Thinking big

Technology correspondent Tim Kridel reports on new technologies
aiming to build a bigger market for electronic billboards.

As gaudy as they might seem, there’s something to be said for the electronic billboards in places such as London’s Piccadilly Circus, New York City’s Times Square and Tokyo’s Shibuya district: They get your attention, which is what signage is supposed to do.

But not every application can support electronic billboards. For example, some cities don’t allow existing print billboards to be replaced with electronic units. In other places, electronic billboards are allowed, but installing them can be cost-prohibitive because they require bringing in power lines and upgrading the support structure.

The list goes on, but so do manufacturers’ efforts to overcome some of those barriers and make electronic billboards a viable alternative to both print billboards and smaller LCD and plasma displays, which currently are available in sizes only up to about 102 inches. One example is Magink Display Technologies, an Israel-based company whose Reflective Digital Display technology aims to sidestep the main barriers to digital billboards and grab market share from incumbent technologies such as LED.

Magink uses liquid crystal technology, but unlike conventional LCDs, it doesn’t require a constant flow of electricity to maintain an image. Instead, Reflective Digital Display is cholesteric: Each liquid crystal molecule is capable of producing a certain color depending on how it’s positioned and the angle at which the ambient light hits it. A jolt of electricity moves each molecule into position, where it remains until another jolt repositions it. That can be a second later, minutes later or days later.

As its name implies, Reflective Digital Display relies ambient light rather than a backlight. That design lowers Reflective Digital Display’s electrical requirements to the point that it becomes viable for locations where existing power sources are limited. In theory, a Magink display could run off of solar-powered batteries if the billboard is installed in an area where there are plenty of existing light sources, such as the sun or a building’s light fixtures.

“We work with light sources rather than against them,” says Noah Meiri, Magink’s vice president of sales and marketing. “That means our power consumption is significantly lower than LED, LCD or anything else out there.”

New life for old billboards

Cholesteric technology isn’t new. It’s already used for applications such as the display on USB flash memory drives. It’s also part of a larger category of display technology known as “bi-stable” for the way that images remain fixed after the current flow stops.

“Most bi-stable displays are in small applications, such as mobile phones and e-books,” says Jennifer Colegrove, a senior analyst who covers display technology and strategy at iSuppli.

What’s noteworthy about Magink is its ability to figure out how to refine the technology for use on a large scale. Each Reflective Digital Display measures 51 cm by 51 cm, and 15 cm deep. These building blocks can be tiled together in a variety of configurations to create, for example, a billboard or a ribbon board.

That flexibility came out of trials of the company’s second-generation displays, which had glass covering the front of the tiles. Billboard companies that tested the displays said the glass requirement was a limitation, prompting Magink to eliminate it in its current, third-generation version.

Magink believes that its technology is sufficiently light and power-efficient to the point that it can be used for replacing print billboards without the expense of shoring up the support structure, upgrading electrical service or both. For example, if the billboard already has lights to illuminate it at night, installing a Reflective Digital Display doesn’t require additional lights.

“We designed the power requirement for the light source to be such that you can retrofit any existing outdoor billboard that has a standard power cord running to it from 20 years ago,” Meiri says.

The ability to retrofit an existing print billboard can be particularly attractive to outdoor media companies in cities that ban new billboards and restrict major changes to existing ones that have been grandfathered in.

“They’re allowed to do cosmetic changes but not significant improvements,” Meiri says. “We believe that we’re within ‘cosmetic’ improvements.”

If municipalities agree, then Magink could build a market among outdoor media companies that want the ability to drive more revenue from each billboard through changing messages but currently can’t because other electronic technologies – such as LED – don’t pass muster with ordinances.

Not-so-bright idea

Magink’s reflective design has another potential benefit that’s not immediately obvious: It produces an image that’s bright enough to be seen but not so bright that it can cause distraction to drivers passing by a billboard or raise objections from nearby merchants and residents.

“They don’t want to live in a Times Square-Las Vegas environment,” Meiri says.

Magink believes that it can take market share from brighter technologies such as LED and LCD, at least in areas where governments limit or ban electronic billboard placement near highways amid fears that bright, frequently changing messages will cause wrecks. In the United States, for example, eight states currently ban or restrict electronic billboards along highways. That creates an opportunity for European AV integrators looking to get into the electronic billboard business because they can look at how their U.S peers are accommodating or fighting bans and other restrictions.

