City of screens
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City of screens

Digital displays will play a key role in the future of urban environments, but the industry will need to boost its sustainability credentials and keep the pavement-walking public on side.

This year, Las Vegas experienced a 4th July celebration like no other. The MSG Sphere, billed as the world’s largest LED screen, ran a test, showing the welcome message “Hello World” followed by fireworks, stars and stripes animations, a giant pumpkin and a moon in the night sky. The 580,000 sq ft screen lights up the Las Vegas skyline and offers a glimpse into a world of the future where public spaces are dominated by giant display screens. Another such Sphere is planned for London – but why stop there?

Urban landscapes are undergoing a transformation as the latest digital display technology towers over town squares and dots the scenery on bus shelters and billboards. From advertising messages and newscasts to art installations and traffic information, the urban screen jungle is turning our city centres into areas of opportunity.

Whether it’s the advertising hoardings lining New York’s Times Square offering the “Midnight Moment” for public art displays or the spectacular digital installation on LA’s Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, our cities are becoming visual feasts. Moving images ripple and wriggle in the most unexpected places as figures loom from hoardings.

No city centre is complete these days without some towering piece of three-dimensional action protruding from a giant display, advertising the latest adventure film or streaming hit. A stunning example was Amazon Prime’s use of an anamorphic billboard in London’s Piccadilly Circus to advertise series The Wheel of Time with spooky, giant figures lunging out at passers-by in 3D.

Meanwhile, occasions of global significance from the Coronation to the World Cup are mass events watched on outdoor screens and in fan zones around the world.

However, there could be a limit to how far the public will accept the presence of digital screens everywhere. The mayor of Sydney has paused the expansion of digital screens in the city after complaints that the 86-inch screens block paths and distract drivers. But for many, the thrill of experiencing colourful, playful images dancing across outdoor digital displays is welcome.

Some big questions also surround the sustainability of digital screens, with Greenpeace daubing graffiti on digital six-panel displays calling them “Global Heating Machines” and claiming “This ad uses the same electricity as three households.”

These are issues that the display industry will need to address, since digital screens are rapidly becoming an integral part of the cities of the future.

A push is on to make digital screens more environmentally friendly and efficient, powering them through renewable energy and offsetting carbon emissions. Advances in renewable energy technology could allow outdoor screens to be lit by their own solar power sources to reduce their carbon footprint.

An intriguing scenario will be the role of digital displays in the growth of smart cities. These are urban areas that use data and connectivity to improve the sustainability, quality of life and welfare of the city’s inhabitants.

Digital displays could enhance smart cities by linking up with internet-of-things sensors to offer the public real-time updates on everything from weather and traffic to directing diners to restaurants with free tables.

Smart digital screens could play a role in wayfinding and navigation, directing pedestrians and motorists through the fastest routes to notable destinations. Displays can offer city-wide emergency alerts and updates and engage local communities with information about events and gatherings. Importantly, the revenues that city authorities earn from advertising hoardings and information screens can be reinvested back into smart city infrastructure. In this way, digital screens can become beacons for liveability and sustainability.

Another area of opportunity lies in interactivity, with touchscreens and augmented and virtual reality screens allowing dynamic and personalised displays. Passers-by can already project their faces on to the giant displays through mobile selfies. The scene from Spielberg’s Minority Report where Tom Cruise walks through a shopping mall and is met by personalised messages that loom out from screens appears less like science fiction these days. If the virtual world of the metaverse eventually takes off towards the end of this decade, it is conceivable that we will be able to access our own personalised virtual worlds from screens located across the urban landscape.

With ever more flexible displays on offer and advances in technology racing ahead, these giant screens are improving their contrast and brightness and offering higher resolutions with improved visibility in different lighting conditions.

One of the challenges for the big screen revolution is the size of the light emitting diodes  that make up the screens. Large LED screens use light emitting diodes that emit light when an electric current is passed through. The LEDs light up pixels, which emit combinations of red, green and blue light. When connected to a video chip, they light up in concert to create the moving image. The pixels are arranged in a grid where screen resolution is determined by the size of the LEDs and the space between the pixels.

These LEDs are ideal for outdoor screens where viewers tend to stand a few metres away. But for indoor screens, where people watch from three metres or less, the LEDs are so large that they will see the bulbs rather than a complete image.

To address this, the industry will need to create screens with thousands of micro-LEDs, tiny diodes which are placed side by side in the screens. These improve visual quality for indoor screens, creating better viewability close up and allowing for large LED screens to be installed in office lobbies, sports centres and conference rooms.

Designing city centres with digital displays in mind will require innovation both in display technology and in finding suitable content to appear on the screens. Truly great content – such as extraordinary 3D film trailers – will wow the population, but more mundane uses could be seen as intrusive.

With everything to play as the cities of the future evolve, digital screens are likely to make a huge contribution to the built environment.