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Monitor Madness!

Basking in the glow at Burger King
Hiroyuki Ito

You won't get a bonus chotchke if you buy a Value Meal at Peter Allen Abramson's Burger King franchise on lower Broadway. Instead, you'll get a PIN code and 20 minutes of free Web browsing or the chance to send video e-mail from one of the 20 Internet stations that line an entire wall of the cafeteria. Abramson opened the world's most high-tech Burger King (burgercam.com) in November '97 with a Bose sound system and a 27-monitor circular video column. After he installed his high-speed Internet terminals last August, Abramson saw a "dramatic" increase in sales and regular customers. So late last month, in an effort to trigger another spike in clientele, he mounted his Pentium II phalanx with 3Com Bigpicture cameras, debuting what he calls the "next generation" of video e-mail.

"I'm bringing technology that's more and more a part of our everyday lives. . . to many people who have never experienced it before," says Abramson. The tactic is drawing devoted patrons. A Century 21 employee named Louis, a regular at the digital age Burger King, doesn't use the Internet and has no interest in video mail, but still he chooses to sit at the terminals. "I have no time to use these things," he said, sweeping aside a mouse and keyboard to make room for his Value Meal. "I only get half an hour for lunch. But I'd rather sit here than at one of the tables. It's more exciting. It's good to just look at the screen." As he ate his Whopper, he peered into a stark blue desktop with an empty log-in display.

Louis's eerie monitor loyalty may have something to do with the increasing numbers of video and computer screens that are becoming permanent fixtures in Manhattan's public space. They're embedded in gym equipment and gas pumps. They're delivering infobytes and propaganda at deli registers, on billboards, in window displays, museum exhibits, and public kiosks. And that's just for now. Sooner or later, New Yorkers will see entire skyscrapers wrapped in monitor paneling.

MTV-generation haunts like Skechers and the Supreme skate shop attract customers with hypnotic displays of sexpots in platform shoes and low-fi footage of skate blunders. But they're not the only ones. The glass-encased lobby of the American Bible Society on Broadway and 61st showcases a 36-monitor video altar broadcasting dance interpretations of the scripture and gauzy footage of Third World missionary projects.

Venture a little further down Broadway and you might run across Eddie from COATS (Citizens Outraged at Animal Torture and Suffering) in his minivan with Faunavision, his jerry-rigged entertainment center, streaming footage of mangled animals. Or veer into the Avirex store just below Houston and encounter yourself on the two giant crime-deterrent surveillance monitors at the store's entrance. The gym, of course, will offer no reprieve. Crunch on Lafayette has more than 30 monitors including two dozen TVs and five Netpulse stationary bike terminals where you can check e-mail, surf the Net, and accrue frequent flyer miles for every minute of your workout.

Perhaps the newest and most controversial fleet to decorate Manhattan is the Next Generation Network (NGN): flat-screen LCD monitors that hang above your head at the local deli. Already 158 have been installed, and this month that number will quadruple, according to John DeSimone, general manager of the company's New York office.

NGN is the brainchild of Jerry Joyce, founder of Patrick Media, the world's largest outdoor advertising company. After selling that company, Joyce discovered his next big move while twiddling on line at a 7-Eleven. Why not feed customers advertising wrapped up in digestible news and sports headlines, weather updates, and entertainment tidbits while they languish in line, anxious to spend money?

Joyce struck a deal to install NGN monitors in the 5600 7-Eleven locations nationwide. The sales pitch is flawless: In exchange for housing the monitor, each vendor gets a percentage of the revenue it generates. NGN has contracted with the Korean-American Grocer's Organization (KAGRO) in Manhattan to be the exclusive monitor provider to its 800 member deli locations in Manhattan. Not all will be equipped, however, since advertisers are interested only in select demographics.

"What we want to do is broaden our base for distribution and advertisers," says DeSimone. "Do you want Hispanic? Do you want African American? You want yuppies? You want old? Tell me a segment of the population and I'll tell you how best to spend your money. That's what we're all about. Targeted marketing." Already NGN has clinched deals with other convenience stores, with gas stations, and with fast food chains like Blimpie and Jerry's Subs (plus a few test-runs at McDonald's). It's also in negotiations with two major drug chains, Loews movie theaters, and New Jersey Transit.

NGN tries to install most monitors in "position A," which in stores is "right by the register. Right by the Lotto readout. It's right where you have to pay the man. You can not miss it," says DeSimone. "Like I tell advertisers: 'I defy anybody to stand there and pay the man and not see that monitor.' " But he stresses that he doesn't see this as invasive to customers, especially because all the monitors are visuals-only, no sound: "As for the individuals being invaded upon, quite frankly, I haven't been faced with that. But if you meet anyone [who feels this way], get their addresses. I'll have them terminated."

DeSimone is joking, of course, but he's serious about NGN's strategy for monitor placement. "We seek attentive eyeballs. To do this we need a lot of people who are either waiting or have dead stopped. If I give them a window outside Penn Station and say 10,000 people pass a day, the advertiser would say so what? What are they gonna see in half a second?"

Even in half a second, you could hardly miss the spectacular large-scale billboard monitors being engineered by companies like Spectacolor Communications, including the Times Square screens for Kodak, AT&T, and Viacom. Spectacolor is also responsible for the 30 x 40-foot monitor on top of Chelsea Piers that broadcasts promotional loops and live footage from inside the club. According to Spectacolor president George Stonbely, most of the smaller monitors pervading New York are just "a lot of wallpaper, meaning that people have become really anesthetized absorbing whatever footage or information is being streamed, especially if the content is unoriginal, or could be seen out of home."

You could argue that the supersaturation of billboard-monitor displays in Times Square makes it hard to absorb anything but paroxysms of light. But the engineers would point out the distinct difference in the quality of the screens. The giant live-feed NBC monitor in Times Square, manufactured by Panasonic, considered the American pioneer in the large-screen industry, uses fluorescent discharge tube (FDT) technology; Panasonic's Budweiser billboard right above it uses a light-emitting diode (LED) screen, the latest screen technology available. Both sell for several million dollars, compared to Spectacolor's Chelsea Piers screen, which sells for about a tenth of the price and uses a lower-grade incandescent bulb technology.

Morris Washington, vice president of Panasonic Large Screens Systems Company, says there's been a huge boom in large-screen production in the last two years. "A lot of people are making screens, but they don't have the technology invested in the video digital processing that drives the screen. They light up, they show video, but when you're looking at motion, you start getting the funnies." He predicts that as soon as the market settles down and prices drop, the outdoor business will be dominated by large-scale monitors. Advertisers would be able to download their own spots onto the billboards (though whether the content is full-motion video or static images changing at, say, six-second intervals will depend on traffic hazards and city ordinances). He also assures that entire buildings may be covered in a skin of monitors. "It's coming," he says. "Already companies are talking about it." Soon enough, we'll all be able to peer into monitors during lunchtime— only it could be an Orwellian nightmare visible all the way from New Jersey.


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