Commentary

The Next Step: Everybody Owns a Digital Billboard

Alistar GoodmanAre you ready to have your own digital billboard? Ready or not, you can, with a new digital projector the size of a cell phone. As yet untested for advertising applications, it's still food for thought for digital out-of-home futurists.

The Optoma Pico Projector cuts against the general trend towards smaller displays, perhaps because its designers recognized the basic limits on enjoyment of visual media once screens shrink to less than a few square inches. Technology has allowed digital out-of-home video displays to shrink from jumbotrons in stadiums, to the crappy TV in the sports bar that only the bartender controls, to small, interactive flat-screens in the backs of taxi cabs.

On the consumer side, video also got smaller and more transportable, allowing individuals to watch TV on the go with mobile devices. But there appears to be a hard limit as to how small the screens can get, set by visual acuity: the 1.5-inch TV wristwatches for sale this holiday season don't seem to be taking America by storm. In psychological terms, for dramas and comedies to be emotionally absorbing, the facial expressions of characters must be distinct enough to allow us to empathize with them.

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But technology going the other direction -- mobile devices that produce giant personal digital video displays -- remained unexplored, until recently, that is. The Optima Pico, which sells for $430, is positively handy, measuring 2 inches by 4.1 inches by 0.7 inches, and weighing just 4.2 ounces. You can hook it up to a video iPod and project 90 minutes of video without needing to recharge it, and it's also compatible with mobile phones, DVD players, game consoles, and digital camcorders.

True, it doesn't produce the sound, so portable speakers with an iPod port are also required. And the resolution is "just" 480 pixels by 320 pixels. But the projection capabilities are nonetheless impressive: at a range of eight and a half feet, it produces a 65-inch image. Even better, it can be used at different ranges within that distance, producing a personal 6-inch display, a 1-foot display to share with a friend at lunch, or a 2-foot display for a group of friends in your living room.

Even before advertising comes into it, the Pico raises some legal issues. A public projection of copyrighted material without permission in, say, a school lunchroom could be considered an infringement -- but in what way is it substantially different from a group of four kids gathered around a video iPod?

Turning to advertising, any attempt to use the projector for impromptu or "guerrilla" out-of-home advertising would probably run afoul of the law if it was unlicensed: according to New York City's Local Law 14, "it shall be unlawful to erect, maintain, attach, affix, paint on, or in any other manner represent on a building or premises any sign that is under the control of an unregistered outdoor advertising company." But what if there were no overt advertising content? For example, a network promoting a TV show by projecting clips in public places, without sound? The brouhaha over the Cartoon Network promotion for Aqua Teen Hunger Force in Boston, using Lite-Brite displays that simply featured characters from the show, would seem to recommend against it; but a video image projected by a person holding a small device is less likely to be mistaken for a bomb (one hopes). In any event, we'll probably have our answer soon, as this issue will almost certainly arise sometime in the next few years.

2 comments about "The Next Step: Everybody Owns a Digital Billboard".
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  1. David H. Deans, December 14, 2008 at 10:59 a.m.

    Perhaps 2009 will present more opportunities for digital signage innovations, in both low-cost video production techniques and creative distribution or presentation methods.

  2. Kishore Jethanandani from Self-employed, December 21, 2008 at 1:20 p.m.

    Legal issues have come up before in the context of static billboards as well as digital billboards. Cities have had to withdraw their bans. This is because outdoor media of any kind is free speech and it is legal to ban it. However, cities can restrain the mode of display. For example, they can restrict the number of times an image is refreshed. Market research shows that outdoor media is critical for the growth of small businesses. This data has been used in the past to overturn bans on outdoor displays.

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