Do Digital Billboards Bore Electric Sheep?
Turning the old axiom on its head, digital signage is proving that what goes up must go higher. Walgreens' new signage system at One Times Square is the biggest video display ever built. "We took inspiration from the traditional billboard style, along with a healthy dose of influence from Blade Runner and Minority Report," says Greg Tribbe, managing director for the display's designer, the Gilmore Group.
"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think
of that movie," adds another Blade Runner fan, developer Sonny Astani, who wants to hang a 14-story-tall LED sign from a new condo project currently going up in downtown Los Angeles.
Indeed, pretty much any discussion these days about new out-of-home advertising technology seems to go directly through Philip K. Dick. The science fiction writer's prolific and once largely overlooked work - adapted into big-budget Hollywood films only after he died nearly penniless - keenly predicted a future in which cinematic billboards lined the sides of skyscrapers, and mall signs address shoppers by name as they walk by. While Dick didn't necessarily think such advanced and permissive out-of-home technology was a good thing for society, those working in the medium have taken his vision as an archetype for the future. Certainly, the signage at One Times Square manifests Dick's futuristic precognition in the here and now.
In the spot that has been the mecca for new out-of-home technology for a century, pharmacy giant Walgreens took the medium to the next level, lighting for the first time the most ambitious piece of digital signage ever conceived, one that reaches 341 feet into the sky.
The post-Jumbotron era re-imagining of the 103-year-old building at One Times Square, once home of The New York Times, includes a massive three-sided high-definition video display structure that bookends the building itself, festooned with 12 million light-emitting diodes.
Factoring in the 20 or so 60-inch plasma display screens that line the entrance of Walgreens' new flagship store, the integrated video system boasts a total of 17,000 square feet of visual real estate.
To manifest digital video across this massive amount of screen surface, 32 custom-built computers crunch 150 gigabytes of uncompressed video every 30 seconds. The nearly 12 million LEDS, meanwhile, are densely packed near the street but loosen up as they climb higher on the structure, creating for viewers at street level uniform-looking HD video images that seem to wrap around the building. "Never has a sale on panty hose been so grossly over-promoted," noted technology blog Gizmodo.
The effect does indeed conjure images of Harrison Ford flying through the cityscape of Blade Runner's dystopian, rain-soaked Los Angeles in the year 2019, dodging branded airships while bombarded by a come-on for Asian snack foods by a giant video pitchwoman whose face fills the entire side of a skyscraper.
Reasonably, we ask ourselves: How tall are these billboards going to get? Will this kind of immersive signage become ubiquitous not just in Times Square, but in other metropolises?
Bigger and Badder
Currently occupying only a tiny fraction of the total u.s. advertising expenditure of about $300 billion annually, out-of-home's market share will certainly continue to benefit from the recent explosive evolution of led display technology.
First discovered in 1907, the LED has made huge strides in the last decade, gestated primarily by the sports-stadium building boom, with sign makers like Mitsubishi and Daktronics engaging in a veritable arms race, each competing to make bigger, brighter, higher-resolution boards than the other guy.
Now the diodes are tinier and brighter than ever, and can be embedded into curves or any other building shape. The video-processing capabilities are also more powerful than ever.
The "replicants," "precogs" and flying cars Dick conjured have yet to arrive, but leds can certainly climb as high as we can make buildings.
Brokering inventory that runs 20 hours a day on its sign through ABC New Media Sales, Walgreens' display system presents a compelling promotional opportunity to clients including Colgate, Kraft, Johnson & Johnson and L'Oreal.
While the broadcast TV audience continues to fragment at a quickening pace, foot traffic through Times Square - measured recently at about 1.7 million people a day on average - does not. Such a spectacular sign allows clients to reach this mass audience in an emotional, engaging way, with TV-like capabilities such as the day parting of ads and without tv-like liabilities such as commercial skipping.
In a Times Square market where digital signage was already thriving, Walgreens' ambitious endeavor promises to up the ante beyond 341 feet over the next few years. Meanwhile, other metropolitan hotspots are also watching the out-of-home medium reach for the sky.
Opened in December, for example, the Philip Anschutz-built Nokia Plaza, the outdoor hub to the currently unfurling LA Live downtown entertainment complex across the street from the Staples Center, contains more than 20,000 square feet of HD LED signage.
Those venturing to the Nokia Theatre to see a concert walk through a corridor of six 80-foot-tall AV towers, each flanked on three sides by giant Mitsubishi LED boards and packed with JBL loudspeakers and other audio equipment. A giant 880-square-foot LED display mounted on the side of the concert hall greets them before they go inside.
Of course, not everyone in the city is happy about this, and the integration of all this digital sign-age doesn't come without local opposition. Neighborhood councils, for example, have taken a position against LA Live's ubiquitous signage and have sought its removal on the grounds that it's excessively bright.
"When I drive back here at night, I'm astounded that that kind of illumination is permissible," schoolteacher Victor Citrin, who lives three blocks from LA Live, told the Los Angeles Times. "What Nokia has turned into is just a giant billboard of massive ads."
More than anything, however, the cost of these large display systems is responsible for grounding ambitious LED signage plans. Indeed, there aren't a lot of places with the kind of foot traffic needed to make the economic model work.
