OUTDOOR/AMBIENT: THE SPIRIT OF ADVENTURE - Icebergs, animated posters and XTP are recent innovations in outdoor media. Alasdair Reid notes development from paper and paste to today's technology

There's been an unrivalled spirit of inventiveness and adventure in the outdoor medium in recent years. It's a spirit that you can probably trace back to the giddiest heights of the dotcom boom. On the one hand, outdoor contractors were taking money hand over fist, posters being the chosen medium for getting site addresses across in suitably enormous typefaces.

On the other hand, posters were being mocked unmercifully as the antithesis of the digital revolution. Paper and paste was surely having its last hurrah.

Well, it looks like the outdoor medium is having the last laugh instead.

The big players took the dotcom money and began investing it in new technologies - and now they have been joined by a whole mob of small media owners from the smarter end of the ambient market. So while the online world continues to be consumed by introspection and doubts about funding models, the high-tech end of the out-of-home media market seems about as ordered and introspective as the saloon in a gold rush town.

We're talking mainly about screen and projection-based systems of various sizes - everything from internet kiosks and plasma screens in clubs to huge LED screens, such as Maiden's Transvision screens, in mainline railways stations and the 48- and 98-sheet LED billboards being introduced by JCDecaux.

According to a recent report from Digital Connection, there are now more than 90 different systems out there in the marketplace, representing more than 9,000 screens in more than 3,000 venues. That's before we start adding in the latest (and perhaps best hyped) opportunity, the XTP cross-track projection system being launched by Viacom on the London Underground.

However, the full roll-out of the service, initially scheduled for June, has been delayed after financial problems at DHJ, the Swedish hardware company.

In spite of this, a "can do

spirit seems to have infected the industry as a whole, because we have also seen old-fashioned billboards used in ever more innovative ways. Witness, for example, Channel 4's campaign for its documentary on the explorer Ernest Shackleton, where sites were obscured by icebergs - real chunks of ice - which revealed the message behind as they melted over the course of two weeks.

The big question, though, is whether all of this activity is going to add up to anything substantial over the long term. After all, once the hype dies down, won't we just file all of this stuff in a familiar file labelled "stunts"? This is just the technological wing of the ambient market, isn't it? Not according to Julie France, the managing director of Adshel. "The long-term value of these developments is nothing to do with stunts. It's about technology changing the face of outdoor in the future,

she states.

One of Adshel's big projects at the moment is the launch of a network of LED screens following the success of its trial of a four-by-two-metre LED screen at the Broadmead Shopping Centre in Bristol. The screens can run moving images and are remotely addressable, allowing copy to be updated or changed from a central location on a continuous basis. And they don't just carry advertising messages - there's news supplied by the Bristol Evening Post, plus weather updates and local information from Bristol City Council.

This combination of editorial and advertising (taken so much for granted in other media) is new to outdoor. France says it's an exciting development and it's essential in attracting and maintaining an audience in this shopping mall environment. The advertising side offers a range of possibilities too - but advertisers are learning to walk before they run.

"It can run anything from static posters to animated posters and silent video. At present we believe animated posters work best - but as advertising people get braver, who knows?

France says.

Is that where we're headed, though? The XTP system can run silent versions of TV and cinema executions, and so can Transvision. Although, as with the Adshel system, most advertisers go for a simpler approach - for instance, animated graphics. But as the medium continues to harness new technologies, will it increasingly be dominated by "out of home TV" formats and full-on silent video creative work?

Some observers believe it's possible. Nigel Mansell, the managing director of Concord, states: "Yes, I think out of home television is a legitimate aim of the industry. In some ways this whole area is still effectively in the ambient sector, although the future looks promising. What the industry lacks is not the ideas and the locations so much as cheap and effective ways of showing video. For instance a polymer or a plastic thin screen like the screen you get on a laptop but which can fit to the dimensions of a poster site. That will move us forward."

Many disagree, including David Pugh, the managing director of Maiden.

He argues that big format TV screens have limited potential. Transvision is a concourse medium (plans are to put screens into many more stations in London and the provinces) but it wouldn't be appropriate in other locations.

He agrees that new thin-screen technologies could revolutionise the roadside billboard business - but only by making it possible to post copy electronically from central locations. Where roadside (the dominant sector) is concerned, though, that copy will always be still image copy, he argues.

That will be revolutionary enough. It will allow contractors to sell dayparts, essentially giving them three or four times the inventory they have now; and it will also allow them to compete for time-sensitive revenues - retailers, for instance. But don't get too carried away, Pugh advises. "Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should,

he says.

Almost everyone agrees that this high-tech sector has a long way to go. It's currently fragmented, with few common production standards - and even if you bought everything from the scores of media owners out there, you would get only patchy national coverage.

But it's a handy new revenue stream which could have significant implications for the medium as a whole. Mansell explains: "XTP alone is likely to attract an additional £10 to £12 million to outdoor and I think we will see more money coming in as we see further developments. The interesting thing is that the money is coming from other media. Outdoor takes around 8 per cent of UK display revenue - but now I think we can expect it to reach 10 per cent within the next few years."