jnd: An emergent vocabulary of form for urban screens

Over the past year, Helsinki has more or less quietly installed large, high-definition Symbicon displays on sidewalk locations around town (on a contract with the deeply regrettable Clear Channel, but that’s another story).

You know I’m at least mildly skeptical about the benefit of street-level screens, but two campaigns (“ads”? “clips”?) I’ve seen over the past few months have convinced me that there’s an emergent practice of programming artfully for them. I don’t know enough to say whether these strategies developed in response to cost or time constraints, as the result of some thoughtful, intentional process, or from something else entirely – in fact, it seems clear that the two examples I’m going to share with you spring from different sets of circumstances – but as far as I’m concerned you can go ahead and file them under “best practices.”

The first time I was impressed by content on Helsinki’s screens was advertising I noticed at the beginning of summer. As my mind’s eye remembers it, anyway, what appeared onscreen was a single image completely duplicating the content of an otherwise entirely conventional and inert poster appearing around town at the same time, with a single, subtle exception: the headline text, and only the headline text (i.e. not any of the other copy) animated in and out.

At first glance, this would seem to be a pretty wasteful use of the potential inherent in full-motion, HD video, but that’s the thing precisely: the first glance led to a second, and a third, in a way that a conventional video ad would not have. Like anything appearing in the banner-ad position atop a Web page, we already know to tune those things out. By contrast, I found the simple text transitions hugely compelling. However they arose, and whatever decisions led to that particular choice, the posters felt restrained and sophisticated, not impoverished: a proper deployment of form for an oversaturated age. I kept thinking, “Here’s that rare someone who has an inkling what to do with these monsters.”

I had the same reaction again the other day. The screens are currently running ads for the Swedish high-street retailer H&M, shot with a high-speed camera – models sloooooowly turning, as a cascade of red leaves ever-so-softly settles over them and to the ground. Just as with the movie posters, I found myself paying the H&M ads an inordinate amount of attention. Because the images’ figural elements evolve so glacially against a stable background, they’d found my cognitive sweet spot, that precise interval at the threshold of visual perception that makes you ask yourself: Wait, did that just change? What part of it? And I minded not at all. (In fact, I found it kind of calming. There’s a word you certainly don’t hear every day in the context of advertising.)

Taken together, I’m beginning to think these two experiences point at something counterintuitive: given the inherent dynamism of most streetscapes – yes, even Helsinki’s – perhaps the most effective presentation strategy for street-level urban media is an embrace of the jnd. By distinct contrast to the other hammeringly unsubtle screens I can think of (Shibuya kosaten, of course, but also that one on the 280 approaching Daly City), the primary mode of which seems to be epileptiform flicker, I’ve wound up disposed reasonably kindly to the displays around here, and thinking of them as an unproblematic addition to the visual environment. I think that’s about the best we can expect at this point.

UPDATE: I’ve uploaded some video of the H&M ads to Flickr so you can see them for yourselves and see what you think.

15 responses to “jnd: An emergent vocabulary of form for urban screens”

  1. Michal Migurski says :

    Reminds me of Jones’s term “long photos” for when Flickr grew video. Also reminds me of video screen pictures in an SF hotel bar of models recorded at normal speed, just sitting very very still.

  2. Chris Heathcote says :

    It certainly feels like designers making nascent steps with this new technology. Are these in public (streets) as opposed to semi-public (malls, stations)? Anyone got a video?

    In the UK, in the sites where animation is so far allowed, the design tends towards animated gif circa 2005. Lots of sprites moving in and out of shot. On the large public billboards, which currently only show static images, JC Decaux have a nice fade between ads, whereas Clear Channel boards just snap (with a snap-to-black inbetween to maximise the dazzle). Must be horrible to live opposite it, as some in Vauxhall do.

  3. AG says :

    Chris, as far as I can tell Clear Channel has deployed the Symbicon boards almost exclusively in street locations and those that might as well be (i.e. the courtyard in front of Kampinkeskus). They’ve got another technology for interior locations.

  4. Chris Heathcote says :

    Wow, it’s quite a contract – http://www.dailydooh.com/archives/5948 – “The citywide contract includes outdoor displays for street furniture, Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport and 25 shopping centers in Finland.”

    Do CC have any competition in Helsinki?

  5. Scott Bower says :

    Reminds me of a couple things. The extreme over-the-top invasive advertising in the cyberpunk novel “The Diamond Age”, and, the potential for Microsoft Natal, right now. There is so much “exploration” that could be done with information and communication design in real-time 3-dimensional space like this. Makes me want to go back into advertising actually. Someone needs to grab some video captures.

  6. AG says :

    I’ll try to grab some while the H&M ads are still up.

  7. AG says :

    The usual suspect owns the HKL contract, the bus stops, toilet stations, etc.

  8. Matt says :

    Fascinating. Confirms the idea of: Super-slo-mo being the way of the future in an accelerating culture.

  9. Enrique Ramirez says :

    Oooh … this all reminds me of Bill Viola’s work:

  10. AG says :

    Agreed, completely. Although to my mind that’s not nearly the most powerful of his works. (The birth/death triptych just destroys me.)

  11. Morgan says :

    I (just) noticed those same ads (or similar) in the Montreal metro a few months back. Quite e/affective, but perhaps only because they are apart from the norm. A strobe, bold saturated color or any number of simple non-graphical/a-linguistic sorts of images would catch my attention as well. Perhaps that is, however, because my eye is tuned to inconsistencies in media technology as a student of the ‘discipline’. Would the average viewer filter out such abnormalities?

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