Outdoor: Genius or gimmick?

Robin Hicks casts a critical eye over the latest innovations transforming the outdoor landscape.

The past few years have seen a flurry of technological advances alter the urban landscape. Railway stations have become multimedia centres, bus shelters have turned into cinemas and posters can talk, smell and give you music via your mobile.

But amid the blur of new gizmos to enter the outdoor advertising industry, which are the genuine innovations? What actually engages consumers and gives advertisers value? Are the flashy new lenticular panels, touch-screens in hairdressers and face-recognition systems really worth paying a premium for, just to be first? Or are they, as Glen Wilson, the deputy managing director of Posterscope, calls them, "the quickie sex of outdoor - momentarily gratifying, but ultimately unsatisfying". We cast a critical eye over the latest new stuff being peddled to media planners ...

THE TORCH

Rising into the West London sky, on the edge of one of the busiest sections of the M4, is a 30-metre-tall structure in the shape of a torch. The feature (aptly named "The Torch") was built in February and is the latest addition to JCDecaux's platinum landmark portfolio. Two 7m x 5m backlit advertising panels face traffic in both directions and are seen by 1.5 million people every day. Barclays is the first brand to use it.

Buyers' verdicts:

"Take a standard site, build a flamboyant ornament, add some lights, charge a premium, and only allow one advertiser at a time to own it. It's impressive, but not a genuine innovation." - Natasha Murray, MPG

"A testament to Decaux's philosophy of creating beautiful structures, and proof that the OOH industry is doing its best to improve the urban landscape." - James Copley, Kinetic

BLUECASTING

The idea that posters and mobile phones can talk to each other isn't new. The way the technology is being used, however, is. It was introduced last summer by Titan (then Maiden) for EMI Records, allowing samples of the new Coldplay album, X&Y, to be downloaded from their Transvision sites. But City AM has now used the technology for a podcast (again, through Titan) and Viacom Outdoor claims that consumers will be able to use Bluetooth technology on the London Underground by late next year.

Buyers' verdicts:

"It shows the outdoor medium embracing other communications platforms, which is a good thing." - Natasha Murray, MPG

"Before Bluetooth there was Hypertag, which allowed us to do a similar thing. The big question is, 'do consumers want to download what you're offering them?' British Airways ran a Bluetooth campaign that allowed people to download their TV ad. Unfortunately, the response wasn't great." - Glen Wilson, Posterscope

DIGITAL INK BILLBOARDS

Clear Channel announced last month that it was launching the UK's first network of billboards featuring digital ink. Developed by the US technology company Magink, the billboards are clearly visible in sunlight (unlike LED posters), allow copy to be changed instantly and don't use much electricity. Ten of the most traffic-heavy sites in London, including Cromwell Road and Vauxhall Cross, have been chosen for a roll-out in October.

Buyers' verdicts:

"Every media owner would like to put hundreds of Piccadilly Circus-style LED screens everywhere, but just one would cost £3 million. The Magink billboards allow you to change copy quickly and sell sites many times over, but the technology will soon be superseded." - Glen Wilson, Posterscope

"They work better in direct sunlight, and don't use much energy - so tick the 'green' box. They looked great in Cannes where they were being showcased, but it remains to be seen whether the technology translates to a gloomy day in February. The project will live or die on the quality of its sites." - James Copley, Kinetic

PEDICABS

Ideal for stumbling post-pub revellers for whom a walk from Leicester Square to Piccadilly Circus is too much to ask, central London's pedicabs now come with six-sheets on their backs after London Pedicabs struck a deal with Mobile Media. Advertisers can brand the livery, inside and out, and the driver's uniform. Sixty pedicabs are in operation, with another 90 to be introduced by the end of this year.

Buyers' verdicts:

"I'm not sure what it says about a brand to be towed behind a Pedicab, but they will find a market. Innovation or gimmick? Probably neither." - Glen Wilson, Posterscope

"It does have certain niche benefits, but it's hardly an innovation. And it lacks the numbers to support it and therefore the critical mass." - Natasha Murray, MPG

DIGITAL ESCALATOR PANELS

Sony was among the first brands to use the digital panels on the walls at Tottenham Court Road Tube station to promote its Bravia television. Millions of balls appeared to tumble down the escalator, like in the TV ad. But the next generation of panels is on its way, courtesy of Viacom Outdoor. Slimmer frames, flush against the wall, will be installed at more key Tube stations, including Waterloo and Oxford Circus, some time next year.

Buyers' verdicts:

"They're eye-catching, improve the surroundings and generate 'talkability'." - Natasha Murray, MPG

"The Tottenham Court Road panels have been a huge success, but they're boxy and jut out of the wall. The new panels will be even better." - James Copley, Kinetic

INTERACTIVE PROJECTIONS

An infrared laser projected on to the street feeds back to an image on a poster or in a shop window. Passers-by cause the image to move when they walk through the laser. Apple used the technology in Berlin, inviting people to dance with the silhouetted figures that feature in its iconic posters for the iPod.

Buyers' verdicts:

"They're hugely engaging; like playing a computer game. Work better at dusk or when it's dark." - James Copley, Kinetic

"Could work well in cinemas - the audience could interact with the screen before a movie - or kids could kick a virtual football. Ultimately, you need a good creative idea to make it work." - Glen Wilson, Posterscope

IDENTI-SCREEN

It's not on the market yet, but the Identi-Screen - or Facial Recognition Screen - is being trialled by Posterscope. A camera with an image-recognition device (invented to enable casinos to pick out high-rollers in a crowd) is fitted inside a digital poster. The device can distinguish between the sexes.

Buyers' verdicts:

"Very Minority Report. There's a danger that people will be put off by a 'Big Brother' level of personalisation, but it's a brilliant way to target a specific demographic." - James Copley, Kinetic

"A media planner's dream, but with the potential for embarrassing error." - Natasha Murray, MPG

ARCSPHERE

Designed and created by the world-record-holding balloonist Per Lindstrand, the ArcSphere is a 21-metre-high, 22-metre-wide dome on to which images can be projected from the inside. It can be moved around, events can be staged inside it and lasers, water screens and other projections can be added for extra razzmatazz.

Buyers' verdicts:

"It's an interesting piece of design, but there's a danger in being seduced by novelty. To do something that has never been done before is fine, but if the environment has no relevance to the brand, then it is just a gimmick." - Glen Wilson, Posterscope

"Limited in scope, but it might appeal to high-impact advertisers." - Natasha Murray, MPG.

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