Walk down the street or through an airport or a mall, and you generally know what's going to move and what's going to stay still. But Mirage Motion Media, a Toronto-based startup, has a new billboard technology that, even in our image-saturated world, is about to confound us all -- and perhaps reinvent outdoor advertising in the process.
Mirage's "interactive motion panels" play "video" clips -- albeit without the use of any electronics or moving parts -- on seemingly standard advertising light boxes. Walk by, and the picture moves. Stop, and it stops with you. Keep going, and it picks up where it left off. Like a fun-house mirror, it begs passersby to do a little jig in front of it to see what will happen.
While Mirage doesn't expect to begin commercial manufacturing until November, the latest prototypes have already caused some commotion in an underground passageway in downtown Toronto. On a recent weekday afternoon, more than a handful of pedestrians froze in their tracks and yanked the headphones from their ears when they passed the light boxes.
DEFYING EXPECTATIONS. One young woman erupted in wild giggles. And who can blame her? A strawberry was leaping alongside her like a dolphin (advertising a nearby food court).
Mirage's chief technology officer, Preet Khalsa, likes to listen to people's footsteps as they pass. In an unscientific study, more than half broke their stride, producing an audible shuffle. It's not surprising: The boxes defy expectations, advertisers' crucial criteria in engaging consumers.
Mirage's technology promises to be a shot in the arm to the already robust outdoor-advertising industry, which boasted 2004 spending of $5.8 billion in the U.S., up 6% over 2003, according to the Outdoor Advertising Assn. of America.
A SHOT OF FUN. Industry observers are enthralled by the possibilities generated by Mirage's motion box. "Anything that's going to bring delight, surprise, and engagement, and is delivered with taste and imagination, is great," says Brian Collins, executive creative director of Ogilvy's Brand Integration Group. "I would embrace it in a second."
Paul Lavoie, chairman and chief creative officer at the boutique ad agency TAXI -- winner of numerous awards for its BMW/Mini billboard campaign -- calls outdoor the ad industry's "forgotten medium," lost in the battle between the increasingly segmented broadcast landscape and the continued growth of the interactive medium.
"Outdoor advertising is underestimated in the advertising pie chart," Lavoie says. "Stuff like [Mirage's box] just makes it that much more fun and animated and interesting. If somebody is stopping in their tracks for a dancing strawberry, imagine the power of a big idea."
SUBWAY INSPIRATION. That's the thought that drives Hall Train, the 48-year-old inventor of the Mirage box. Train conceived the technology almost 20 years ago, while riding the subway in New York.
As he recalled recently in his office/workshop in suburban Toronto, a graffiti artist had painted a rudimentary animation of a stick figure on a series of columns. When the subway passed, the figure appeared to run. "I thought: I wonder if there's a way to give that image to somebody and take it away really quickly?"
Train began fiddling with the problem. At the time, he was in the midst of a Clio-award winning series of television commercials using stop-action animation -- work that has since evolved into an illustrious career as a maker of robot dinosaurs. Train is the first person to call for directors of theme parks and science museums in need of a life-like Triceratops.
PLAYING WITH THE MIND. A Toronto-based entrepreneur named Mark Beukers heard that Train was working on the technology. And with Train's reputation as an inventor and tinkerer preceding him, Beukers suggested the two start a business together to develop the boxes.
They originally planned for the boxes to be installed in subway tunnels, capitalizing on the speed of passing trains to generate the illusion of motion. But when they realized the boxes worked at walking speeds, they shifted their focus to pedestrian environments.
The box works thanks to the mental phenomenon of persistence of vision. Beginning with high-definition video footage, Mirage uses a specially developed algorithm to create a single "smudged" image, which is then printed with a standard inkjet printer and installed beneath glass embedded with a sort of fine-grained mesh that creates a series of apertures.
EARLY DAYS YET. The apertures control precisely which pieces of the image are seen from a given angle -- then your brain does the rest, reordering the image in a way that makes it appear to move. "We're able to get away from any moving parts by using nature's tricks on itself," Beukers says. Theoretically, the only limit on the length of the clip is the length of the light box. "You can show Ben Hur on this thing," Train quips.
Beukers, now CEO of the company, sees the technology's current development as akin to the early days of movies, when the first images were clouded by dust particles and hairs, and the motion appeared jumpy -- a far cry from the widescreen experience of today. "We're at the stage of Charlie Chaplin," Beukers says.
In late July, half a dozen completed boxes hung on the walls of a workshop in a light industrial park in suburban Toronto -- Mirage's temporary headquarters while it awaits completion of new gallery-like space downtown. Mostly cobbled together from stock video footage, the prototype boxes demonstrate the range of possibilities: In one, a silver Pontiac turns slowly on its base as you walk past, while the lettering beneath it slides along with you.
EXCITED BY THE MEDIUM. Another looks like a giant screensaver, with a spinning psychedelic pattern that would appeal to bars and nightclubs. A fly-by view of the Statue of Liberty gives a clue to how Train hopes museums and science centers might make use of the technology. And a short clip of two kids falling into a pool indicates the advantage of a clip that works when played backwards or forwards.
Rather than selling the boxes outright, Mirage hopes to maintain its product's quality by controlling the secondary market -- most likely by leasing the use of the boxes. Exact pricing has not been set, but it will be a "premium product," Beukers says, costing perhaps three times a comparable poster box.
Mirage's main corporate guinea pig so far has been Nokia Canada (NOK), which agreed to help adapt its existing brand campaign -- aptly titled "Never Stand Still" -- for use in the boxes. The prototype shows a basketball player running up for a dunk, while a friend tracks him with a Nokia videophone. Mila Mironova, brand development manager for Nokia Canada, says it's too early to track the ad's impact on Nokia's brand metrics, but she's excited by the medium.
IMMERSED IN THE MESSAGE. "We try to be a pioneer in everything we do, including advertising," she says, "and I see this as the start of something really big. When people become part of the conveyance and interact with the medium, they become immersed in the message."
Ogilvy's Collins was jumping ahead to the possibilities only a few minutes after first hearing of the technology. "What I want to know is: What do you do in that moment when you stop somebody? The question is not 'what does this do?' but 'what does this start?'"