In an industrial building on the Jersey City waterfront, workers busily printed supersize images for building facades and billboards intended to paper even the most casual viewer with brand awareness. Suspended near the rafters were full-color images of the youth tribes of Gap and giant emblems of National Basketball Association teams; on a far wall a portrait of a Seagram’s vodka bottle hung two stories high.
In another corner, near the executive offices of Nomad Worldwide – one of the world’s biggest large-format printers of the images that adorn billboards and those vinyl advertisements that wrap around entire buildings – was a different kind of ad, one that Keyvan Ebrahimi, the company’s general manager, said might well represent the future of his industry.
“I think it’s revolutionary,” he said. “It certainly can replace billboards.”
Standing on four metal legs, under two banks of fluorescent lights, was what appeared to be a modest-size billboard, measuring about 9 feet wide by 4 feet in height. Across its face, which looks like paper under glass, was a full-color advertisement for a soft drink maker. A few moments later the ad disappeared and was digitally replaced with a different one, and then another, like a screensaver cycling through images on a laptop computer screen.
But the surface of this billboard is not a liquid crystal diode screen – the energy-hungry display common to laptops and increasingly to cellphones, digital cameras, digital organizers and flat-screen computer monitors and television sets. Neither does this billboard share the light-emitting-diode technology that makes million-dollar-plus video screens light up the night in Times Square, Las Vegas and sports arenas around the world.
What makes the electronic billboard in Jersey City possible (and those installed for trials in London, Tokyo, Toronto and Panama City, among other locations) is an innovation by a New York-based display technology company whose name, Magink, is a combination of the words magic and ink. Its approach to imaging departs from the way most text, graphics and images are electronically presented, including the way expensive plasma screens work, as well as cathode-ray tubes, the old workhorses still found in most television sets and desktop computer monitors.
By creating a paste made of tiny helix-shaped particles that can be minutely manipulated with electric charges to reflect light in highly specific ways, Magink can produce surfaces that look like paper but behave like electronic screens, rendering high-resolution, full-color images without ink – or, as Magink executives like to refer to the process, with digital ink.
Ran Poliakine, chief executive of Magink, said the idea was to create visually compelling ads that could be replaced frequently – perhaps hourly, based on consumer response – and could be controlled remotely, all with far less energy and at a far lower cost than a video billboard.
Mr. Poliakine said Magink, which has research operations in England and Israel, was the first company to bring full-color digital ink displays to the marketplace. And soon, he said, its creation will begin competing more directly with traditional billboards in the $19 billion worldwide outdoor-advertising market. Nomad Worldwide, at its Jersey City plant, is among those evaluating the technology’s potential.
“The last revolution was computer printing, and we believe the next revolution is digital ink on billboards,” Mr. Poliakine said, comparing his company’s advances to the first digital printing of billboard images more than a decade ago. Now, he added, his three-year-old company is also studying ways to expand the application of its core technology to personal electronics, including cellular telephones, cameras, hand-held computers and general video displays for laptops and televisions.
Magink prototype screens are capable of displaying video images at more than 70 frames a second, twice the speed needed to produce smooth, cinematic motion. But the digital images share so many of the characteristics of paper, its makers say, that they are easily viewed in bright sunlight but must be lighted much like conventional billboards when there is little light.