Google, Microsoft, Facebook and a number of smaller start-ups are investing heavily in what they see as the next big evolution in display technology, says Daniel Siden is CEO of Lightvert.

The out-of-home advertising industry was born in 1867 with the earliest recorded leasing of a billboard.

Fast forward to the present day and traditional billboards are going digital, as growth in LED advertising displays outstrips the old-fashioned paper kind. According to a report by PWC “87.5 per cent of the revenue growth in the US OOH (Out-of-home) market over the five years to 2020 will come from digital. Traditional formats will have only a 0.9 per cent Compound Annual Growth Rate”.

Looking to the future, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and a number of smaller start-ups are investing heavily in what they see as the next big evolution in display technology: Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR).

This much-hyped new tech is the stuff of science fiction but a wide range of VR headsets are already available from the cheap Google Cardboard (£15), over 5 million of which have been shipped since launch in June 2014, through to the high-end Oculus Rift (acquired by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014).

In parallel, Microsoft and a number of start-ups are hoping that Augmented Reality will be the dominant medium, with AR headsets and headset-free technology in development. As Virtual and Augmented Reality enters the mainstream and VR/AR hardware becomes more affordable, what impact will this have on the OOH industry? Will we see the rise of a Virtual-out-of-home advertising sector (VOOH), in the same way that LED displays created a Digital-out-of-home (DOOH) sector?At LightVert we believe VOOH advertising will radically transform the way we experience outdoor ads. As we walk around our cities, we will see and interact with holographic adverts mixed into the real world. This may sound like science fiction again but companies are already working on technology that could deliver that vision.

For example, Blippar, a London based digital marketing company helps brands use Augmented Reality to interact with customers via a smartphone app. And the Pokemon GO Augmented Reality powered gaming app quickly became a worldwide phenomena. At its peak, download sales were generating $10 million a day.

Blippar and Pokemon Go demonstrate how brands can use AR smartphone apps to interact with their customers. But seeing the world through a phone screen has its limitations; particularly when it comes to the visual impact, accessibility and immediateness of digital billboards. That’s where VR and AR headsets and their ability to completely transform the way we see the world, may turn out to be a more effective platform to deliver virtual-out-of-home advertising content.

Juniper Research predict there will be more than 12m VR headset sales by the end of this year. By 2020, the VR industry will have shipped 30m headsets globally. But, there is a catch with existing consumer VR hardware when it comes to using it as a VOOH advertising platform.

Existing fully fledged VR headsets from the likes of Oculus Rift must be tethered to a PC or games console and are designed for indoor use only. But Google might be working on a solution. According to Engadget, the tech giant is rumoured to be developing a stand-alone "wireless Virtual Reality" headset that will integrate eye tracking, sensors and algorithms to augment the reality in front of the headset, displaying digital objects within a view of the real world.

Also, Microsoft has just launched their HoloLens headset - but as a business tool with a price to match (starting at $3,000). The AR headset is a little too bulky to be worn outside day-to-day and Microsoft are not positioning their hardware as an entertainment/ advertising platform but you can see, given time, the technology may shrink down to a pair of oversized sunglasses that could work as a virtual-out-of-home advertising platform.

We certainly think so. With a crowd funding round currently underway on CrowdCube, we’re launching oyr ECHO technology next year; a headset-free Augmented Reality virtual-out-of-home advertising platform that can project holographic digital images into real world environments, and crucially for the VOOH market, the company can do this on an impressive Times Square billboard scale, with images up to 200 metres tall.

Only time will tell whether a Virtual-out-of-home market takes off, but the indications are that large and small companies alike are working furiously on VR and AR media platforms. These could radically transform the out-of-home advertising industry in the not too distant future, the same way that LED displays are doing now. Virtual adverts, be it through smartphones, headsets or headset-free technology may well be coming to a street near you and the formation of a VOOH market is starting to look likely.

About the Author

Daniel Siden is CEO of Lightvert a digital outdoor media technology company. Their revolutionary ECHO technology creates the world’s largest digital outdoor images in almost any location, not only creating a spectacle but dramatically unlocking vast amounts of new, high value advertising real estate.

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