Interactive billboards you can walk around in

Sam Goody is the first retail chain to install high-tech ad displays nationwide.

Alorie Gilbert
Alorie Gilbert Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Alorie Gilbert
writes about software, spy chips and the high-tech workplace.
3 min read
Billboards are doing some surprising things these days.

At the Metreon movie theater in San Francisco, for instance, a high-tech display promoting a nearby Jelly Belly store projects images of jelly beans on the floor. Step on the colorful beans, and they respond, appearing to swirl around your feet. At a mall in Sydney, Australia, another interactive floor display lets people kick a virtual soccer ball around a field featuring an Adidas logo.

About 120 such "billboards" have appeared across the United States at malls, movie theaters, fast-food chains and trade shows, and now the technology is getting a big boost from music retailer Sam Goody.

interactive billboards

The chain announced this week that it has agreed to install interactive displays at 100 stores--the largest deal to date--to attract shoppers nationwide.

The technology, which combines advertising with gaming and entertainment, is part of the chain's effort to recast its stores as entertainment lifestyle centers, where people will want to linger, sample music and ring tones, and burn CDs.

"This technology, we think, is a natural of extension of that," said Laurie Bauer, a spokeswoman for Musicland Group, Sam Goody's parent company.

The systems, developed by Reactrix Systems in Redwood City, Calif., use infrared sensors and highly specialized software to respond to people's gestures and movements. In one setup, for instance, placing a foot on what appears to be a calm body of water will instantly trigger "waves" that move out from the foot, creating the effect of walking on water.

"It's a crowd magnet," Reactrix spokesman Chris Knight said. "It's a way to spice up stores and keep people coming back."

The technology, which can project such interactive images on walls, floors or tables, was developed as an art project by Reactrix Founder and Chief Scientist Matt Bell, when he was still a student at Stanford University.

Bell tested and refined the system at rave parties before launching an ad business around it in 2001. Since then, the company has raised $23 million in venture funding and has worked on concept projects with major brands, including Nike, McDonald's, Disney and MGM Grand.

Reactrix is one of several companies attempting to recast advertising in an age of digital video recorders, declining network TV audiences and ad-averse consumers. Video game companies are also at the forefront of this trend, selling virtual product placement spots in their digital worlds.

"People are more bombarded and tuned out to advertising than ever," Knight said, adding that the novelty and interactivity of the Reactrix system makes it more engaging that traditional ads. "It's opt-in. You choose to interact with it, and it's entertaining."

Sam Goody, which so far has installed Reactrix at the entrance of 40 stores, is also counting on additional income from technology. As part of their contract, the companies have agreed to split the ad revenue the systems generate, though they have yet to sign up a national advertiser.

The ad revenue could bolster Sam Goody, whose business has declined as music downloads have eroded music sales, Bauer said.

The company also plans to use Reactrix to promote its own merchandise, including music, movies and games. For instance, in a setup for its promotion of the Batman Begins DVD, when someone touches an image of Batman, a swarm of bats fly out of a house in the background. Walking across another part of the display causes different characters from the movie to appear.

"The creative possibilities are endless," Bauer said.