“[Recent studies] have all proven that there is no direct correlation between driver distraction and billboards,” says Jeremy Johnson, billboard sales manager at Daktronics.

One example is a July 2007 study by Tantala Associates, an engineering and consulting firm. Tantala looked at stretches of interstate highways in Ohio in the 18 months before and after seven billboards were converted to digital and found that “accidents are no more likely to occur near digital billboards than on highway sections without them.”

The ability to install an electronic billboard near highways creates opportunities to leverage other technologies to produce an interactive or customized experience, or to collect information about who’s seeing the billboards. One example is BMW, which gives buyers of its Mini Coopers a key fob embedded with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology. The car owners can register information such as their favorite sports team. The Mini Cooper electronic billboards scan for nearby key fobs, and when one approaches, they flash a personalized message.

Another example is Mobile Trak’s SmarTrak RMS product, which is embedded in billboards and collects information about which radio stations drivers are listening to as they pass by. That information is analyzed to piece together demographic information for advertisers. (For more information, see

More to come?

Whatever their technology, digital billboards attract attention whenever they’re installed simply because they’re different. In some markets, that can create the perception that they’re fast becoming the rule rather than the exception – even though that’s not the case.

“There are only about 500-600 of these installed in the United States,” Johnson says.

The market for more – and for alternative technologies such as Magink’s – depends partly on where they’d be used. For example, many European applications put electronic billboards and other digital signage close to passers-by who are on foot. That proximity usually requires high-resolution technologies so that individual pixels aren’t visible, driving up cost.

“In the United States, the structures are bigger, and people are farther away from them, so it wasn’t always necessary to have high resolution,” Johnson says.

As a result, large electronic billboards are less common in Europe than the United States.

“One of the reasons why it’s lagged a bit is because outdoor advertising is different,” Johnson says. “They’re typically smaller in size than in the United States.”

Who’s paying attention?

Another issue that cuts across all technologies – even print – is measuring the effectiveness of a marketing campaign. One increasingly common option is add what’s known as a “short code” to the billboard. Passers-by then can use their mobile phone to send a text message to the short code in order to receive more information or even an electronic coupon. (For more information about how short codes work, visit

That “call to action,” as it’s known among marketers, has a couple of benefits. First, it gives advertisers a way to distribute information on the spot, rather than hoping passers-by will remember a URL on the billboard and then visit the Web site then next time they’re near a PC, which could be hours later. If that information includes a coupon, it also can encourage impulse buys, such as someone stopping in for coffee after a nearby billboard promotes a new flavor.

Although many print billboards already feature short codes – particularly in Europe, where text messaging usage is higher – electronic billboards give advertisers the flexibility to change codes and promotions frequently and without the expense of reprinting.

“That’s the beauty of it: You can have a call to action, and if you want to change it or stop it, you can do that,” Johnson says.

Wireless also can play a role in updating electronic billboards, thanks to the wide availability of “third-generation” cellular networks throughout Europe. That’s a plus because it eliminates the time and expense of running a wired line, such as an E-1, out to each billboard.

“The minimum bandwidth for [remotely updating] digital billboards is 512 kbps,” Johnson says.

Second, the call to action also provides advertisers with a sense of how effective their billboards are by tracking the number of text messages to their short code. That feedback is valuable because so far, there’s little third-party data about how many people see all of the messages that an electronic billboard presents during a day or week.

“You can know how many people walk by that board by [the number] answering the ad on that board,” Meiri says. “Then you can build a proper business model of cost per thousand or exposures per million that the Nielsens of the world wanted to do but can’t really prove.”

But some electronic billboard vendors believe it’s only a matter of time before independent research data becomes more common.

“They’ll get around to it. It’s a relatively new thing,” Johnson says. “There probably aren’t enough yet where it makes sense for these companies like Nielsen to get involved in analyzing these, but I guarantee it’s going to have to happen soon. It’s a necessary step for national advertisers to take this seriously.”

In the meantime, advertisers that are pioneering digital billboards apparently are satisfied with the results.

“What we’ve seen over the last few years is that advertisers are voting on the effectiveness with their checkbook,” Johnson says. “The renewal rates are quite good on digital billboards.”

By Tim Kridel

Tim Kridel is a freelance writer and analyst, who covers technology and telecommunications. He’s based in Kansas City in the Unite States and can be reached at

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