Outdoor advertising has changed a lot, in recent years. Some old-style billboards are still there, but many have been replaced by LED walls. The look of modern advertising is therefore very different, but the core concept hasn’t changed much – it’s just brighter. When it comes to genuinely new formats, there’s a distinct lack. The most exciting recent innovation is a firm that cleans logos into dirty pavements. That’s hardly revolutionary.
But recently, I came across a firm with such a novel technology that I just had to bring it to the attention of Exponential Investor readers. This is something completely new – an eye-catching, brain-scrambling optical illusion. And it could soon become a common sight on our streets.
Today I’m interviewing Daniel Siden, the CEO of Lightvert – and he’s going to tell you all about its striking new format.
For transparency: I have made a short-term loan to the PR firm promoting Lightvert’s current Crowdcube investment round. As always: neither Lightvert, nor its associates, have paid for this article. Coverage in Exponential Investor is offered only on the basis of relevance. It is wholly independent of any coincidental transactions with featured firms, or with their suppliers and partners.
AL: Hi Daniel. Can you start off by telling me a bit about Lightvert Ltd?
DS: Lightvert Ltd is a digital outdoor media company. Our first product, ECHO, is a revolutionary new type of display hardware technology. With ECHO we can create the world’s largest digital outdoor images – without the need for the world’s largest digital outdoor billboard. Our ECHO technology uses only a single vertical line of light to temporarily and safely “print” an image in the viewer’s eye. The image appears for a moment before vanishing. It’s subtle, but very effective.
AL: The outdoor advertising industry is in an interesting place isn’t it? It has recently had a “digital revolution”, through its switch to digital screens.
DS: The digital out-of-home (DOOH) industry is a product of its print history. Billboards and screens are still referred to based upon how many print sheets they are in size – 48 sheet, 96 sheet, etc. That’s great for us in many ways, as DOOH is an established industry, with a well-defined sales channels and value proposition. It’s a $9.8bn per year industry with a 16.9% CAGR since 2012. This strong growth is mostly due to the transition from print displays to digital.
The problems are that there is no new advertising real estate, and viewers are getting better and better at ignoring billboard content. That’s what Lightvert is aiming to address. Our ECHO display measures only 200 millimetres wide – but it can be up to 200m tall. That means that ECHO can unlock vast amounts of high-value advertising real estate, which is totally unavailable to traditional media.
If you’re having trouble visualising it, check out our video on the home page of our website and you’ll see what I mean.
AL: It’s certainly very clever, but do people actually like it? I can imagine it being very eye-catching – which certainly won’t go down well with everyone.
DS: With regards to the average person on the street, it’s really a thing of wonder. ECHO displays communicate to people in a very different way from conventional advertising. This causes them to take time to engage with the medium, and the message. People often describe the experience as being like a visual echo, hence why we chose the name ECHO. I describe it as being like augmented reality, but without the mobile device – because ECHO displays appear to overlay digital content on the real world. It’s really quite magical.
It’s this unique experience that makes ECHO content so interesting to viewers. It’s a wholly new medium. We use that to make a better outdoor media experience for the advertiser, and for the viewer.
AL: How do the economics work out?
DS: For example, a single billboard in Piccadilly Circus rents for £200k to £400k per month. The world’s largest digital billboard, in Times Square, rents for $2.5m per month – and they do this on long-term leases. Our ECHO displays can create new “Piccadilly Circus”-type locations, but can lease for half the price of typical high-value, large-format digital billboards.
AL: What stage is your firm at, with developing the technology?
DS: We’ve built several proof-of-concept systems. We’re now raising seed funding, through Crowdcube, to build the first commercial unit. Over the last year we’ve privately demonstrated our prototypes to advertising and media agencies. We’ve been producing images 20m tall from our office building in Dalston Junction, London. All these potential partners love it, as it’s another tool for them to use. No one in the industry expects ECHO to replace the billboard, but instead to be a powerful compliment.