Dollar figures for Walgreens' signage are hard to come by, but the total outlay would stand to be more than the reported $28 million the Tokyo Race Course spent in 2006 on its 8,066-square-foot LED sign, which was the largest in the world when it first went up.
And while prices for LED displays and video-processing equipment will inevitably fall, that depreciation won't occur fast enough for every downtown sector in America to be festooned with monolithic boards in the near future.
Smaller and Smarter
"Everybody cites Minority Report and Blade Runner as the future of out-of-home advertising, and that's a big exaggeration," James Davies, of out-of-home agency Posterscope, recently told the BBC. "We're not going to see screens on every single street corner over the next few years, mainly because of costs. These are very expensive forms of technology."
Dick's gaudy, spectacular premonitions in the 1968 novel that inspired Blade Runner,Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, may not be feasible for wide-scale deployment in the short term, but his insidious vision for the retail environment expressed in his 1956 short story, "Minority Report," does seem like what's happening today.
In "Minority Report," Dick imagined shopping malls, airports and subway stations teeming with digital signage and brand messages personally addressed to passersby, who are identified by optical-recognition technology.
It's brand bombardment by millions of cheaply made LCD and plasma monitors rather than big, expensive LED boards that reach to the sky. Smaller permutations of digital out-of-home media will probably proliferate in millions of indoor places in the coming years faster than the industry builds to the sky outside.
The digital signage campaign assembled by Microsoft at New York JFK's American Airlines terminal last year, which utilized forty 70-inch Samsung LCD panels mounted side by side, provides an example of what we will probably see more of as time goes on.
Indeed, the out-of-home sector is exploding for manufacturers of LCD and plasma monitors including Samsung, which has seen its digital signage business spike 41 percent in 2008, its biggest growth in any display sector. While the consumer flat-panel business has flatlined, "it's professional markets like digital signage where we're seeing huge growth right now," says Kevin Schroll, senior product manager for Sharp, another leading manufacturer of LCD monitors.
According to Ryan Cahoy of Toronto-based Rise Vision, a leading digital signage software company, while digital billboards and other big LED outdoor displays command most of the attention, the bulk of out-of-home revenue is coming from digital signage networks based on now-very ordinary LCD and plasma TVs.
"The bigger market is what you'd categorize as 'other indoor,'" Cahoy explains. "In our opinion, that's the biggest growth segment, even though it's hard to figure out its exact size at this point. At least, that's where 90 percent of our projects are." According to Cahoy, this segment of the digital signage market is currently flooded with 300 different technology companies, most of them pretty small. "We're an emerging market," he says. "All these standards are being developed and we're still trying to come up with a standard terminology. At this point, everybody is trying to come up with different technology and lingo."
Innovation is everywhere, and it's not too hard to envision the kind of retail environment that Tom Cruise navigated in Minority Report, one in which his character encounters a sign in The Gap that asks him how his recent sweater purchase has worked for him.
Indeed, the leading edge right now seems to be technology that connects the sign to the viewer.
Go to a business conference at the Hyatt Regency Chicago and you can experience how this works. Attendees walk up to any of the nearly 60 40-inch NEC LCD screens dispersed throughout the meeting and lobby area of the hotel and discover that the signage system not only knows their name, it also knows why they're there. The system figures this out by reading radio frequency identifier (RFID) tags embedded in their conference badges. It then serves up customized information to the hotel guest based on a preassembled database.
While the retina scans that dogged Cruise's character are probably a few years away, RFID technology is already widely deployed in areas like retail theft prevention. Embedding the technology in customer club cards isn't hard to pull off.
Connecting to customers through their mobile devices is another hot trend right now. Want price information on apparel featured on a digital sign you just saw in a JCPenney store, for example? There's an SMS address you can text so that the data can be sent directly to your iPhone or Blackberry. This kind of application has been around for several years.
"Everybody says content is king, but that's actually not true," says Doug Bannister, CEO of Omnivex, the company that makes the digital signage software that the Hyatt Regency Chicago uses. "What's more important is showing the right content at the right time. You're allowing the environment to determine the relevance of the message."
Toronto-based Omnivex's digital signage software systems are already ubiquitous in the Great White North. Walk into any Bell Canada retail outlet and pick up a cellular phone on the display floor, and information about that specific product will appear on a screen in front of you.
Interactive retail applications like these are the primary drivers of the digital signage market at this point, Bannister says.
Silicon Valley networking giant Cisco Systems also sees gold in interactive digital signage at retail. The company is currently embedding its wherewithal from its TelePresence video-conferencing suite into its signage software.
"A customer can walk into a store and talk with a live expert about a product, and that person shown in the LCD screen could be sitting anywhere in the world," says Thomas Wyatt, vice president of Cisco's digital media systems business unit. "And immediately after that person leaves, the display will convert back into digital signage."
Samsung, meanwhile, has developed a 57-inch LCD monitor that can recognize a user's motions from 15 feet away using interactive technology from out-of-home media company Reactrix. Demonstrated at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show, the application is currently being used by Hilton hotels as "virtual concierges."
So, in Philip K.
Dick terms, the world will probably look more Minority Report than Blade Runner in the coming years.
"One-on-one advertising - where the screen knows who you are when you're standing in front of it - from a technology point of view, is possible," says Posterscope's Davies. "Are consumers ready for that? I'm not so sure."
Ready or not, here it comes.