Adam Greenfield's Speedbird

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.