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Archive for December, 2007

Brighton’s 30×45-ft. LED screen welcomes suburbanites into the city with a new “digital mural” each day, clearly viewable from a mile and a half stretch of the Mass Pike. The WGBH-owned screen displays a high-res “Picture of the Day” representing current programming on the station from 6:30am to 7pm; nighttime commuters will see a sky view of Boston from the west. TV viewers and web visitors are encouraged to submit ideas for images, and final choices are voted upon via online poll.

As an integrated part of their new office building, the design is understated enough as not to be visually jarring (i.e. cause traffic accidents), yet bold enough to attract eyeballs. Certainly nice model to start building upon…

Thanks to Stephen (and his iPhone) for taking the photo on his way into the office. Has anyone else seen this in person? What do you think– effective?

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On the T this morning, I was seated next to a man listening to Marcy Playground (you know, the early 9os Sex & Candy guy). After taking a quiet, reflective moment to get over the fact that Marcy Playground actually recorded multiple songs, I realized just how loud this guy’s iPod was blaring. Now, granted, I only knew he was rocking out to MP because he had his nano perched on his knee and I could read the display, but had I been a bit more familiar with the artist (artist? really? Is that going too far?), I most assuredly would have been able to name-that-tune in under 6 notes.

Now, typically, no big deal. In fact, just last evening I was crammed up next to another commuter on my ride home who I swear had installed some sort of CrazyMonsterSuperSubwoofer inside of his little 1/4″-thick bundle of audio joy. The fact that I could hear muted strains of the Black Crowes didn’t bother me too much at that point, though; I was carrying three grocery bags plus my laptop, and my wool hat was so wet I could smell it.

But this morning, on a relatively quiet early ride inbound, I didn’t want to be thinking about Marcy Playground (I mean, honestly, does anyone? ever?)… I wanted to read my paper; I wanted to halfway listen to the conductor telling me I wasn’t missing my stop; I wanted to casually eavesdrop on the Chatty Cathys yammering next to me. Seriously, whatever– I just wanted him to turn his damn iPod down.

Sitting there with my iPhone and mini green Shuffle in my purse, my iBook in my bag… I was a hater. Not of the device, but of the user behavior.

And honestly, the Mac devotee in me still withstanding, I’m not sure if the two can really be cleaved.

I began to think about how user behavior and digital signage are similarly inextricable… and whose job this is to regulate. The user? The product designer? Or does it get sucked into the regulating manners and mannerisms of the prevailing cultural state?

Now, this thought process may have stemmed from a few different places (and let’s leave out subjective factors like “Jayne is a generally disagreeable person”)…

  • I just finished reading The Perfect Thing by Steven Levy. I won’t turn this into a book review, but I will say that if you found your way to this blog, you probably want to read it; in fact– know what?– you definitely do. Levy, a personal friend of both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, does a fantastic job getting inside product design, company culture, market trends, and –most importantly– the essence of cool.
  • I’ve been wrapped into this discussion on the nature of digital signage, and what makes it effective… or creepy. So, what’s the verdict thus far? Well, the lines have certainly been drawn. While I don’t think the split is as simple as “industry = optimistic, mass audience = pessimistic,” I do think that the industry has much to prove in terms of what they’re going to do to make this medium one that viewers don’t just simply “endure,” but actually embrace and look towards for entertainment and information. I’m not saying that industry insiders (myself included) aren’t willing to take on the challenge… as I believe the responses to the post (21 lengthy, thoughtful comments to date) indicate. I will say, however, that if interactivity is the golden ticket to gaining willing eyeballs, then the relationship between digital signage and its viewers, for the most part, needs some serious therapy (or rather, umm… contemplation). As commenter (and viewer) Henry Lihn remarks, “Please, stop thinking ads, and think, “Hi.” If you master that, try for “would you like to play with me?”


