finish entertainment.”

“Retail is dead in our opinion,” Crain says. “I’ve seen what Amazon has done to the world, and I’m here in 2020 opening a retail store, thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ It’s about creating an experience and giving people a reason to come here.”

Through the Looking Glass

Since the store’s inception, Crain has struggled to explain its design.

“It’s like putting VR glasses on; you can’t explain to somebody what it’s like until they do it,” he says. “It’s like going on a mental ride.”

The digital wizardry begins as soon as customers enter the store, where a 16-foot-tall, 40-foot-wide wall separates the lobby from the sales floor. The wall acts as a pseudo-movie screen, displaying a variety of images from simple, glowing patterns of light to intricate weaving designs or familiar live-action sights like the base of a waterfall. It’s meant to obfuscate the sales floor while wowing and even disorienting customers as they enter the store, Crain says.

Customers enter the sales floor through a central, circular doorway, and Crain’s VR comparison suddenly becomes apt, as the surrounding walls are, from floor to ceiling, 4K video screens that work in concert with sound to produce a variety of thematic shopping experiences.

“We’re physically and mentally transporting people through space. When you cross that portal, you cross into a new environment,” Crain says. “I’ve had people say, ‘I forgot where I was for a little while,’ because of how immersive it is. It’s really fun watching the looks on people’s faces.”

Behind the Curtain

Doobie Nights uses projection mapping technology to bring the store to life. Projection mapping uses projectors to cast images onto mapped areas of a 3D sculpture, adding depth and movement. The earliest, and possibly most well-known example of projection mapping, are the singing busts at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, which debuted in 1969 with considerably less complex technology.

Doobie Nights uses a combination of several hidden 4K laser projectors and roughly 25,000 LED lights. Each LED has its own IP address and is controlled by a program that can pixilate the lights to make complex images and video. The projectors are positioned at steep angles near the walls to avoid any interruptions such as people walking past the lens and casting a shadow. The projectors cover nearly every portion of the salesfloor and entrance, with the exception of the ceiling, ground and the interior of the circular entryway, which is actually a giant, curved LED TV that bends along the whole circumference of the portal.

“We are projecting from the floor to the ceiling, wall to wall, edge to edge,” Crain says. “When it’s off, it’s all white; there’s no color on the wall.”

After seeing the elaborate stage design produced for various music festivals, Crain and Levine contracted artist and stage designer Carey Thompson, to build the store’s sculptures, and lighting expert Brian Pinkham, to incorporate the lights into Thompson’s design. Tico Sightings, a technology firm, was brought in to handle the projection overlays.

The store’s interior took seven months to build.

“We had a really good way of doing something completely different, something that’s never been done before,” Crain says. “It looks really expensive, but it’s art, so it may or may not be.”

Although the technology is complicated, Crain says programming new themes for the store is astonishingly simple. He says the program already has a map of all the structures and shapes inside the store; all he needs to do is fill in the blanks with the images. Crain says the programming is so easy, the store has endless options.

“We have scenery themes, and we change those themes on a consistent basis,” he says. “Right now, we’re working on the content, but each day there will be a different feel, like snow or a cityscape or a beach.”

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Although Crain and Levine wanted Doobie Nights to be an immersive experience, it still needed to be a retail store, first and foremost. Cannabis products are displayed on LED-lit honeycomb shelves that are built into the walls. There’s no glass and no need for customers to ask permission for a closer look at the packaging — all the display packages are empty.

Customers give their name and order to one of the sales associates on the sales floor. At that point the sales associate sends the order to the inventory room to be filled by another employee. When the customer is ready to leave, the order is in a portal where the customer’s product “magically” appears after payment (a dumbwaiter system allows orders to be pulled from inventory, placed and delivered).

Making Something Different

Doobie Nights opened on January 17, 2020, bringing a wave of excitement to Santa Rosa, but also invoking bittersweet memories for Crain, who signed the lease for the retail space just three days before the 2017 Tubbs fire in Sonoma County burned down his home.

“I was a grower up until that point,” Crain says. “But when my crop burned down there was no insurance, no way for me to get my crop back.”

Crain had already been working with Levine to get into cannabis retail, brainstorming ideas on innovative new concepts.

When the fire came, it left him with no excuses to delay the project.

“It was a big trigger; it was the reason why I went from farming to retail,” Crain says. “I’m pretty sure I am going to be making more money in the long run with retail.”

Levine was already operating the Mercy Wellness dispensary in the small, Sonoma County town of Cotati, but the duo wanted Doobie Nights to be more than just another cannabis store.

“It’s all about the experience when you come here,” Crain says. “We’ve got the music turned up. We’re having a good time. This is about getting high and having fun doing it.”

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