The Story Behind the Roku Screen Saver

If you let a Roku idle long enough, you will eventually be transported to a magenta cityscape beyond time and space. The screen slowly pans across cozy diners, gothic mansions and a sumptuous, moonlit lagoon, all sheathed in a groovy, “Blade Runner”-esque color palette.

A small gallery of vivid Hollywood references are hidden in the skyscrapers that panel the horizon. Look closely, and you’ll find King Kong, Spider-Man and the emerald city of Oz.

It is, in other words, a screen saver. And yet, this particular screen saver has taken on a life of its own. On social media, it’s become known as Roku City, and fans are fantasizing about packing their bags to head there.

“In 2022 I finally want to move to Roku City,” tweeted Zach Silberberg, a digital content producer in New York.

“What if we kissed in Roku City,” asked Tyler O’Day, who works as a social media manager.

“I am a New York City 7 but a Roku City 4,” added the comedian Michelle Gold, in a tweet that garnered over 21,000 likes.

Most of Roku’s more than 60 million users use the service as it was intended, to stream shows, sports and movies directly to their televisions. But in 2022, Roku has also become the unlikely venue for a massive public art experiment.

Due to the size of the company’s customer base, countless homes peer into Roku City every weeknight, opening up a portal to those mysterious, glittering streets. Over time, a dedicated, semi-ironic cult of Roku City adherents propagated on the internet.

“It’s always golden hour in Roku City,” said Cheryl Singletary, a design director at Roku. “It’s really appealing to everyone.”

The screen saver was commissioned to a former freelance graphic artist named Kyle Jones, who now works at Pixar. Ms. Singletary said the company wanted a screen saver that could be filled with advertising for new movies and TV shows. A virtual city, pockmarked with billboards and Hollywood references, seemed to perfectly fit the bill.

Mr. Jones used a pulpy, art-deco cartoon he made for the reopening of the Franklin Theater in southern Nashville as a reference and built a skyline that borrows from all sorts of real-world and silver screen metropolises. (Both the Space Needle and Avengers Tower loom in the background.) The animation hit Roku servers without much fanfare in 2018, but its status slowly grew over the next few years.

By 2022, TikTokkers were imagining what life might be like in the heart of Roku City and Gawker was drafting paeans to its beauty. According to Roku’s internal tracking data, a mention of “Roku City” occurs once every 11 minutes on Twitter. Young people had found their utopia; if only they could crawl inside the television screen.

“I’ve seen it all over the world, as it greets me at Airbnbs, in restaurants and shows up in my social feeds,” said Mr. Jones, in an email mediated through a Roku spokesperson. “It’s definitely the most visible piece of art I’ve done, and is a great reference when people ask what I do. I can usually ask if they have a Roku and if they’ve seen the screen saver.”

There is no great way to track the viral allure of a screen saver, but Damon Van Deusen, Roku’s vice president of brand strategy, notes that interest in Roku City — known internally as “City Scroll: Movie Magic” — swelled during the first wave of the pandemic when many people were planted at home with their TVs on for days at a time. There, they saw this shimmering metropolis idling onscreen, a parallel reality where the bars were open, the restaurants were bustling and the night was young.

“I’m enamored by what you don’t see in Roku City. The design of it is so enticing. There are these silhouettes and all these shadows. And you think, ‘I wonder what else is there,’” Mr. Van Deusen said. “You to want to know more. Like, ‘What’s rent like in Roku City?’”

Ms. Gold, whose Roku City tweet went viral, believes that the screen saver contains an enviable sense of urbane cool. She notes how, in the distance, you can see giant robots and toothy dragons wreaking havoc. And yet, the citizenry of the metropolis still seems to thrive. “These people seem like they can handle anything,” Ms. Gold said.

Roku isn’t the only streaming platform with a screen saver. Consider the bouncing DVD logo of the mid-2000s, or the drone-footage panoramas of Apple TV. But generally speaking, when a TV begins to hibernate, it is meant to be ignored. In that sense, Roku pushes against those design philosophies. Even when there isn’t a movie on-screen, you can still spend hours getting lost in Roku City.

“I was talking with another member of the team who shared that it might even be the most viewed piece of art ever since it is just on loop constantly in millions of households,” Mr. Jones said. “I can’t imagine that is true, but it’s still pretty wild to think about.”

Seasons are changing in Roku City. As the summer months left the calendar, a wash of auburn trees began to streak across a new district and a fresh set of spooky cafes — and the requisite filmic easter eggs — filled the city block. Ms. Singletary said the design team has used the opportunity to show off “the less urban areas, the parks, and things like that” of their fantasy metropolis. It’s part of a larger campaign within Roku’s headquarters; the city is only getting bigger.

“I think there’s this whole virtual space we can explore. But as we get into that more and more, it’d be fun to do physical spaces,” Mr. Van Deusen said. He imagines a Comic Con-like exhibition where Roku City fans could break bread with Roku City residents — a screen saver expanding into its very own Disneyland.

That dream might be especially magnetic right now, particularly among young people, as inflation continues to soar. Food prices are up, same with gasoline, housing leases and electric bills. But a trip to Roku City is always free of charge. All you need to do is turn on the television and set the remote down.

“A second home is hard to come by as a 20-something in New York City,” said Mr. O’Day, one of the people who heralded the screen saver on Twitter. “Roku City is my own little slice of paradise.”