screens in context · 30. September 2009, 16:30

The constant nagging at the back of mind about screens continues (often whilst talking to Russell), whilst their unrelenting rollout continues. The London ones seem, so far, to be pretty disappointing in their digitalness; they mirror print billboards, badly, or seem to mimic banner ads from 2005 (heck, even print billboards are mimicking banner ads).

Whilst the advertising industry has one of the longest histories of trying to understand interaction, it’s a very different set of tools that digitalness brings; ones that designers at the coal face of web and mobile encounter every day. Everything can be considered in context, be timely, reactive, and data-driven.

I’m going to try to outline some dimensions to think about, with some incredibly quick, simple, off the cuff dumb ideas (All brands are impersonated. Badly.) that hopefully push the advertising into being more useful or interesting. The technology to achieve some of these may be over and above what is possible now, but the biggest step – installing powered, networked computers in the real world – is already being taken by advertising media companies.



Time of day, day, day type (weekday/weekend), date, month, season, year.

This, at a large scale, already happens, through campaign planning and media buying. However, digital screens can react quicker – changing brands and executions at whim.

Time of day in particular could allow more nuanced advertising. Take, for example, the current M&S “worth every penny” campaign.


This has many executions, for the wide range of products M&S stock. You could easily relate time to certain products:
morning commute – coffee, croissants, lunch time – fruit, salads, clothes, evening – ready meals, wine. Simple and trite, but it starts to relate to time-based needs, and feels more sympathetic.

Venues could tell you want’s on tonight, rather than generic ads for upcoming shows. The Southbank Centre operate a set of screens inside their venues and nearby shops and restaurants:

Stratacache-Southbank Centre-1.JPG 20481536 pixels

This information would be perfect for the Underground escalator screens in the morning and afternoon – especially if told you that tickets were still available. As well as the direct ticket sales, it would, day after day, also show the wide range of events that take place there – always something interesting happening. So we can think about telling quite detailed stories over a period of time.


Exact location, type of location, neighbourhood, city, country.

Screens are inherently situated. Whilst I don’t envisage ads imploring you to visit a shop ‘only 238m from this bus stop’, they can be tuned for the locality.

Take this screen in London Victoria station:

Sky News on Titan screen

It’s your average thoroughly modern mega screen, showing Sky News excerpts and information in between ads. What struck me is that the weather forecast was for Glasgow (and it flicked between lots of UK cities). Victoria station serves the south of England – wouldn’t it be more useful and more civil to show the forecast for Brighton, Gatwick, Southampton, Dover?

image taken by cyberdees

The 2006 North vs South Run London campaign for Nike was a great way of exploiting the geographic rivalries in London – I seem to remember some good place-based executions too. Imagine if this was on a neighbourhood basis – maybe turn the ongoing postcode problems into a more healthy competition.

Networked, Internet enabled and data-driven

Knowledge of other screens, Internet aware, responsive to real time data, data drawn from multiple sources.

Being Internet enabled, ads can incorporate real-time content, and data from the web.

Sky News are already doing this on billboards (I won’t comment on the odd graphic design):

Sky News billboard screen

It’s a very literal use of their content.

Nike could use the Nike+ data to create live ads – “London ran 300945 miles yesterday.”, “Berlin ran 50k more than Paris yesterday.” etc. The Tesco Real Baskets ads (and similar ADSA & sainburys ads) could tell you that Londoners saved 100,000 yesterday. You can make abstract concepts very real by plugging in the real data that companies are producing and using internally.

More abstract data can also be incorporated. You can have different executions based on the weather, cheering up people when it’s raining, and celebrating when it’s sunny.

Giveaways, coupons and treasure hunts could be created using the network of screens, with allocations managed dynamically by day, time and place. Real-time reaction merges the possibilities of DM and broadcast media.

Being networked also allows real-time communication. BA’s Metrotwin could connect up webcams between pairs of signs in London and New York (matching similar areas of the cities), like the telectroscope.



Face detection, gaze detection, mood, OCR.

Adding a camera allows you to sense many things. An ad has already been created that detects whether you’re looking at it. Similarly, face or body detection (without identification), as seen in digital cameras, can detect if people are around – see Chris O’Shea’s installation, Hand From Above.

An ad that recently took vision to the next level was this ad for Castrol, using OCR to read car number plates (and then look up what kind of car it was from a copy of the DVLA database).