Building owners love it, too – as it’s a new revenue stream for them, and a PR opportunity for their building. ECHO can help building owners monetise in ways that didn’t exist before.
AL: This really is a very different kind of advertising, isn’t it? Do you think it will get used in a different way to ordinary adverts?
We certainly expect that to be the case. Billboards “lecture” to the viewer, whereas ECHO “implies” to the viewer… asking them to think and consider. Echo imagery is somewhat similar to Snapchat in that it’s not there forever. It’s there one moment – and then it’s gone. This means people take the time to check it out. The fact that you can’t see it all the time makes it a lot more fun to find. We think it’s rather like zookeepers who hide the meat in the lion enclosure, making it a challenge for the lions to hunt.
ECHO is all about teasing the viewer; it hides in plain sight, and yet it’s larger than life. As with all innovations, advertising agencies love this new medium. It gives them a radically different format, to challenge their creativity.
AL: What’s your business model?
DS: We will own and operate ECHO installations across Europe and North America, and license ECHO technology into regional markets.
AL: Do you think ECHO will replace conventional billboards?
DS: No, we don’t, and in speaking to numerous advertising agencies and media agencies they all independently agree that ECHO will be complimentary to existing billboards – and really drive new revenues into the industry.
AL: Can you tell me about the firm itself – your future plans, fundraising, that sort of thing?
DS: Sure, we’ve already secured £250,000 grant funding from an Innovate UK SMART grant; and we’re now working to raise a further £670k of seed funding through our Crowdcube campaign, which is set to launch in early November. We’ve already secured 200K of funding from private investors. This seed round funding will allow us to build the first commercial installation. We hope to fully commercialise the technology within 12 months of closing the round. We’ve seen a lot of the Business Angel groups in London, and have received a lot of interest. We are feeling pretty confident of our position.
AL: Let’s hope it works out well for you. Have you got a lot of competition?
DS: Well, like many startups, the answer is both “yes” and “no”. We’re the only ones developing this technology and applying it to this market. So we don’t have any direct competitors. As a media owner, we will be in competition with the likes of JCDecaux and Clear Channel. Of course, advertising money can go anywhere – and we’ll ultimately be competing against everything from TV adverts to Facebook.
AL: I see. So, from a technology point of view, is what you’re doing pretty unique?
DS: Well, our technology is unique – so say the patent offices!
AL: Where did this idea come from?
DS: Surprisingly, it was borne out of art. I’m one of the founding partners of the design and engineering company, Haberdashery. Together with my business partners we built that company to 20+ people and over £2m in turnover. One of our first clients (and now one of my closest friends) was the world-renowned lighting artist Chris Levine. Haberdashery were designing and making his technical lighting sculpture with him. We had been working with him on persistence-of-vision sculptures, which used LEDs. These were really beautiful artworks, which received great responses from viewers. We designed and developed these artworks for places like Selfridges and Stella McCartney stores. Many are on permanent display around the world, such as in Sketch restaurant in London. Our clients kept asking we could make them bigger. But any larger than 3m or so meant that engineering challenges would start to emerge. That’s when we decided to look at a projection technique – and that’s where this all began. We then set up the company, patented the technology, and here we are today!
AL: The outdoor media space is clearly quite a dynamic one. What do you think the future holds?
DS: We will soon be seeing the implementation of machine vision and recognition software. This will personalise outdoor content, in a way that seems incredible to us today. Following that, it will be augmented reality – which is all about projecting digital content over the real world.
It really is a very dynamic industry. Lightvert is in a unique position to really leverage this future, as ECHO provides a powerful gateway opportunity for a richer outdoor media experience. The future of outdoor really will be something special. Some people are worried that it will be distracting and dystopian – but I invite them to experience ECHO for themselves. I’m sure they’ll agree that it’s exciting and fun.
What do you think of the Lightvert concept? Is it a clever but distracting gimmick – or a lasting change to our street scene? We’d welcome your feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org.