From Fremont Street in Las Vegas to China’s giant outdoor billboards and mind-blowing corporate lobbies, large screen displays are getting bigger and more immersive as brands and venues compete for audience eyes and memorable impact with next-level visual experiences. As the technology becomes more cost effective and easier to install and use, artists are also waking up to the potential of the medium and using large format LED screens as canvases to create mesmerizing experiences in museums and galleries.
SNA Displays is known in the industry for building some of the world’s largest LED installations, including the 32m screen in the Salesforce lobby at 50 Fremont Street in San Francisco, and the enormous wrap-around installation at 20 Times Square, New York. The company’s Director of Design Solutions Paul England explains that as the digital signage industry grows, screens are getting bigger, pixels are getting smaller, and the content displayed on video walls is getting more elaborate and exciting.
“New ideas and designs—both in display hardware and content — are emerging rapidly,” he says. “In the last several years, display installations have gotten much bigger, much more complex, and in many cases are woven into the fabric of the surrounding space. This is due to many factors including lower costs, relaxed local regulations, incredible artistry and creativity of content creators, and a general recognition that large-format video is worth the spend.”
The quality of images displayed on LED screens is determined in part by the pixel pitch, which is the distance between the centers of two adjacent pixels. An image displayed on a large screen with a 10mm pixel pitch looks sharp from a distance, but starts to break down when viewed at close quarters. As LED display technology evolves, manufacturers are increasingly able to produce large-format screens with a tighter pixel pitch that are suitable for viewing at any distance.
“In the early 2010s, the most advanced large-format displays in Times Square featured 10mm pixel pitches,” says Paul. “In 2016, we introduced the first large-format 8mm exterior LED display at 20 Times Square, and we have recently built the Square’s first large-format 6mm display for a well-known retailer. We’ve already begun introducing 2.9 mm and 3.9 mm exterior LED boards, which of course will continue to change the game.”
Pixel pitch is a key area of focus for the industry today, but every part of the technology is being developed and transformed, including the types of LEDs used and the supporting components for the screens. “Other advances will include transparent LED display technologies and slimmer designs, which allow for more seamless, integrated installations that blend with or are part of the architecture,” says Paul.
There has been a great deal of hype in recent years around the use of various optical illusions such as forced perspective or anamorphosis that make content on large format displays appear three dimensional—in particular using installations that wrap around the building like that at 20 Times Square. The advantage of the wrap-around design is that content can be used to create the impression that the screen is a large cube that has been cut out of the building. Action can then take place on this “stage” area that appears to extend back into the structure. If the stage area is smaller than the screen, objects can be made to appear as though they are moving out of the display.
In the first example below, the far end of the digital display is darkened so it looks like part of the building. When the hand passes into this part of the screen it looks as if there is building frontage behind it, tricking the viewer into thinking it must have reached out beyond the dimensions of the display. The illusion is spectacular when viewed from the right angle, but breaks down when the viewer moves to a different vantage point. The same trick is used again in the following video as well.
Illusions like this one have created the impression that a new 3D technology is at work. Paul sets the record straight. “The ‘3D LED screen’ craze seems to have taken the industry by storm, but of course it’s important to note that anamorphic content on these displays is just that: content. While these kinds of images are striking and memorable, which is great for the video display industry as a whole, the effects have little to do with the LED technology and hardware other than the general importance of product quality and good design.”
According to Dave Haynes who runs the digital signage blog Sixteen:Nine, the industry is at a point in its evolution where a major shift in thinking is taking place. “There is now enough experience and understanding out there that large screens are just display surfaces,” he says. “Creative and strategy now lead projects, where as early jobs were so fixated on the display technology and the scale that what was going to be ON the screen was an after-thought. Also, LED and projection capabilities are at a point that architects and other professionals who design physical spaces can think of walls, ceilings and floors as changeable and living. Traditionally, whatever tile or marble clads a lobby is what will have to be lived with for 20 years or more. With digital, if the owners don't like the look, it's a file change.”
In the coming years Dave anticipates advancements in how content is delivered to large screen displays, and what kind of content is used. He predicts an evolution of digital signage networks from dedicated point-to-point infrastructure to delivery over IP networks. “Many digital signage management software platforms will be disintermediated, as screens just become an endpoint in a larger content and control network that includes other types of screens, such as desktop,” he says. “There will also be much more reliance on real-time, data-generated and triggered content, like dashboards, as opposed to video files rendered and just pushed out as finished pieces to target screens.”
Beautiful data sculptures and other content at Salesforce East, 350 Mission St Lobby
Dave also predicts that the mass manufacturing of LEDs will lower the price even further—especially for microLED, an emerging technology that uses microscopic LEDs and is currently very expensive. At some point in the future microLEDs will be embedded in glass, transparent film and other surfaces. “This will mean a re-think on what we know as displays,” he says.
The next step in the evolution of light projection technologies is the hologram. True hologram technology hasn’t hit the market yet, despite many vendors claiming that their products are holograms. “Spinning rotor blades with LEDs on them, Pepper’s ghost projections and transparent LCDs are all called holograms—but are not,” says Dave. “One day, a full scale visual of, let's say, a person, that you can walk around and interact with, will come. That will be interesting.”