So what does all this have to do with iPod volume on public transportation? Actually, lots:

  • People don’t want other people’s media shoved in their faces. Seems simple, but this is a necessary component of all one-to-many apps. The ipod is primarily a one-to-one device, even if it was originally designed for sharing headphones with one’s (willing) neighbor, but its lessons can be extended outwards. If I feel as if I’ve been accosted by Marcy Playground on my way to work, this should serve as a warning for how much “personal” (i.e. trendy, hyper-specific demo targeting) content should go up on these (very public) boards. I’m of the mind that, in an interactive setting, the more the viewer brings to the experience, the better… even if that means taking a minute or two to figure out where they stand in relation to the medium before engaging.
  • If the US is steadily becoming a more insular, self-absorbed, I-like-what-I-like-and-mass-media-can-go-F-itself culture of “Earbud Recluses” (and, for the sake of this argument, let’s say we are), isn’t it worth noting that digital signage is the best way to tap into these consumers?

It seems that the demands of the Earbud Devoted (and many of us on the periphery of this culture, as I view myself) also serve as an ideal model for an effective manifestation of interactive digital signage. To bring this back to my question about product versus user behavior, here’s my first stab at rectifying the two (and please feel free to throw in your two cents). DS should:

  1. Be customizable, with the ability to tap into the mass market and the long tail with equal ease (channeling iTunes…)
  2. Be disruptive only when I tell it to be.
  3. Be disruptive only to me, and not to my neighbor, unless I initiate the media share.
  4. Give the user the ability to control the medium (it follows that it must be simple to navigate).

Digital signage, in some instances (many of which I’m honored to be a part of), is moving in that direction.

What’s missing? For one, as the commenters on this post have mentioned repeatedly, it’s just not cool yet. We continue to shape the blinking-colorrific-seizure-makers into an interface that invites viewers in (and gives them something useful and enjoyable to do there)… and well, that’s at least a start.

I trust that the savviest among us will find a way to complete the formula.

May as well start here… what ingredients for “cool disruption” did I leave out?

[photo adapted from flickr user Pro-Zac]

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Amid the fantastic digital signage debate that’s ensued over the past few days, I wanted to call up a passing reference I made within the comments section and go a bit more in depth.

I brought up the works of Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, specifically their concept of The Electronic Cafe. For industry folks and viewers alike, we owe them clear deference for their ideas about digitally-mediated human-to-human interaction within and among public spaces. In creating the first “cybercafe network,” Galloway and Rabinowitz were pioneers in introducing mediated conversations into social places, and then massaging these nodes into a rich, collaborative lather.

I want to highlight a few passages from their original manifesto, if only to prove how ahead of their time they really were:

New creative activities must emerge such as multi-media creative solutions networks, not simply computer networks for Artists, but rather multi-media telecommunications networks with agendas that can engage multi-disciplinary constituencies.

The dark side of the “new world information order” suggests that a new scale aesthetics be created. It will take several years from the time this work begins for creative solutions networks of appropriate number, scale, velocity, and dexterity to evolve to maturity.

All of this implies that there is a new way to be in the world. That the counterforce to the scale of destruction is the scale of communication, and that our legacy or epitaph will be determined in many ways by our ability to creatively employ informal, multi-media, multi-cultural, conversational, telecommunications and information technologies.

And when was this written? 1995? 2000?

Nope. 1984.
How fitting.

So, to loop this back to the thread from earlier this week… Galloway and Rabinowitz inspire me to make signage more interactive and as “non-creepy” as possible… What inspires you?
(And totally feel free to admit that you’re actually just creepy.)

[image sources: top- www.ecafe.com, bottom- www.nydigitalsalon.org; both linked to original src]

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Megan over at Overeducated and Underemployed is getting kinda freaked out by the rapidly expanding digital signage world. She asks:

[I]s it the future already? I didn’t think so, but the electronic billboards on nearby streets seem to indicate otherwise. And that scares me. Because when “they” show “the future” in movies and such, it’s never a happy place. It’s a place where we’re fighting robots, there’s no water left and advertisements are downloaded directly into our brains, along with secret government programs that transform us into super-assassins whenever we hear a key phrase.

Neo-Luddism? Nah, probably just too much Children of Men and Fight Club (oh man, I love Fight Club).

Here’s the thing… Even though I’m knee-deep in this industry, I do see where Megan is coming from. In turn, I understand the similar arguments of Neil Postman … and Mary Shelley… and the Unabomber… uhmmm, I’ll stop there.

