Screen tests

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Screen tests

Stuck in the evening rush hour snarl at Gwanghwamun junction in downtown Seoul, I look out the cab window for no particular reason. To my left, right and ahead are huge video screens vying for my attention, so I decide to watch one instead of dwelling on how late I'm going to be for my appointment across the river.

The screen that caught my attention is showing the news - a Taliban figure being arrested. The subtitles playing across the bottom are informative, almost making me forget I'm watching a video with no sound. Then a commercial for a wireless carrier company comes on. I have not seen this particular ad before so I keep my gaze fixed on the screen. But as the cab begins to inch forward I lose my line of sight, and am disappointed that I'm going to miss the rest of the commercial. But then I see that I have a better view of the screen straight ahead running a public service announcement.

"It's good entertainment when you're stuck in traffic, isn't it?" says my cab driver, Kang Jeong-wook. He explains that he likes watching the news but does not really care for the colorful commercials. "I forget what the commercial was about as soon as I drive off." Although he has seen other drivers miss the green light because they were so engrossed in the screens, and consequently be assailed by blaring horns from trailing cars, Mr. Kang insists it has never happened to him. "It's not that big a distraction," he says.

First-time visitors to Seoul marvel at the number of giant LED screens that show television-quality pictures high above the capital's streets. The city has some 78 billoard-size LED panels, the first of which were introduced in the early 1990s, according to the Korea Electric Billboard Broadcasting Advertising Association. These sophisticated LED panels work by converting signals from video equipment such as televisions and video cameras to red, blue and green signals, which are displayed at more than 30 frames per second.

Along many of the city's busy thoroughfares, local newspapers have put up such giant screens, such as the JoongAng Ilbo's 13.5 meter-wide and 10 meter-high panel in front of its building on Seosomun-ro. The huge screen runs 20-second commercials, edited news programs provided by television networks and public service announcements, all with subtitles, from 6 a.m. to midnight.

The proliferation of the giant panels in Seoul peaked in 1996 when the city reached its evident saturation point for them. The economic crisis that began the following year, and this year's economic downturn have since rendered some of the screens white elephants. "The screens cost about 2 billion won [$1.6 million] to install, and many of the less strategically located ones have shut down because they were unable to find advertising revenue," said Lee Kang-gon at the billboard ad association.

While taking subway line No. 4 toward Suwon I learn again how crucial a strong, strategic location is for the success of a monitor. First I noticed a number of passengers looking up toward the door. There's a small screen there, with a man standing right in front of it, showing snippets from a local movie with the volume playing quite low. From my disadvantageous vantage point, I need to strain my neck to see the screen between the heads and shoulders blocking my view. Perhaps on my next ride I'll be able to get a seat facing one the screens by the doors and enjoy an episode of Mr. Bean.

The Korean National Railroad has installed these monitors on many of its line 1, 3 and 4 trains. Finding appropriate contents to fill the 40-centimeter LCD screens, which are only centimeters thick, is not easy, according to the company that set up the system, Korea Mobile Broadcasting Network, or Komonet. The local venture firm, which launched the service in June, transmits commercials, movie highlights and short comedy programs stored as MPEG files, as well as real-time news bulletins, using CDMA networks, just as cellular phones use.

The company said that next month it would begin offering more visually dynamic programs using enhanced graphics and improved sound. In addition, commuters will eventually be able to view streaming video even while underground. "By early next year, we should be able to provide real-time multimedia contents as the wireless phone companies deploy the data-optimized wireless networks," said Hwang Sung-wook, the vice president of Komonet. "This would be the first time in the world that real-time broadcasting is tried in a moving train. Theoretically, we can broadcast the World Cup soccer games in the subway trains."

Screens again catch my attention while I stand in a long line to buy tickets for the aquarium at the COEX Mall in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul. This time the monitors are on pay phones, playing a cosmetics commercial: Watching the surprisingly large screen is better than just staring into space, and I even spot a lipstick that I like.

There are 160 such multimedia pay phones, also called multimedia kiosks, at the COEX and COEX Mall. They run commercials and provide free Internet service in addition to functioning as regular pay phones. "By clicking on the 38-centimeter touch screen's free Internet button, the user initiates a 15-second commercial after which he can use the Internet for three minutes at no charge," said Kim Jung-hwan, a manager at Netcom Media, which operates the multimedia kiosks. The phones, launched last September, attract an average of 1.3 million one-to-one commercial viewings a month, according to Mr. Kim.

In another line, this time I'm in a bathroom at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, waiting for a free toilet. I'm greeted by a small screen outside the door of the stall that informs me that the stall is occupied. I wait, and a commercial appears on the screen, which I choose to watch rather than stare at the floor. Once inside, I lock the door and another small screen, positioned at eye-level, begins to play a commercial. This time I'm essentially forced to watch the screen as it silently plays an ad by the wireless carrier KT Freetel which exhorts spectators to switch their phones to silent mode during performances. A commercial for a construction company follows. The only way to avoid this intrusion into privacy would be to shut my eyes, and I am grateful there is no jingle.

The 14-centimer LCD monitors embedded in the doors are about two centimeters thick. They run 30 second ads from video disks that are controlled from a remotely located server inside the cultural center. Work is in progress to install similar screens in the toilet stalls of a nationwide chain of restaurants, which will be controlled via the Internet and will feature sound, according to the company that developed the system, Nexus 21. Each monitor costs 3 million won to install; the company pays a portion of its advertising revenue to the "host" company.

Evidently, gone are the days when people scribbled all sorts of nonsense in the bathroom stalls and people actually read them to fight off boredom. Extolling the effectiveness of the bathroom advertising, Baek Hyun-kyu, general manager at Nexus 21 said, "It gets the undivided attention of 90 percent of the bathroom users."

by Kim Hoo-ran

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