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September 12, 2005

Interactive Billboards


What's afoot for advertising?

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. -- This was Matt Bell's idea of fun: Take a semester off from his undergraduate studies at Stanford University, and go to Cambridge to help out with research at the Mitsubishi Electric Research Lab, a group of forward-thinkers who develop innovative display and interface technology. In his free time, Bell would sit in on lectures At MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

During one lecture, Bell found his mind wandering, and as the professor walked in front of a screen, the light beam from the LCD projector blanketed his body. Bell wondered whether it would be possible for a person's body to have an impact on the projected image. ''I got this image of waves rippling off of him as he crossed the screen," Bell says. ''I started thinking, 'How would I make that happen?' "

Five years later, having finished his studies at Stanford, Bell is chief scientist for Reactrix Systems, a Silicon Valley company that has attracted $23 million in venture capital funding. In the company's office, amidst the cubicles, Bell stands just outside the edge of what looks like a white plastic dance floor, a rectangle of about four by six feet.

A super-bright LCD projector mounted on the ceiling casts images onto the floor. There's also an infrared camera nestled next to the projector, watching to see who does what on the floor. Suddenly, an image of a soccer field is projected, with the Adidas logo plastered on everything. When Bell ''taps" the image of the ball with his toe, it glides across the floor, and into the goal I'm supposed to be guarding.

There are other games, like Whack-a-Mole and ice hockey, all bedecked with sponsor logos. Some of Reactrix's ''spots" aren't really games, but rather interactive animations. ''Touching" a kernel of Orville Redenbacher popcorn with a foot or hand makes it explode into a puffy white morsel; ''nudging" a Hot Wheels car makes it change direction, sometimes crashing into others on the track.

''Most advertising forces itself on people," Bell says. ''It takes up your time without asking permission. We thought that if we made advertising fun, people will be more interested in it."

And Reactrix's interactive billboards -- floorboards? -- are fun, especially when they lure several people into playing together in a public space. At a moment when people are buying digital video recorders and subscribing to satellite radio to escape commercial messages, this is advertising that people will want to engage.

The next step for Reactrix is to roll out more displays, which it calls Reactors. Chief executive Mike Ribero says 300 will be deployed this fall, in locations like malls and movie theaters. (The closest ones to Boston now are in Manhattan's Times Square, in a Toys ''R" Us store, and in an AMC multiplex.) An advertiser will pay $4,000 a month to have its spot played at a single location, as part of a rotating group of 10 spots.

Ribero says that because users are physically involved, they have a better recollection of the brand names than if they had simply strolled past a poster or billboard. ''Once we get to 1,000 locations, then we'll have a network that can compete effectively against broadcast and cable," he says.

Ambitious goals for a company that was inspired five years ago by a tedious MIT lecture.

Video revolution

Entrepreneur Rob Frasca has been thinking about how to intelligently place ads into online video. He has been holed up at Highland Capital Partners' first-floor incubator space in Lexington, along with three fellow Lycos alums.

Bob Davis, who founded Lycos and was its chief executive, and is now a partner at Highland, offered Frasca the space, but Davis hasn't committed to making an investment in the start-up, I-Video Works.

That's fine by Frasca, who says, ''If you raise capital too early, you give away too much of the company." In the past, Frasca has started and sold companies to Intuit and Lycos.

Frasca notes that more people now have broadband connections than dial-up, which is allowing them to consume more video over the Internet. ''We're working to create tools to get video up on the Web, stream it, put ads in it, monetize it, and manage it," he says.

Of particular interest are tools that will allow users to recommend videos to one another, and techniques for inserting ads based on who is viewing a video, when they are watching, and on what device.

''With a traditional television show, everyone watching sees the same ad," Frasca says. He's thinking about delivering different ads within a snippet of video, depending on whether it's viewed on a PC or a mobile phone, for instance, or whether the video is being seen at noon or midnight.

Veteran firepower

Like Frasca's band of ex-Lycosians, Art Technology Group cofounder Joe Chung has pulled together several veterans of that e-commerce company to work together on a start-up. Allurent, headquartered in the old Wordsworth Books building in Cambridge, is announcing its launch today at the Shop.org trade show in Las Vegas.

The company was started last September in Chung's Cambridge dining room. He says it focuses on helping online retailers ''provide a better customer experience" by supplying a suite of ready-made software modules. The modules will be based on Macromedia's Flash technology, which renders web pages more fluid and interactive. The first releases will be a shopping cart and a check-out system.

Several of the same angel investors who initially backed Art Technology Group are helping to fund Allurent, including Bob Forlenza of Tudor Investments, Jeff Newton of Gemini Investors, Scott Jones of Gracenote, and Bob Maginn of Jenzabar. Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte and Teradyne founder Alex D'Arbeloff are also helping to fund the 12-person start-up.

What's afoot for advertising? by Scott Kirsner, @LARGE [The Boston Globe], September 12, 2005.

Posted by jo at September 12, 2005 10:30 AM