But, if digital signage is actually destroying human values as the robots march in (I’m paraphrasing here, M), what can turn this ship around?

Is this fear simply a residual effect of the analog to digital shift (which will ostensibly keep on shiftin’ for as far as the eye can see), or is it something more specific to this point in the continuum? Are we reaching a breaking point in the unceasing infiltration of advertisements into “our” outdoor space? Or is the discrete content and/or aesthetics of the billboards themselves exacerbating this cultural discomfort?

Are interactive (actually interactive, not simply “dynamic”) billboards more social… and thus, more authentically “human”?

In sum, I’m very interested to hear what readers think: What makes an out-of-home advertisement effective and entertaining and/or just plain creepy and unsettling? Do tell: Wherein lies the split?

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Just yesterday, I was reading through old news articles about the very public (and very brazen) departure of Dodgeball co-founder Dennis Crowley from his post-acquisition position as Product Manager at Google. When I first read about his move back in April, I didn’t see too much resonance beyond the story as it stood. A frustrated, inherently self-reliant employee felt like he was being held captive under the grubby thumb of a tech Colossus…
Seems straightforward enough: the habits of a down n’ dirty startup entrepreneur are hard nuts to crack. (And, with due respect to all parties, Crowley’s nuts seem particularly intractable.)

So why did I find myself following up on Crowley and the big fat bird he threw at The Goog? Let’s call it an “informed accident.” I was checking out the new projects at Area/Code, seeing what was up on their end of the location-based tech spectrum, and stumbled upon Crowley’s name (he’s climbed aboard as the third partner). Sure, sure… he’s clearly kept his focus on in-location mobile projects, this time in an even quirkier playplace than his Dodgeballian roots. Still, nothing surprising here.

That is, until this morning. The first thing I do upon waking up, even before chugging coffee and lacing up my running shoes, is give my RSS feeds a quick scan. The headline that first caught my eye today was from Read/WriteWeb: MingleNow to Close 7 January: Forced by Yahoo?


A web giant acquires a location-based mobile start-up, and soon thereafter stops allocating engineering resources to building out the service, and it dies a slow and/or quick-n-nasty death.

Yes, yes, I’ve heard this story before. Crowley has too.

According to Fortune, Google and Yahoo have each acquired 40 or so small businesses over the past decade, and very few instantly (or, for that matter, ever) become queen bee apps like Flickr (Yahoo) or YouTube (Goog). Fair enough– but is it purely coincidental that the same fate would strike two very similar (at least conceptually) location-based mobile social networking services?


But I don’t think so.

So what keeps going wrong? Crowley points a quick finger at the Man: “The whole experience was incredibly frustrating for us – especially as we couldn’t convince them that Dodgeball was worth engineering resources.”[cit.]

An anonymous commenter (#1) on R/WW this morning echoes Crowley’s point in regard to MingleNow/Yahoo scenario: “yes, Yahoo is forcing us to close. they don’t seem interesteed[sic] in maintaining our awesome site.”

Insider comments aside, I’m not convinced that allocating proper engineering resources would even begin to address the problem. This clearly seems to be a market-based problem just as much (if not more) than it is a technology problem.

When you tie in evidence from other similar services– the recent shutdown of Kakiloc comes to mind– it seems possible that the in-location, mobile-based social networking space requires much more (literal) legwork than most other subgroups of technology and/or social media companies. Perhaps the Biggies aren’t willing to put in the face time and on-site attention that a location-based SN service needs to be successful. It seems obvious, but a service that encourages “real-life, real-time” interaction will need to employ a “real-life, real-time” market roll-out. This proves no small feat for a self-contained, easily-navigitable startup; Forget about it within the corporate maze of a Google or a Yahoo.


[Ed.Note: While Yahoo doesn't directly control MingleNow, they acquired ad network Blue Lithium back in September, which owns MingleNow... So we're actually seeing more of an Evil Stepmother type effect here. Moreover, I write this post with the disclaimer that Yahoo's involvement with MingleNow's impending shutdown remains purely speculative. However, it should also be mentioned that the recent announcement on MingleNow's blog encourages users to post their pics to Flickr and their events to Upcoming (both, not incidentally, Yahoo properties). Just saying.]

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