Forever (21) is a Long Time

Forever21 Okay, I’m walking past Forever 21 in Times Square. Forever 21 is not, repeat, not one of my favorite retailers, but I will give kudos where kudos is due. It’s a weekday afternoon, crowds have gathered together, but across the street from the retailer, they are all fixatated on the store. Huh? What? What’s going on? Tourists are snapping photos and smiling like idiots. I don’t get it. Is there a celebrity inside? Is Paramount filming on location? Are Sam Champion and George Stephanopoulos having a cat fight?
“Read on, McDuff”…

It's a tall order for any advertiser to stand out in Times Square, which is swathed in giant plasma-screen billboards, neon, LED light displays and PVC banners larger than football fields. Times Square is littered with sexy images of half-dressed models selling cologne, and this year’s hottest TV stars are abundant. Today, a glimpse of the retail future is revealed, a taste of what billboards might become is being unveiled—and this time, the billboard actually reaches out and grabs the crowd, literally, thanks to technology borrowed from high-tech spy cameras. We all knew something good would come of espionage.
Designed by interactive agency Space150 for Forever 21, a billboard features Forever 21 models walking in front of an image of the crowd below. The crowd below is “streamed live,” so that you can see yourself on the billboard, waving hello or flailing your arms. In short, you are a part of the Forever 21 advertisement. Brilliant! But wait, then it gets interesting. The model occasionally leans over and appears to pluck someone out of the crowd. Sometimes, they stink, so she tosses them, as if she were a giant, into the air like a cockroach. Sometimes she kisses them, and they turn into a frog. Hello! And sometimes, she drops them in her bag and happily trots off. At one point, the model takes a Polaroid of the crowd, shakes it out, and shakes it in front of her, showing off a zoomed-in image of the people below.

Hundreds of tourists have stopped, dead still and gawked. "Since it sits above a pedestrianized mall portion of Times Square, Space150 knew there would be big crowds in front of this billboard all day," says James Squires, Space150's director of technology. "But people only look at billboards for six seconds on average. We wanted to extend that." Success, I stood there for at least 10 minutes!

The billboard relies on technology that's usually used in government or security surveillance, and Space150 had to consult surveillance experts to pull it off. (Well we did get Tang from NASA.) It’s comforting to know where our tax dollars are being spent. Above the 61-ft.-high space, a high-definition Prosilica camera captures the crowd. But then, software picks apart the individuals in the crowd, and selects some for a digital composite built in real time, which is then used in the interactions with the virtual model on screen. This is too “Tron” for me.

The software even picks up the yellow of the Forever 21 bag, so that anyone holding one is more likely to get noticed by the model. (If someone actually goes into the store, there are a now heat sensors that detect their bags, and cause a bunch of flash bulbs surrounding the threshold to go off, simulating dozens of paparazzi. I’m a star!

"If you see the way the computer works, it's like Predator or something," says Billy Jurewicz, founder and CEO of Space150. "Each person has a halo with data." Adds Jurewicz, "The board now is like the iPod 1.0. We're going to be updating this more and more." Future versions, with better cameras, might include the model holding a magnifying glass to the crowd, or picking someone up and holding them up to the face of the billboard, so the entire crowd can get a closer look. "People just love to see themselves." And the billboard is a huge mirror in Times Square, one of the most famous places in the world.

Okay, if you still don’t get it, just go to YouTube and type in Forever 21 interactive LED display in Times Square or click here!

–Ron Knoth, guest blogger for Display & Design Ideas, sister publication of Contract

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