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Digital billboards by: Tania Hershman


London's streets will soon play host to an innovative new digital billboard technology that promises to revolutionise the world of outdoor advertising.

This autumn, Israeli start-up Magink and partner, ClearChannel Outdoor, the world's largest outdoor advertising company, will launch the UK's first centrally-controlled network of outdoor digital ink billboards in London. The billboards will be displayed at 10 prime sites in the city, including Cromwell Road and Vauxhall Cross, which are notorious for their traffic congestion, and will carry multiple ads from five advertisers and one news/ traffic content provider.

Digital billboards are the next step in the evolution of signage - displaying still pictures or video footage that can be updated wirelessly and remotely with different images for different locations and at different times. But until now, strong sunshine reflecting off an outdoor digital billboard has completely obscured the picture and dazzled passers-by. Companies have spent millions trying to overcome this problem.

Magink went back to the chemistry lab with two scientists one from Britain and the other from Israel - to develop new digital ink technology that actually uses sunlight instead of fighting it. The first network of billboards was erected by JCDecaux, the largest outdoor advertising company in Europe and Asia, on the boulevards of Cannes for the 59th Film Festival, and Magink's technology is soon to be seen on London's busy streets too.

"The concept is quite simple. In a few years from now, any surfaces that are in the urban environment will have something more than paint," explains Ran Poliakine, founder and vice-chairman of Magink, sitting in the company's Israel headquarters in the Neve Ilan Communications Center, just outside Jerusalem.

"They will have a pattern or design that will change, something more intelligent than paint. Many people talked about it, but what we have done for the first time is achieve something that is actually working: the world's first full-colour digital ink displays."

The uniqueness of Magink's technology is that it is reflective, just like paper. "If you have a laptop outside, it is difficult to see," Poliakine said. "The light from the laptop has to fight with the sunlight. But with a real book, the better the light is, the better you see. We are similar to printed paper but our product is not static. You can enjoy the best of both worlds."

The three main issues facing outdoor digital signage are: lack of visibility in sunlight; enormous power consumption, and a short lifetime due to the great amount of energy expended. Magink's technology solves all these problems, and to do this Poliakine, whose background is in media not science, "met two geniuses", as he puts it.

The first, Amir Ben Shalom, an expert in electro-optics, the bringing together of electricity and light, and a graduate of the Israel Defense Forces' prestigious Talpiot program, is now Magink's chief scientist. The second ("the guru of the LCD industry", says Poliakine) is Dr. David Coates, a British chemist based in Oxford whose specialty is liquid crystals and reflective displays. Coates began working with Magink, and in 2002 joined the company as its director of research and development, based out of Magink's UK offices at the Magdalen Centre in the Oxford Science Park.

"We came up with the concept of an electro-optical shutter, and then saw if it could be done," says Poliakine. It took five years of research to get a product that is ready for the market. "We thought it would be much easier," he adds wryly.

The direction Magink took was organic chemistry: Coates and Ben Shalom created an organic material made of 400 ingredients, explains Poliakine.

The molecules of this material are in the shape of a helix - a spring or spiral (like our DNA, which is two spirals twisted together). If the spiral-shaped molecules are lying down, light goes straight through them. But if they are standing up - and they can be standing upright or at various angles - and different amounts of pressure are put on these spirals, squashing them more or less, light is reflected, at different wavelengths depending on the pressure applied and the angle. Different wavelengths mean different colours, and this creates digital ink: sections of a billboard are squashed at different pressures and reflect different colours. Take this to the pixel level - each pixel's-worth of molecules is squashed a different amount - and you have a high-quality, full-colour image.

"It is a breakthrough in terms of chemistry," says Poliakine.

The billboard is created by putting a layer of paste a few microns (a millionth of a metre) thick of this organic material between two sheets of something that conducts electricity, at least one of them clear, such as glass. An electric field is then applied which puts pressure on each molecule and determines its colour. One revolutionary aspect of this is that once the electric field has been applied to get the molecules into the specific set of colours for a particular image, the electricity can be switched off.

"Energy is only needed again to change the image," explains Ben Shalom. "This means no power consumption at all."

A typical LED sign needs around 4000 watts per hour per square metre - Magink's digital ink, for full video display with the same frame rates as television, only requires 60 watts for the same time and area.

Another novel property is that because the material reflects light or it is transparent to it but doesn't absorb it, it is not heated by the sun's damaging UV light.

"UV harms everything," explains Ben Shalom. "Any material under sunlight will degrade because it absorbs light."

If there is no sunlight, say in Piccadilly Circus on a cloudy day, the billboard is lit up artificially just like a paper billboard would be.

Magink, which is a spin-off from Israeli media incubator SixEye Ltd., currently has 40 employees in Israel and the UK. Leading American venture capital fund Vantage Point Partners and Japanese fund JAIC are two of the company's investors, recently joined by Jerusalem Venture Partners, with a $10.5 million investment.

While Magink has installed a large number of individual billboards worldwide, particularly in Japan, to test the technology in extreme environments, the JCDecaux sale for the Cannes Film Festival is the first commercial deal for a network of billboards.

The British deal is the second. The 10 new London billboards will enable advertisers to target audiences at different times of the day with different messages and new news and traffic information. Each ad will be five-seconds long and repeated every 30 seconds network-wide, across all the billboards with each advertiser receiving an estimated 19,000 ad displays a week. The displays will take the form of a series of repeated, high impact static images.

And this is only the beginning, says Poliakine. The palm and laptop computer market is something for further down the line, and, Magink's digital ink "could be used for smart homes, you could create the painting on the PC or another interface and the digital ink will recreate it on the kitchen wall," he enthuses. "It's not a big TV, it's 'paper'."

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