Interview with Lightvert: the outdoor advertising revolution
An engineer, designer and entrepreneur, Siden began life in San Francisco but came to the UK 13 years ago to gain an MA in Industrial Design Engineering from the Royal College of Art in London. In his latest London-based commercial venture, Lightvert, he has developed ECHO – a revolutionary type of digital outdoor advertising display hardware that doesn’t use a billboard or an LED screen. “Our ECHO media allows us to make the world’s biggest digital outdoor images and put those images in locations that traditional screens just can’t go,” Siden says. In theory, ECHO images could be up to 200m tall, appearing to emerge from the sides of buildings as if floating briefly in mid air. A short video on the company’s website (www.lightvert.co.uk) gives a sense of what this might be like, using London’s 300m high Shard as an imaginary ECHO installation site.
What’s great about Lightvert is that our technology is very available.
So how does it work? ECHO uses a patented projection technique and has two main components: a projector and a reflective strip no more than 200mm wide. The reflector can be fixed to the side of almost any building and can run between windows or along the side of existing billboard displays. The projector sits below or above the reflector, beaming light onto the reflector and then into the viewer’s eye. The reflected images can be seen because of a biological phenomenon in the retina called ‘persistence of vision’. This means that when the display is combined with the natural movements of the human eye, images appear to the viewer for what feels like a tenth to a quarter of a second.
“What’s great about Lightvert is that our technology is very available and doesn’t require large numbers of viewers to wear or buy into any kind of hardware ecosystem,” Siden says. “It works with the naked eye and it creates a totally new experience for people that is surprising, engaging and exciting. There’s a powerful value proposition there.”
This value proposition isn’t solely about content. “It’s about the experience of where that content is, the scale of that content and how the viewer is engaged with it,” Siden says. As he explains, ECHO images are communicated to the viewer in a very different way from traditional screens. “People only see our images for a tenth to a quarter of a second before they disappear,” he says. “They seem to appear magically out of thin air, so it’s a really different engagement proposition. There’s an element of surprise, amazement, and curiosity in ECHO images. This medium is about size, location and surprise.”
Capitalising on a brainwave
Persistence of vision display has been in the public domain for some time. Siden previously used the concept in his first company, Haberdashery (a design studio using light to create sculptures and innovative lighting products), when working with light artist Chris Levine. “His commercial clients wanted bigger displays,” Siden says. “That was challenging with current technology – and that’s when the brainwave came about using our ECHO technique to enable us to scale up the size of the displays massively, without the same cost implications you would have with LED.” Siden began exploring this idea in earnest in 2014, developing some rudimentary prototypes to prove the concept and checking whether it was patent protectable. “We found that it was, and our prototypes had good results,” he says. “We then filed our patents globally. Once we had patent protection we started producing better prototypes and showing them to potential investors and commercial partners.”
Lightvert benefited from £250,000 of grant funding from Innovate UK and this May completed an equity seed funding round, attracting crowdfunding through Crowdcube and the support of a strategic investor from Hong Kong – a friend of one of Siden’s architect wife’s clients. “We spent almost two years trying to secure funding, and in the end our strategic investor came through our network,” Siden notes. “It’s a strong reminder of the value of your own network and of never ignoring that.”
Raising the equity funding “for a pre-revenue hardware start-up” was in fact the biggest challenge so far, Siden says. “The world has evolved to quite effectively support software technology, but we are very much in the hardware space and arguably a real estate play as well.” With the funds happily now secured, the next aim is to complete the first commercial ECHO unit by the end of this year. “We would love it to be in London, perhaps around Shoreditch – a ‘tech city’ area,” Siden says. “There are many other markets – China and the Middle East are particularly interesting, but we would obviously love to have the first one close to home.”
Siden has global ambitions, however. “We are trying to build out a network of ECHO displays around the world,” he says. “Because our major selling proposition is about size and location, we are operating at the premium end of the market in outdoor media. So we don’t picture there being many of these units in any one city – maybe a handful of the really large scale units and several dozen of the smaller ones. That’s a small network in the traditional out of home market, but ECHO displays can be a unified network in major cities all over the world.”
The vision includes attaching complementary technology such as free WiFi and Bluetooth beaconing to the ECHO sites. “That automatically creates an online engagement opportunity,” Siden says. “The viewer could perhaps download a movie for free by engaging with it [the ECHO site] digitally. That’s a very different value proposition, because you can engage viewers for longer and get more out of that engagement – for both the viewer and the brand. This is the tip of the iceberg. By having a new and visually striking digital medium with different engagement characteristics, we will have the opportunity to open up many more engagement pathways with viewers.”
Goals, challenges and lessons
Siden’s long-term goal is to make the new technology “an accepted medium on the global stage”. How can he do that? “Firstly, we need to make sure the company is sufficiently capitalised in order to develop the technology and implement it around the world,” Siden says. “We also need to work closely with the creatives. None of us in our team come from an advertising agency background and this medium is giving the geniuses in the advertising industry a new brush with which to paint when they are developing campaign content. It’s a new medium and we need to work with the best in the business so they can maximise it for their customers.”
Siden’s long-term goal is to make the new technology “an accepted medium on the global stage”.
Siden also recognises the need to work with local city planners. “Our medium creates a new type of urban communication opportunity,” he says. “So we need to work with the local councils, boroughs and governments to ensure they want this technology in their cities and get value out of the technology, whether through civic communication or arts and cultural communications.”
Achieving his goals involves considerable challenges – particularly the challenge of winning public approval. “We are working to introduce a totally new visual medium into the urban landscape and its value is not only going to be judged by brand advertisers and communicators, but also in the court of public opinion,” Siden says. “The cities need to want this and the people need to want this. We need our medium to engage them and that’s why we are looking closely at aligning ourselves with the arts and with civic and cultural messaging, and perhaps sports, in order to make sure we are communicating something that people are interested in.” The goal is not to use the ECHO technology to sell £2.99 cheeseburgers. “We need to align ourselves with high value content and locations,” he says. “We need to introduce this and carry on with the medium in the right way.”
“It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying you are not ready yet. The fact is, you are always ready
What’s the biggest business lesson that Siden’s Lightvert experience has taught him? “A picture says a thousand words, but a video says a million and a first-hand experience says 10m,” he responds. “There’s a saying in the software technology industry that if you are not embarrassed by your prototype, then you are showing it too late.” An American with British business partners, Siden senses a bit of conservatism in the UK about “putting yourself out there”. He explains: “It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying you are not ready yet. The fact is, you are always ready – you just need to show it to the right people at the right time – and you need to show it a lot in order to get all the feedback you need, to really properly guide the business. It’s about staying close to your customers through showing what you have in the most real scenario possible. Only then can you learn anything. So that’s the main lesson: always show, always demonstrate, always sell it and always to do so in the most realistic setting.”
Although Siden has stayed in the UK for personal reasons – he met his British wife at the Royal College of Art – he is impressed with the UK’s support for entrepreneurs. “I’ve benefited hugely,” he says. “I won grant funding from Innovate UK and, with my previous company, went on export trade missions. The support is phenomenal. I am hugely appreciative and want to give back in any way I can. I want to grow this business, employ people and create a really viable long-term, business opportunity.”
We asked: Away from Lightvert, what gadget has had the biggest impact on your life…
“The technology that’s had the biggest impact for better is definitely the Google business suite,” Siden says. “It keeps my life organised and everything working smoothly. For worse, it’s children’s baby monitors – because they never quite reach as far as you want them to. But please make it clear, I do love my kids deeply and I’m not trying to get away from them!”