New Digital Screens Transform Outdoor Ads

Sometimes it's good to be two-dimensional. Take the new generation of technologies that are shrinking video screens to the width of a vinyl poster--or even thinner. In the coming decades, these new displays promise to revolutionize a variety of media beyond television, including outdoor advertising.

The newest entrants to the field came from rivals Sony and LG Philips, which both demonstrated flexible, paper-thin video screens at the Society for Information Display industry expo in California last week. Although the companies only gave attendees a glimpse of the technology in operation, their new video screens appear to function even while being bent into non-linear shapes--far exceeding the current capabilities of both liquid crystal and plasma screen displays.

Of course, the new technologies are also attracting the interest of outdoor advertisers. In general, digital displays offer the possibility of multiple message displays, allowing billboard owners to charge more for high-traffic day-parts--and to modify or remove ad copy quickly and cheaply, as required for client objectives.

According to Stephen Freitas, the chief marketing officer of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, the industry is keen on new display possibilities--but is also taking its time in considering all available options. "Right now, the most mature technology is still the LED displays," Freitas said, "but we're looking at all the new technologies currently in development."

Indeed, the new technologies may cut the legs out from under LED displays. In a 2006 interview, Clear Channel Outdoor boss Paul Meyer said the company was experimenting with a new kind of digital sign technology called MagInk that could drastically reduce the cost of digital billboards.

MagInk billboards use plastic tiles coated with helix-shaped molecules one micron long to produce ultra-thin images, which can be changed up to 70 times a second, holding out the possibility of video-like animation. Once it appears, each new image does not require a continuous power supply to be visible; it will remain until another electrical charge substitutes a new image.

A 10-foot by 20-foot MagInk display currently costs around $50,000 to install--about five times the cost of a conventional display, but far less than the $500,000 price tag of an equivalent LED screen. And once the display is up, it obviates further expenditure on paper, printing and labor costs--yielding huge savings for advertisers and the proprietors of signage infrastructure. Because their power consumption is low, the MagInk billboards also save costs on cooling systems.

The new OLED technologies from Sony and Philips, the electroluminescent displays, emit their own light without the need for extra power. Most of their power consumption goes to animating the displays. Japanese cell phone manufacturers have incorporated ultra-thin, flexible video displays into a new generation of mobile handsets. It's not hard to imagine potential applications for consumer electronics, including televisions that double as wallpaper or pull down from the ceiling like movie screens. Sony's first ultra-thin TVs are said to be ready for commercialization in Japan. In Taiwan, researchers may use the technology in personal-identification cards.

The OLED also has some things in common with MagInk, including ultra-thin displays and relatively low power consumption. However, MagInk probably has a leg up for outdoor advertising, as it has already been commercialized for use in billboards in Europe. What's more, the OLED displays are also still quite small--measuring just a few inches on a side, although it's not clear how long it will take to scale them up enough in size (and down in cost) to make them viable for use in poster or billboard-sized displays.

But what if the outdoor advertising category grew to include, say... clothing? Sony's reps at the California expo speculated about incorporating OLED video displays into clothing, which would effectively make wearers into walking video platforms. It's not farfetched in a world where consumers gladly advertise brands on clothing already. Here, the flexibility of the new OLED technology would be crucial for the comfort of the displays, er, people.

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