After mobile: The looming future of screens everywhere

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Everyone is rushing to mobile and marketers want in. Facebook will clear $8 billion in mobile ad revenue this year, and Google will make $12 billion. Both have more than 1 billion users with access via mobile gadgets. Mobile, for a decade the Great Pumpkin of advertising, always unseen but about to arrive, seems to have finally emerged from Linus’s pumpkin patch.

But what if something bigger is looming behind today’s small-gadget lovefest?

That bigger thing may be digital screens, projecting images from any angle, wall or tabletop. At SXSW Interactive this spring, on a panel where Robert Scoble was still wearing his soon-to-be-discarded Google Glass, Gary Shapiro, chief executive of the Consumer Electronics Association, made a bold pronouncement: In a few years, he said, television screens will be as big as walls. Flat-panels will be everywhere. The corporate big-wigs will no longer be the woman or guy in the corner office with a window view, Shapiro said — instead, they will clamor for an office with a huge wall to install a massive digital screen.

Shapiro should know; his association is charged with researching consumer electronics trends and manufacturers’ product pipelines, so he skates to where the puck is going. First, the price of screen technology is falling. A 40-inch flat-panel TV cost $3,000 in 2003; the tag fell to $1,600 in 2007 and today, the same screen costs $330 at Best Buy. And second, screens are getting larger. This holiday season Vizio is selling an 80-inch TV for $2,499, the same cost of a panel half its size in 2005. Follow the trend line, toss in a bit of Moore’s law accelerating production, and if we can buy a digital screen that is 6-feet-8-inches diagonally wide today, by 2022 we’ll have screens that fill a living room wall.

But there is more here than just bigger TVs. The big story is the proliferation of screens and their corresponding input devices: the technology for making objects glow is spreading fast, and soon turning surfaces into screens may be as easy as painting an object. The image above shows glowing paper recently invented by Rohinni of Austin, Texas. Sony is testing watches made from flexible e-Ink paper. The gym I go to has a television image embedded behind the locker room mirror. And Disney’s research division has tested a Touche system that can turn any physical object — a tabletop or your sofa — into an input sensor that could control screens. Soon, fall asleep on your coach, and when your head hits the pillow your furniture could communicate to your home electronics to turn down the TV volume and dim the lights.

If the idea of paint that turns an object into a display screen seems science fiction, consider Chamtech Enterprises recently invented spray paint that turns surfaces into Wi-Fi antennas.

What this means is advertising communications in the near future will have far more screen options than the TV, PC or mobile gadgets most marketers are so obsessed with today. The myth of TV dying is just that. Mobile is rising fast, yes; Business Insider just published a fascinating report forecasting that mobile advertising dollars will make up more than half all digital marketing spending within four years, and noted that this year for the first time the number of minutes a typical consumer spends per day on mobile has finally eclipsed TV. (Note, television still captures more than 4 hours of viewing per person per day; the mobile devices are additive, not subtractive, in how people take in information as you “stack” your inputs between the big TV screen far away and gadgets nearby in your lap.)

Large screens offer a different experience than mobile, one more conducive to marketing. They tie into the third sphere of human psychological personal space, the distance  of 4 to 12 feet used for millennia as the story-telling field, the news your ancestors received from a campfire, a relaxing lean-back intake that we still enjoy in movie theaters or in front of basement TV sets. Personal space, as we’ve noted before, actually has three spheres of distance; intimate, up to 18 inches away; personal or working, 18 inches to 4 feet, the distance from our eyes to the tools in our hands; and social or news gathering, from 4 to 12 feet away. Mobile gadgets fit into the closest intimate field; laptops and computers and tablets the second working sphere; and large-panel TVs the third social sphere. For marketers, the larger screens in fields 2 and 3 provide much more room for exposition and storytelling, and consumers are more comfortable with unexpected ad intrusions in those social fields since they are not as close as our most intimate space. This core psychology is why ads don’t work well in mobile handsets but still do well in TV and computer browsers.

Take the long view, and mobile and its social halo could be a passing fad with a finite shelf life. Consumers have been mesmerized by such communication glitter before — telegrams, CB radio, long-distance telephone calls (remember them?), Second Life — only to see such manias fade. We already have glimmers that certain aspects of mobile may be declining, as tablet sales growth has stalled within only a few years of the iPad launch. Social networking, the communications bubble of the past five years, was recently dismissed by a Forrester report as a lousy form of marketing now being displaced by plain old banner advertising on Facebook and Twitter. Smartphones have turned into Star Trek communicators that do everything. But at some point, people may look up and see a new world of larger, proliferating screens.

When digital screen technology becomes so cheap that any object can be transformed into a glowing video image, the world of communications and advertising will unfold into a realm of infinite possibility. The challenge for marketers then may not be how to intercept consumers, but rather, how not to interrupt them too much.

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