Now screaming for your attention: The billboard that's also a window

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Tuesday evening at 7:15pm at the Crowne Plaza Times Square, a group of media executives put down their cocktails, filed across Broadway as cops halted traffic, and stared back up at the blank hotel. There was a 10-second countdown, and suddenly, a vibrant video billboard appeared where a minute before, there seemed to be only empty space.

It was the New York unveiling of something called MediaMesh, an ingenious invention of LED lights strung unobtrusively across building exteriors. At first, the 783-square feet of woven stainless steel mesh, which upon closer inspection looks something like a pigeon net, seems innocuous, but at the flip of a switch, it turns into a giant TV screen.

From the street, it reads like any other video screen. But because the LED tubing only faces in one direction, from the back of the sign, meaning the inside the building, people can't even tell it's on in the daylight, and they can only barely tell at night.

MediaMesh, which made its American debut last month at Miami's American Airlines area (watch that installation, about five times as big as Manhattan's, twinkling away here), is almost certainly the future of outdoor advertising: lightweight, perfectly clear, semi-portable, and most importantly, much less disruptive than an opaque billboard. In Times Square, entire floors of buildings have been downgraded into closets or machine rooms because the traditional vinyl signs outside block all available light.

The idea is that buildings can hang it in front of windows and not feel guilty about obscuring the view. At the unveiling, I heard one adman bragging to a passerby (a pedal rickshaw driver who didn't understand why we were all staring at a billboard) that they could hang MediaMesh in front of hotel room windows and not have to reduce the nightly rate by a penny.

This is where the technological fantasy sours a little. The truth is I wouldn't want to sleep in a hotel room behind it -- except to brag that I was sleeping behind it. MediaMesh is a miraculous breakthrough, but it still obscures a little bit of light. It's a little like those perforated sheets they use to turn buses into rolling ads. You can sort of see through it from behind, but not well enough to be satisfying.

In fact, it can be frustrating. Light comes through, but it's too hard to make out details. If I paid for a hotel room overlooking something as dazzling as Times Square, I wouldn't want to have to peep at the panorama through electronic netting, no matter how newfangled it is.

For that inconvenience, you may pay the same price, but advertisers pay nearly $40,000 for about 2,200 minutes of time.

The Crowne Plaza Times Square was smart enough to place this pilot version in front of windows that look into the lobby, not into paid guest rooms.

Pretty soon, technology will improve to the point where this stuff will be thinner, and maybe even invisible, and it can then cover anything, from buses to high schools to the side of your church or your office building. They can be installed temporarily, too, without heavy scaffolding, as one was in Milan during the refurbishment of a museum there.

Right now, MediaMesh is a leap that you can't help but appreciate, and it has the potential to make advertising even more ubiquitous than it already is. But you probably wouldn't want to live behind it, and you'd certainly raise hell if the front desk didn't discount your room if you were placed behind it.

It's a Brilliant Invention for sure. But it's a Brilliant Invention 1.0.
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