Seattle's Space Needle gets an upgrade for the digital age

This piece originally aired November 10, 2015.

A needle in a haystack of downtown buildings has towered over Seattle for more than 50 years. But technology is creating a new experience for guests at the landmark, reports CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy.

The Space Needle was built as the centerpiece of the 1962 world's fair. Millions came to marvel at the technologies of the future -- touch-tone dialing and satellite transmissions made their debuts here -- and the Space Needle seemed to literally point towards progress.

"It was the early sixties, they were doing the race to space, let's put a man on the moon, anything was possible," said marketing executive Karen Olson.

Olson used to work for Microsoft, but was hired by the Space Needle to make sure this vision of the future didn't get stuck in the past. Two years ago, this one-time temple of high tech didn't even have an app.

"More and more guests come with a computer in their pocket, you know, either a smart phone or a tablet, and so we really looked at how to help augment their experience on all the screens," Olson said.

Now visitors log into a 20-foot-long digital guestbook using what is called a "SkyPad," the largest iPad in Seattle according to Olson, which shows all the past guests and their home towns.

You can also pose for pictures with a virtual 3-D image of the Space Needle, with a regular selfie or an extra wide taken from a camera mounted on a downtown rooftop a half a mile away. And up on the needle's point is a panoramic camera that will record a time-lapse of Seattle for the next 50 years.

But some areas are still pretty low-tech and off limits - for good reason.

The bowels of the Space Needle are used to do routine maintenance work. It's called the "Halo Walk," and you must crawl through to get outside, 520 feet off the ground, which offers one of the best views in all of Seattle.

Only a handful of people have ever been allowed here, but the breathtaking view is now available to all, thanks to technology.

Experts in aerial and panoramic photography are capturing the thrill of the Halo Walk without the vertigo.

Michael Franz is co-founder of Panogs, the company creating the Space Needle's virtual reality experiences that will end up as a centerpiece of the tourist attraction's app.

"Today we're going to be using an array of six cameras, all pointing out in a different direction," Franz said. "What we will do is then take all of those, put them into a software program, stitch it all together, and create a unique experience."

Using one of these viewfinders, you can see the Halo Walk while keeping your feet on the ground.

"We want to give people an experience of somewhere that they can't get," Franz said.