CASTROL-AD2.jpg 1300866 pixels

Even though it’s not really identifying you, this could have been created more subtly – instead of the number plate,
it could have said “2007 Jaguars use Castrol Magnatec 5W-30 A1”, which would have made it seem magic/spooky rather than creepy.

Wifi/Bluetooth/thing sensing

Mobile phone detection, passive object detection.

You can detect mobile phones in a number of ways: monitoring for Bluetooth signals, wifi connections or even detect the GSM signals between base station and handset themselves. This lets you know how many people are in the vicinity, and in certain cases, potentially if they’ve been here before, or if networked, whether other screens have “seen” them.

“Hello again!” “You’re early this morning.” “Haven’t seen you in ages!” “What are you doing around here?”
Potentially creepy, but could be quite funny if well written.

Whilst phones are the easiest and most ubiquitous, other things can be detected, such as Nike+ shoes (and calculate how quickly they’re walking/running). A Nike ad could implore you to keep running, or direct you around a 5k circuit of screens. Maybe you could play Nike Tag in real life.


Touch screen

Direct interactivity, data collection.

Cadbury Creme Egg launches touchscreen bus shelter game - Brand Republic News - Brand Republic

Adding a touch screen seems like the logical step for screens: here’s a bus shelter that lets you play a quick game. However, it can easily turn the ad, meant to be seen by many, into a single user experience (which is what interaction designers are more used to on the web). Letting you play games between screens, or having long-term interactivity, rather than quick one player games, makes more sense. There’s also issues of cleanliness and breakability. In other settings than bus stops, it may make sense, and allows immediate response.

RFID / barcodes

Object detection, database lookup.

RFID (Oyster/Octopus/Paywave) readers, or barcode readers (Nectar, Tesco Clubcard) could recognise you if you wanted, say, to explictly personalise the ad or recognise an object that you scan.

For example, the Tesco campaign could tell you “you’d save 13 on your normal shop this week” – or if you scanned an object, where it was cheaper.

Tesco Real Baskets - Online Shopping Price Comparison for Groceries -

Mobile applications

Longer-term interactivity, multi-screen interactions.

Mobile phone apps could link up to the screens, and allow interactions between the phone and the screen. There would need to be appropriate reward for users committed enough to download and install an app.

It’s easy to imagine competitions and games: you could play football between screens – kicking the ‘ball’ between them with your phone, finally scoring a goal at the screens near football stadiums. Or you could have the highest Tetris score in Tooting.

So that’s a quick whizz through the recently possible future of screens and advertising. There’s going to be lots of mistakes as the industry, the law and the public understand what’s acceptable, and useful and what privacy concerns there are. It’s important for the industry not to use them as a novelty, but to think hard and sensitively about how being digital changes advertising, and the urban environment. New skills will be needed that current ad creatives and interaction designers do not have: motion design that isn’t TV, interaction that isn’t about individuals, contextual design centred around objects rather than people. I hope these can make ads more meaningful, maybe even more useful, than was possible with static advertising.


The trouble is it’s all ‘hassle’ for frankly incompetent media agencies and technically unable ad agencies. Things will happen, but one off’s akin to the 3d boards you get round heathrow etc. Issue two is cost, everyone wants something for nothing. I hate to be negative, but money gets spent very unwisely in the advertising world.

Clients are as guilty as agencies, as they often are fearful and unadventurous.


mac    30.09.09    #

Lovely list of ideas and executions.

It reminded me of a couple of campaigns we did a couple of years back.

One turned buses into digital signage and displayed local businesses depending on the GPS location of the bus.

The other was a banner ad which checked the weather in your area based on your ip address and displayed businesses that would be useful e.g. The local lido if it was sunny or an umbrella shop if it was raining.

It does feel like technology is being wasted through laziness and an apathy to innovate.

Rick    8.10.09    #

Hi Chris,

I commissioned a few interactive public art pieces around 1998-2001, including this piece by Tim Etchells in 2001:

In this installtion, he created 1440 lines describing an imaginary city that were displayed one a minute each, 24 hrs a day, on an LED screen in a bus stop. The computer chose different texts depending on the time of day, and between 12-6am it randomly cut and mixed texts to create a slightly hallucinatory narrative that perfectly fitted those strange dawn hours.

I’m developing a few similar projects for our ‘territories’ brief. it would be great to get you involved somehow…

matlock    12.10.09    #