Moving pictures

Electronic displays are putting motion into outdoor advertising

The days may be numbered for the tourist-trap shops around Piccadilly Circus in London (pictured left) and New York's Times Square. People flock to the otherwise unremarkable junctions to gawp at the glowing pulsating screens that do little else but tell you to head to the nearest McDonalds or that you should be enjoying Coca Cola. One of Times Square's biggest attractions is a three-storey shop dedicated to a wax-covered chocolate.

As a new generation of billboard rolls out, city squares are destined to lose their dazzle factor. You might not head to Brent Cross, south of Wembley Stadium, just to gaze at animated billboards, but the tourist attractions will lose their lustre as shopping centres around the world catch up.

Bus stops, malls and even drive-through restaurants are sprouting animated posters thanks to a new generation of oversized LCDs and plasma screens, wireless connections and a desire among retailers to stand out from the crowd.

Advertising-hoarding companies have begun to deploy active billboards on the high street, often enlisting the help of specialists such as Esprit Digital in the UK and Scala in the US. Late last year, at the Brent Cross shopping centre in north-west London, Esprit helped Titan Outdoor install double-sided, free-standing displays using 65in LCDs.

The market for digital posters is growing at a steady if not breakneck rate. A study by InfoTrends estimated that total revenues for digital posters would hit $2.6bn by 2011, up from $1.1bn at the end of 2006.

Paper poster sites are likely to outnumber digital sites for years to come, partly because of the cost of replacing the thousands of sites operated by advertising-space suppliers but also because of size limitations on the electronic displays themselves.

There is still no technology that can put an active ad onto a 48- or 96-sheet poster site, although trends in plastic electronics clearly point in that direction and Elumin8 has come up with a hybrid approach that involves putting electronic inks onto paper posters. The same approach has been used to print electronic wallpaper - a controller in the power supply makes the design change colour and brightness.

Although the Elumin8 technology makes it possible to have ads that glow - often to highlight lettering - it has to be applied to each poster. A fully digital display makes it possible to update billboards on the fly.

The first displays to be used in large information and advertising hoardings were based on plasma - thanks to its relative high brightness. Now, LCD is moving in. Andreas Weber, CEO of consultancy Value Verlag, claims that LCD will become the predominant technology in electronic signage both in terms of value and units. Weber says there are three main application areas: as indoor displays for museums; retail advertising; and transportation information for buses, railways and airports.

Sharp has developed screens dedicated to public display applications. Although big LCD makers such as LG, Samsung and Sharp have built displays as big as 72in for the home.

Reaching a century

Then the LCD makers broke through the 100in barrier. Toshiba rolled out a prototype display several years ago. Sharp's 105in display is actively being sold as a flat public-information screen, turning up in airports and places that need a big high-resolution display.

Silvio Cerato, responsible for LCD product marketing at Sharp, says high-definition is even more important in public displays than in the home. "The user may be close to the screen. So, for better visibility you want high resolution. HD technology is more futureproof because of the TV market demand."

Although the displays used in digital signage look, at first glance, like regular flat-screen TVs packed into an industrial housing, there are behind-the-scenes changes. According to Cerato, the biggest issue with a standard LCD lies in the design of the backlight. A consumer LCD is almost always mounted horizontally to suit widescreen TV and film content.

Lighting up

Many billboards in the 70 to 100in range, measured across the diagonal, have to be mounted vertically. It means that, with a conventional backlight, the fluorescent tubes in the LCD will run vertically, which is not something that you should do if you expect the backlight to last for any length of time.

You can use shorter tubes mounted horizontally, but this does not make best use of them and increases cost. One option is to move to LED backlights, as is happening with some LCD TVs. Some display manufacturers like LEDs because they can dim parts of the display - where the predominant colours are dark - to reduce power. However, LED backlights tend to make the display thicker which can make it harder to squeeze the screen into hoardings where there might be limited space.

So, Sharp opted for the approach of using a hot-cathode fluorescent (HCFL) tube instead of the standard cold-cathode (CCFL) technology. According to Cerato, HCFL makes it possible to cut the number of lamps and offers a bigger dimming range. It also makes it possible to ship the same monitor for both landscape or portrait use. "You can turn it around, which is not possible with many of the current displays," says Cerato.

Some manufacturers are going beyond simply replacing 2D paper with 2D displays. Although the company's ultimate aim is to get 3D TV into the living room, Philips sees digital signs as a good home in the near-term for displays that convey the illusion of depth. The company has produced a 52in display with a lenticular filter mounted in front to split the image on the LCD in two directions. At the right distance, the two images will be picked up by different eyes so that the brain perceives a 3D scene.

However, simple things that have little to do with the technology can make the signs less effective. According to Jeff Porter, executive vice president of Scala, simple things can mess up digital signage: "People are still amazed that 'sales went up by an additional 10 per cent when we placed the screen at eye level and near the product'... many people still get this wrong today."

The biggest benefit of moving to e-signage is responsiveness. By linking the display controller to the Internet, entire banks of signs can be altered in seconds. This is no big change for those operating information screens in bus terminals and the like, but it means big changes for shop and outdoor advertising. And, once you start introducing the idea of frequent updates, it is easy to go much further.

At the end of December 2006, search-engine giant Google filed for a US patent on digital poster advertising - not the design of the displays themselves but the content that goes on them. In effect, the system described by Google would put Adwords, like those that appear on Google's search-results pages, or more graphic advertisements onto digital billboards in response to information that the billboard itself might pick up.

One example would be a digital information board such as those found in shopping malls. If someone was looking for shoes, the ad servers would simply put up ads relevant to shoes. But the ads could take advantage of context in other ways - simply serving ads based on a billboard's location. Competitors might advertise products through boards known to be near a certain shop.

Personal ads

The information might be from shoppers themselves. In the movie 'Minority Report', signs scanned visitors and identified them before trying to sell them something they might need - the kind of activity that saw Tom Cruise's character go and seek a new pair of eyes. No digital poster is going to be scanning anyone's retinas in the near future, and privacy laws would probably ban the practice anyway. But what the advertising industry has termed 'proximity marketing' is already in place.

A couple of years ago, some paper billboards were fitted with Bluetooth interfaces able to communicate with personal digital assistants and mobile phones. Filter Worldwide uses the term 'bluecasting' to refer to the practice of letting users download content through the poster to their devices over Bluetooth and, in more recent moves, Wi-Fi.

Samsung used a system deployed in Times Square to send information to phones when it launched its BluRay players in the US, and studio Miramix used cinema-based posters to let people download clips from the movie 'Bobby'.

In the UK, Coldplay advertised their 2005 album 'X&Y' to passers-by, providing them with clips from some of the songs. A big emphasis on these systems is to make sure there is some valuable or interesting content, such as ringtones and video, to encourage people to keep downloading once the novelty has worn off.

To make sure only people who can see the poster get the Bluetooth requests from it, companies such as Filter have built directional antennas into their systems.

Privacy concerns mean there is a limit to how far public e-signage can personalise a message. But paper will slowly give way to technologies that make it possible to adapt advertising and other information to the time of day, location and even the number of people passing by.

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