Times Square is already swathed in giant plasma-screen billboards, advertising everything. But today, a taste of what billboards might become is being unveiled–and the billboard reaches out and grabs the crowd, thanks to technology borrowed from high-tech spy cameras.
Designed by interactive agency Space150 for Forever 21, the billboard features a model, walking in front of an image of the crowd below. And then it gets interesting: The model occasionally leans over, and appears to pluck someone out of the crowd. Sometimes, they stink, so she tosses them. Sometimes she kisses them, and they turn into a frog. And sometimes, she drops them in her bag and happily trots off. At one point, the model takes a Polaroid of the crowd, shakes it out, and brandishes it in front of her–showing off a zoomed-in image of the people below.
The billboard just went live at 10am this morning, but during tests, hundreds of tourists have stopped, dead still and gawking. “Since it sits above a pedestrianized part of Times Square, we knew there would be big crowds in front of this billboard all day,” says James Squire, Space150’s director of technology. “But people only look at billboards for six seconds on average. We wanted to extend that.”
The billboard relies on technology that’s usually used in government or security surveillance, and Space150 had to consult surveillance experts to pull it off. Above the 61-foot high face a high definition camera captures the crowd. But then, software picks apart the individuals in the crowd, and selects some for a digital composite built in real-time, which is then used in the interactions with the virtual model on screen. The software even picks up the yellow of Forever 21 bag, so that anyone holding one is more likely to get noticed by the model. (If someone actually goes into the store, there are now heat sensors that detect them, and cause a bunch of flash bulbs surrounding the threshold to go off, simulating dozens of paparazzi.)
“If you see the way the computer works, it’s like Predator or something,” says Billy Jurewicz, founder and CEO of Space150. “Each person has a halo with data.”
Adds Jurewicz, “The board now is like the iPod 1.0. We’re going to be updating this more and more.” Future versions, with better cameras, might include the model holding a magnifying glass to the crowd, or picking someone up and holding them up to the face of the billboard, so the entire crowd can get a closer look. “People just love to see themselves.” And the billboard is a huge mirror, in Times Square, one of the most famous places in the world.