Driving down the Sunset Strip, you spot a video billboard advertising a hybrid SUV. Intrigued, you press a button on your dashboard that immediately downloads a spate of information into your handheld computer. At the Beverly Center, you stroll by an advertising kiosk that senses your gender, approximate age and personal style, then flashes an ad for a store that fits your demographic. During the interminable wait for an elevator at Century City Towers, you pass the time by reading the newspaper--ads and all--on an electronic ink board mounted on the wall.
These scenarios may be coming to a billboard near you sooner than you think, thanks to technology that's making outdoor advertising more eye-grabbing, more interactive, smarter and definitely more in your face. Already, video boards have changed the Los Angeles landscape--three dot the Sunset Strip, and one sits atop an office building on Wilshire Boulevard near Western Avenue. The intersection of La Brea and Santa Monica boulevards, currently a visual yawner of a location, is targeted to get a video billboard as part of a new gateway entrance to West Hollywood. In addition, video-projected ads on sides of buildings are popping up around the city, and plans for Hollywood's ongoing face-lift include proposals for video movie marquees and rooftop neon signs.
The board boom is happening at a time when we're bombarded by advertising images--some say as many as 3,000 a day. While the push to create attention-grabbing boards hasn't escaped skepticism and controversy, even within the advertising world, the march to develop new forms and formats continues:
* LED billboards (like those on the Sunset Strip). Using light-emitting diodes, their colorful moving images look like videos and can be viewed day or night. The boards can show full-motion images or rotate a series of static ads, the latter often preferred by outdoor advertising companies since they don't require several seconds of undivided attention. Images also can be regulated via computer to accommodate changing target audiences--commuters during drive time, cruisers and club-hoppers at night, families on weekends.
* Interactive outdoor ads. These offer information that can be downloaded into PDAs; in Manhattan, a company called Streetbeam set up 100 street-level kiosks in the Financial District that allowed pedestrians to download messages from various companies. Among them were auction schedules for Sotheby's, which reported 250 downloads from 10 kiosks during one month. Jim Allman, Sotheby's vice president of worldwide marketing, saw the trial as promising: "Sure, I'd have loved it if it had been 2 million, but that would have been pretty unrealistic." He said he thinks the company reached its target audience and would use the tactic again.
* Scrolling ads. Century City Shopping Center, among others, already displays posters that scroll inside frames, and the technology may be utilized on billboards as soon as next year.
* Electronic ink. This burgeoning technology is expected to be more adaptable than ink on paper but can have a similar appearance. Ink is printed onto a sheet of plastic film that is laminated to a layer of circuitry, which then forms a pattern of pixels. These microcapsules are suspended in a liquid "carrier medium" that can be printed using existing screen-printing processes onto virtually any surface, including glass, plastic, fabric and even paper. Its main application currently is in e-books, but it is being tested for in-store displays. Applying the technology to billboards is more than a year away, says Jeff Sandgren, director of market development for the Cambridge, Mass.-based E Ink Corp.
* Video projection. Although it seems a natural for advertising, especially in L.A., where commercial building wall space is abundant, up till now cost has made it nearly prohibitive. That may change soon thanks to a new Hollywood-based company, Firefly Imaging Inc., an offshoot of Angstrom Stage Lighting Inc. Firefly Imaging has devised a new, less-expensive projection system that also produces less heat and therefore is more efficient.
* 3-D billboards. While not exactly cutting edge, these too have received a boost from new technology. Atomic Props & Effects Ltd., a Minnesota-based company that produces 3-D boards, was able to create a giant moving Miller beer bottle on the Sunset Strip, thanks to new lightweight materials and computers that activate the rising bottle cap.
Los Angeles isn't likely to turn into "Blade Runner" overnight, however, with those bleak images of downtown skyscrapers transformed into huge video screens and floating billboards moving silently throughout the city. The sprawling nature of L.A. and our addiction to cars will probably never get us as close to this as Times Square, which already hosts enormous video boards, LED signals and multiple neon images and scrolling text signs.