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Behind the screens of Piccadilly Circus – the world’s most advanced digital sign

Michael Garwood 30 November 2017

When you look at it, it looks right back, identifying your sex, age and even your mood. AVTE speaks to the people behind the most technically advanced digital screen on the planet 

For more than 100 years, Piccadilly Circus has been home to one of the most iconic landmarks and lucrative advertising spaces on the planet – the so called, London Lights.

With a history of displaying electronic ads dating back to 1908 (Perrier being the first), the small corner of London, which links Regent Street and Shaftsbury Avenue, see’s more than 72 million people annually caught in its glare – with advertisers paying north of £4 million a year (according to various reports) to make their presence known.

Piccadilly Circus is home to what we call the world’s biggest smartphone in terms of its capabilities. It’s probably the most technically advanced screen in the world

However, from January of this year, tourists were left wanting, with the famous old site undergoing its biggest ever upgrade, which saw all six displays ripped down and replaced with a single “state of the art” 783 square metre 4K screen.

“It’s probably the most technically advanced screen in the world,” beamed Richard Malton, the group-marketing director of Ocean Outdoor, who managed the project.

“The Piccadilly lights have evolved a lot over the years, from the fabulous neon to where it was a year ago, which was basically six individual screens.

“All of those screens were different in their age, their design and their capabilities. It had started to look a little bit tired. This was one of the motivations to review and renew it.”

Screen Specifications:

  • Size: (width by height) 44.62 x 17.56 metres
  • Resolution: (width by height) 5,490 x 2,160 pixels
  • Made up of: 5,500 individual LED tiles
  • Total area: 783.5 square metres
  • Screen manufacturer: Daktronics
  • Colour capacity: 281 trillion colours
  • Operational time: 24 hours
  • Content management systems: Scala (with custom updates)
  • Connection: Dedicated 200mb fibre line
  • Longevity: Each LED tile will last 100,000 hours
  • Waterproof? All modules are IP 67 rated

 

Out with the old

Ocean, a specialist in ‘out of home’ digital marketing (think screens instead of billboards), was handed the gig having worked closely with landowners Landsec on a number of other “key” sites dotted around London.

The firm, which is based just five minutes walk from Piccadilly Circus – and manages 200 screens across the UK – felt that the site was not maximising its potential, both in terms of revenues and value for its advertisers.

Back to the future

With strict obligations from both Landsec and Westminster Council, to retain its historic look –Ocean selected South Dakota based Daktronics to build the new screen, which is made up of more than 5,500 individual LED tiles. Electronic Display Services (EDS) provided the installation.

Before we took over, it was six screens, six contracts and six different prices with some locations deemed to be better than others and the price reflective of that

Using a purpose built platform, Ocean has recreated the six ad spaces, but unlike before, each now receives the same level of exposure, with ads switching positions every 90 seconds.

“Before we took over, it was six screens, six contracts and six different prices. Each brand had its own location, with some locations deemed to be better than others and the price reflective of that,” said Ocean Outdoor head of design David Tait.

All ads created equal

“The idea of the new screen is that it still has the six different advertising spaces, but unlike before, they all switch around. So, whilst the six screens have become one, the traditions of Piccadilly Circus have remained intact. No longer do you have Coca-Cola in the top right. It’s a constantly moving and changing screen. Every brand is equal.”

Malton added: “By levelling the playing field it meant we could sell it in a more efficient way and maximise exposure for every brand. From a revenue point of view it makes complete sense.”

In addition, each brand gets a complete takeover of the entire display for 40 seconds once every hour. The patchwork effect must remain during this process, but is reduced to four, with the largest possible section up to 550 square metres (70 per cent of the screen).

“It looks fantastic,” said Tait. “Every one minute thirty, there will be a new event taking place. The large square display is designed for more motion video, whilst the others remain relatively still to avoid too much going on at once.”

Did you know?

  • The first sign was for Perrier in 1908. Since then, brands that have advertised at Piccadilly Lights include: BP, Canon, Cinzano, Coca Cola, Fujifilm, Hyundai, McDonalds, Panasonic, Samsung, Schweppes and TDK.
  • Piccadilly Lights has in the past only been turned off during World War II, for Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965 and Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997.
  • Ocean Outdoor controls and manage all content on the screen from its offices – just five minutes away from the site, but also remotely.
  • The digital out of home (DOOH) market, was valued at $12.52 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach $26.21 billion by 2023, at a CAGR of 10.7 per cent during the forecast period
    Source: Markets and Markets

Getting personal

In addition to the display itself, the screen also hides a series of impressive smart technologies designed to collect data and enhance value for its advertisers.

Unbeknown to the public, the screen contains a series of hidden cameras, which using in-house software, automatically gather live information on who and what is travelling through Piccadilly Circus at any given moment.

It’s able to identify the number of people in its vision, but that’s not all. It’s also able to distinguish if those people are male or female, their age to within five years, if they have facial hair, are looking at a specific ad and even judge their mind-set

Facial Recognition

The technology includes Ocean’s ‘Look Out’ facial recognition technology, which is able to identify the number of people in its vision, but that’s not all. It’s also able to distinguish if those people are male or female, their age to within five years, if they have facial hair, are looking at a specific ad and even judge their mind-set – i.e. if they’re happy or sad.

Advertisers are encouraged to have multiple ads ready to be displayed – with the data gathered able to trigger which is most likely to generate the best value and return.

“If you’re a brand that has a male product and a female product, the system is able analyse the average make up of those in its sights before making the best decision,” said Tait. “If it’s 70 percent female, it can play the female ad. The more triggers you can build into your artwork, the better.”

Vehicle recognition

With over 30million vehicles passing through Piccadilly annually, advertisers are also keen to maximise their impact on drivers.

The cameras also include vehicle recognition technology, capable of identifying the make, model and age of a vehicle – and even if it’s diesel, petrol, electric or hybrid. Ads can be displayed factoring in numerous triggers. For example, if a car is older than three years, statistically, the driver is more likely to be considering an upgrade – therefore displaying the latest model is relevant.

Advertising can make assumptions about people based on the value of the vehicle they’re driving

In addition to controlling brightness (dimming at night and brightening in sun light), sensors fitted in the screen can also act as trigger points for advertisers. Again, using vehicles as an example, if the weather is warm, a convertible might be the best option, whilst if it’s cold or hazardous, a 4×4.

“It’s all about making the best decisions based on the environment,” said Tait.

We had a campaign on one of our screens, which would only play out if there was a vehicle valued over £50,000 or more approaching

However, vehicles will also tell a lot about the drivers and the wealth.

“Advertising can make assumptions about people based on the value of the vehicle they’re driving,” he added. “If someone is driving a Porsche, you can probably make some assumptions about them. We had a campaign on one of our screens, which would only play out if there was a vehicle valued over £50,000 or more approaching.”

Connecting with people

The screen will also provide its own free Wi-Fi network. This, whilst of use to the public, will allow advertiser to gain greater understanding of its audience from their sign-in details – but also by accessing information from (with permission) their Facebook account – just as you would when downloading an app or website.

“Piccadilly Circus is home to what we call the world’s biggest smartphone in terms of its capabilities,” concluded Malton.

“The opportunities for advertisers are huge and we’re working closely with them on some very exciting and creative content. You’ll see some fabulous stuff up there. We truly believe this new screen is the best on the planet.”

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