LEDs dancing in choreography and a proposed experiment for my next fieldwork

There is a particular sound one can hear in Times Square. The sound is louder around the W. 47th Street, between Olive Garden’s sidewalk and the TKTS booths under the big red stairs. If you visited the Square after August 8, 2017, perhaps you may know about this. But probably you don’t. The sound has the shape of a strong magnetic wind that is continually coming in waves. Although this is a continuous sound, it is easier to identify it at nights when Times Square is quieter.

But nobody talks about the sound. Maybe nobody cares about it, or perhaps it is because it turns out to be either a no-brainer or just a side-effect of the presence of a most notorious element there: the Coca-Cola 3D Billboard. The sound is the result of the movement of more than 1700 independent, computerized LED modules composing the screen. This robotic advertisement is both the world’s first and world’s largest 3D billboard by Guinness World Records

Coca-Cola and Times Square have a long time story since 1920. As reported by the website of the company, that year their first outdoor advertisement was launched two streets far from the place where it currently is. Over the Brill Building, at 49th Street and Broadway, a modest sign showing their logo starts the relationship with this location. Then, in 1923, Coca-Cola renewed its presence there, according to them, with the implementation of the “second largest billboard in the world” at that time, that also included some neon lights. 

A few years later, in 1932, they chose a new location, the actual one, over the West 47th Street. At that time, Times Square was already famous by its lights and advertisements as well as by the overcrowded Subway Station inaugurated there just 28 years before. This new place quickly turned into a catching-eye device for the people going out the Broadway shows, of the busy commuters and, in a broad sense, of the whole city.

The first billboard displayed in Times Square was inaugurated in 1904. It was an advertisement for a whiskey company from Philadelphia. The person behind the sign was Oscar Gude, a pioneer in creating outside advertisements using light bulbs. Gude was running his own business in outside-advertisement and the barely recently popularized Thomas Edison’s invention was an opportunity for improving his business.

It was in 1880 when Edison’s company, the Edison Electric Light Company, started to distribute a more stable light bulb using bamboo filaments. The inclusion of those fibers as electric conductors ended a long research process of looking for the best element for creating carbon filaments. Twelve years later, the O.J. Guide Company released its first lighted sign over the Cumberland Hotel, a building located in the place where the Flatiron Building is nowadays.

Watching videos of the 3D Coca-Cola sign gives the impression that the modules are dancing a pretty coordinated choreography in two different levels. One is related to the audiovisual content assembled frame by frame. The other one is about the panels programmed for moving around. The spectacle is wonderful. .

Nevertheless, I visited the Square one month after the screen installation, and my impression was entirely different. Through a two-weeks preliminary exploration, I spent so much time watching the advertisement and also describing people’s reactions to that billboard. My tasks were first, observing the screen and its trajectory. Some highlights: I did not see the 3D function working on large periods. During two days some workers were repairing a few modules of the billboard meanwhile the rest of the device was working. Many of the activities of maintenance and repairing are carried out in front of the tourist, but they barely notice that.

Repairing wor on the Coca-Cola screen. September 6, 2017

The second task was taking a look at the billboard-pedestrian relationship. it was a rudimentary nonparticipant observation that produced a temporary conclusion: “pedestrians are focused more on general things than on specific ones.” This exploration was possible because I already knew that the sign was there. I mean, the encounter with the screen was not a casualty. Perhaps if I would not read before about its installation, probably I would also ignore the billboard as many others do.

I have two theories about why this relationship in this way. People realized something was happening to the billboard, but they took that for granted. They saw the movement of the panels and the textures it was producing but they may though it was something normal. I mean, you are in Times Square, you expect things like that. 2. Tourists are there for enjoying the whole spectacle, not for paying attention to technological specificities and engineering improvements.

The technological advances of the Coca-Cola advertisement in Times Square that started in 1932, have other two moments for remembering: its redesign in 1991 and one more in 2004. Those are part of a work of experimentation on materials and new platforms as wells as on innovative ways of presenting and transmitting a message. There is not a better scenario than Times Square for testing it: an overcrowded urban space full of tourist hunger for experiences. But the competence there for catching the pedestrians attention is huge. And I am not just talking about the other screens.

Officially, the 3D robotic billboard has 1760 modules. I’ve made the exercise of counting (three times) how many LEDs a single panel has. It is 784 light-emitting diodes per panel. So, the whole billboard has exactly 1.379.840 LEDs continually working 24 hours, every single day of the week. The 2004 version of this advertisement had 2.6 millions of LEDs, it means 1.220.160 LEDs more than the current one. According to Adage, the entire process of designing and constructing the robotic screen took four years and involved 35 engineers. 

I think both theories are right. The amount of panels and LEDs, the kind of design, the records, the sequential improvements and all those things that are making that billboard something special seems to vanish in the Square. It gives the impression that those developments and all this information are more relevant online, and into a specific niche of specialized people than over the Olive Garden’s front wall. There, the Coca-Cola 3D robotic billboard is just another grlowing screen. Was Times Square the test field of this product or was just another ingredient more?

In a few months, I will be in Times Square again for carrying out the fieldwork of my research. Among other things I want to do there, I would like to make a sort of particular experiment that allows me to check out the kind of relationship that billboard has with the pedestrians of Times Square. I am talking here about doing a “particular experiment” due to my goal is not propose a general statement based on my observations. The effervescence of the life outside, as well as my intentions of going to the particular, are not compatible with the notion of generalizing.

Is this proposed task a real experiment? Can we talk about making experiments doing urban ethnography? What is an experiment, by the way?