The summer sports-induced demand for giant screens may be over, but Sony's launch of the latest edition of its JumboTron will, it claims, greatly increase the use of such screens, all year round. This has implications for architects, who will be called upon to design them into buildings, for planners and of course for clients to whom they represent a potential new source of revenue.
The new opportunities are predicated on the use of led (light-emitting- diode) technology. leds have of course been around for a considerable time, but only recently has the technology advanced to a point that allows the requisite colour balance and brightness to be achieved for outdoor video screens. Until recently screens have used cathode ray tube (crt) technology, the same system used in televisions.
The major advantage of the led is the longer service life it offers, extending the range of potential applications, says Sony. Whereas crt screens are fine for football grounds, where they may only be used for five hours a week, if they were in continuous operation they would last only three or four years. In contrast, an led screen will have a life in continuous use of at least 10 years.
This makes led screens attractive for use on advertisement hoardings, which at present have static billboards, computer graphics or alpha numeric messages (like the information you get on railway stations). led screens will allows them to use tv-style advertisements, although sound is unlikely to be a practical proposition.
And it does not stop there. Warner Villages is looking to put up screens outside its cinemas. And there is also a plan to incorporate one in the exterior of Wildscreen World, the Michael Hopkins-designed building which will form one part of the Millennium-funded trio that comprises Bristol 2000. This is expected to operate for 15-16 hours a day, showing a mixture of wildlife footage, advertisements and public-service messages. It should pay for itself within a year, and after that provide an additional source of revenue for the scheme.
So what about the planners? Sony has a mixed experience. Not surprisingly, they are cautious particularly where moving vehicles are within viewing distance, there being possible road-safety implications, but some authorities have been co-operative and are particularly attracted to being able to use some of the screen time for public-service announcements.
led screens have other advantages in addition to their life span. The elements of the screen are only about half the weight of those on a crt, although once the weight of the supporting frame is taken into account the overall weight saving is only about 25 per cent. Maintenance should also be less and the resolution is, says Sony, better although, confusingly, it says one needs to view the screen from further away than one does a crt screen.
Sony is not the first company to offer led screens and it says the actual screen technology is the same as all its competitors have. But Sony says its advantage is two-fold. First, it is expert in the technology that goes behind a screen, converting a video or a television signal into the big-screen projection. And secondly, as a large company with a reputation that can be easily damaged, it will be sure to provide a proper maintenance and back-up system. This is not necessarily the case, it says, with all its competitors.
Certainly the new JumboTron, which received its European launch in late June at si-Centrum, an all-singing all-dancing entertainment and conference venue on the edge of Stuttgart, was impressive. The 6m2 screen first showed a kind of moving test-card (multi-coloured bubbles, speeding cars and the like) and then, unfortunately, trailers for all the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals currently showing in Germany. Seen from relatively close to, definition was excellent and only where there were large areas of white could one get even a faint sense of an underlying 'texture' to the screen.
Small black louvres above each array of panels provide both solar shading and general weather protection. This was tested during the launch when the screen suffered no damage during an extraordinarily violent hailstorm. Individual square panels can be removed for maintenance and replacement of individual leds.
The price of the new generation of JumboTron will be about £28,000 per m2 - higher for very small sizes, less expensive as it gets bigger. Sony believes that there are still advantages to crt screens for some applications, but expects led to overtake them within a few years.
Provided the planners do not prove incredibly obstructive, architects are likely to be increasingly faced with designing these screens into their buildings. But a word of warning for the building owner. Manchester's Nynex arena has the uk's largest video wall - a less expensive and sophisticated form of technology. Ogdens, the North American operator of Nynex, was confident that it would rapidly recoup its investment through sales of advertising, as it has done throughout the us and Canada. But it found that uk advertisers are wary of this new medium, and unwilling to buy space. This approach may change, but should be factored into any calculation.