A History of Giant Screens

New York City’s Times Square circa 2005, with the Panasonic Jumbotron in view.

Have you ever been in a major international city (especially a metropolis such as NYC or Tokyo) and caught a glimpse of a video billboard projecting a hi-tech ad or some other kind of programming? Or some other kind of enormous image being projected on the side of a building? Ever wondered about the history of the technology behind these amazing images? Let’s have a look at the earliest and most groundbreaking giant screens…

Giant screens in unconventional outdoor settings as a medium of advertising, broadcasting, and relaying information gradually caught on throughout the mid-20th century. These screens enable advertisers to catch the public eye with dazzling, eye-catching ads or commercials (or TV shows and news broadcasts for that matter) and reach a wider audience than with traditional media such as television.

In 1933, the most famous and at one time, most common example of a giant outdoor screen was debuted to the world when the first drive-in movie theater opened in Camden, NJ, USA. This theater, which closed its doors after a mere three years, set the stage for thousands more like it to open across the US. Drive-in theaters would become a pop icon and an important part of the American landscape in the 1950s-60s.

In 1936, the British movie Things To Come (adapted by producer Alexander Korda and H.G. Wells from Wells’s novel The Shape of Things To Come) featured a giant outdoor screen over which the public could gather and watch politicians give speeches from a broadcast studio. Ironically enough, this vision of the future was already becoming a reality with the historical developments in television technology made during that time as well the debut of the first drive-in theaters! Things To Come was an early preview of things to come in the world of broadcasting.

On America’s Election Day in 1947, a giant screen popped up in an unlikely place: Starkville, Mississippi. This screen was erected on a drug store in town by the owners of the local newspaper to announce the local, statewide and national election results to people attending a large election party in town. As the results were announced (including the election of Miss. judge John C. Stennis to the US Senate – a seat he would hold for 42 years.), townspeople watched them live on the screen. This was a forerunner to Election Day TV coverage, which was just a few years away.

The “ancestor” of the video billboard or video screen as we know them today was created by one of the companies who has made good use of and pioneered it over the past few decades: Sony. In 1961, Sony debuted the Sony Scope, which was a huge movie projector that projected images such as public service ads, manga shorts, and Sony product commercials on buildings owned by the company in Tokyo. The Sony Scope, which was discontinued in 1964, was fired up several times a week at night and was extremely hi-tech when it first came out.

In the 1960s-70s, a new technology was developed which would revolutionize the world of advertising and broadcasting: LED technology. With their bright colors and long life, LEDs have enabled a whole generation of video screens, billboards, and more to be created, ranging from small video displays on store shelves to the gargantuans mentioned in this post! In 2004, what was then the largest LED display in the world was unveiled in Las Vegas, NV at the Fremont Street Experience. Since then, gargantuan LED displays in Suzhou, China and at an Absa bank location in Johannesburg, South Africa have successively taken the title as the world’s largest LED screens.

One of the first Jumbotron models at Expo ’85.

Sony would create another milestone in both large-screen televisions and giant screens when it unveiled the Jumbotron to the world in 1985 at the Expo ’85 World’s Fair, which was held in Tsukuba, Japan. This giant TV and video screen is based on LED technology. At the time it premiered, this TV was one of the most state of the art and largest ever manufactured. Five years later, the first Jumbotron was installed at One Times Square in New York City. Throughout the early and mid-1990s, this Jumbotron showed programming such as news, weather, music videos, “infotainment” programs, and The Late Night Show with David Letterman to the masses of people passing through Times Square at any given time. In 1996, Sony shut their Jumbotron down and that was soon replaced with one from their rival, Panasonic. That Jumbotron was in turn replaced in 2010 by one from Daktronics.

Other Sony Jumbotrons were installed elsewhere in the world, including what was, until 2005, the largest in the world at the former SkyDome (now named Rogers Centre) in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

The Galleria in Seoul, South Korea.

One of most spectacular giant LED screens in the world is that of The Galleria in Seoul, South Korea. This massive screen, which was created in the 1990s, is powered by LED lights and engulfs the entire main building of the mall! It displays LED people, flowers, messages (which seem to be mostly in Hangeul), and more.

At the time of this writing, the world’s largest video screen is located at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in Charlotte, NC, USA. This screen, which is 61 meters long by 24 meters wide (200×800 ft.), is a Panasonic HD set that went into operation in 2011. This screen gives a spectacular view of the race to the audience…and anyone who happens to be within viewing distance of the speedway! However, that screen will soon lose its title this year when the Texas Motor Speedway in Dallas, TX, USA unveils its new “Big Hoss TV”! That screen is a massive HD screen measuring 66 meters wide by 28 meters wide (218 feet wide and 94.6 feet) tall!

Other noteworthy giant video screens include the screens at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai, the Dallas Cowboys screen at the AT&T Stadium in Dallas, TX, USA (which was the largest in the world until the Charlotte video screen came along), the Houston Texans’ screen at the Reliant Stadium in Houston, TX (currently the largest in the American NFL), and the Tokyo Racecourse in Tokyo, Japan. All four of these screens are Mitsubishi Diamond Vision screens.

Over the decades, giant video screens, video/LED billboards, and more have been used to display movies and other entertainment programs, advertise products, broadcast news and information to large numbers of people, and magnify live events such as sporting events and concerts. Political leaders have reached massive number of supporters (and opponents) with these video screens. The screen in Things To Come has definitely become an everyday reality in our modern world.

http://www.urbanscreens.org/ (A website dedicated to giant screens in urban society.)
http://www.nytimes.com/1993/08/31/business/media-business-advertising-sony-s-times-square-jumbotron-has-begun-attract.html (A New York Times article from 1993 about the Sony Jumbotron.)
http://www.ledsmagazine.com/articles/2005/01/leds-transform-department-store-in-seoul.html (An interesting article from LEDs Magazine about the LED lights of Seoul’s Galleria Mall.)
http://www.digitalsignagetoday.com/article/210081/Jo-burg-digital-signage-install-billed-as-world-s-largest-LED-display (Article from Digital Signage Today about the LED display in Johannesburg, South Africa that became the world’s largest in March 2013.)

(Image Credits: Times Square: Jorge Royan.  Expo ’85 Jumbotron: ころぞう/Ubcle. The Galleria: Christian Richters. All images used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) 

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