LED Electronic Message Reader Boards: Watching the world go by in streaming headlines
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LED Electronic Message Reader Boards: Watching the world go by in streaming headlines

The electronic message reader board is the town crier of the modern age. It is a simplistic, horizontal column of light bulbs or LEDs whose intermediate flashes of world watching headlines, slide effortlessly across reader board signs attached to banks and financial institutions and to the front walls of major corporate headquarters.

By Louis Brill

Times Square is where the reader board was first introduced and now contains more than a dozen reader boards from simple time and temperature signs to the grand spectaculars of ABC News and Morgan Stanley whose reader boards cover the entire front of each building. Reader boards are also prominent in just about every city and town in the United States and overseas. The message reader board format is now 75 years old. In the last several decades, it has suddenly evolved from just a stream of text as instantaneous news, to becoming an integral architectural component in decorative exterior wall facades. In some applications, message reader boards have also taken on the visual aspects of its host company's brand identity. Therein lies a sign tale worth pursuing.

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  • The First Zipper
    When introduced in the late 1920s, the reader board was officially known as the Motograph New Bulletin service. However, early on it was nicknamed the 'zipper.' In conversations with various Times Square sign fabricators, no one can recall why it was named the zipper; my money is on the fact that its headlines 'zipped' around the building in the blink of an eye. Others names for this sign format include the ‘ticker’, which refers to it as a financial display. In formal circles it is known as a message reader board. But a rose by any other name....

    The first public popular message reader board harkens back to the last Century's roaring 20's when it was installed at the base of The New York Times Building, now known as One Times Square. The New York Times announced its debut in its November, 1928 edition, "HUGE TIMES SIGN WILL FLASH NEWS." It was summarized as "Letters will move around Times Building telling of events in all parts of the world." The world's first public text messagering system was reveled with a reader board that was five feet high and at 880 feet long, completely surrounded the base of the NY Times building. The zipper's first message immediately caught the interest of the nation as it announced the results of the Herbert Hoover - Al Smith presidential election of that year.


    The New York Times announced in its November, 1928 edition, "HUGE TIMES SIGN WILL FLASH NEWS." It was summarized as "Letters will move around Times Building telling of events in all parts of the world." People at a glance can now watch the world unfold in breaking news headlines, 'one zip at a time.' photo by SuZen)

    Wildly accepted, large groups of people would gather all around the Times Building Tower zipper for breaking news. Tama Starr, president of Artkraft Strauss recounts in her book of Times Square, Signs and Wonders, (Co-authored with Edward Hayman, Pub. Doubleday, 1999) during the 1930s when President Roosevelt gave his fireside chats nationwide to American citizens, "cab drivers would pull over to the curb, doors agape with their radios on full blast allowing the nearby crowds to listen to the President's inspiring words while simultaneously reading the electronic Times headlines of his speech zipping past. It was an effect in sensory surround" and what Starr presents as "the first true multimedia event in Times Square."

    The streaming news headline reader board eventually evolved into other content displays such as time and temperature signs which have become popular additions to banks, gas stations, and retail stores. Message reader boards have also expanded into two line, three line and even up to five lines or more per board. Soon reader board signs became a niche market of its own as many companies sprung up to fabricate and hang these signs including Daktronics (Brookings, SD), Multimedia Inc. (Rancho Cordova), Act One Communications (Irwinsale, CA), Adaptive Micro Systems (Milwaukee, WI), Trans-Lux (Logan, UT), and Opto Displays (Walnut, CA).

    Having gained ground as a desirable sign format, the message reader board offers many features including its variable size, flexibility in design, ease of use and a real time response in changing messages. The original intentions of that famed Motograph in 1928 remain as important and poignant 75 years later as it did when the first news headlines zipped around the New York Times building. "The effectiveness of the zipper is its simplicity and immediacy," says George Stonbely, president and CEO of Clear Channel Spectacolor, a company that has designed the majority of Times Square spectaculars (complete front of Marriot Marquis, Motorola, Hershey's, Wrigleys, and JVC world globe to name a few). "It's now a common technology and you can take a message, output it through a computer and within seconds have it on the front of a building for all the world to see."

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    Morgan Stanley - A Triple Whammy Reader Board

    Morgan Stanley, a financial services company, commissioned the creation of Daktronics triple header 'stock ticker' message reader board display of financial news headlines, stock quotations, commodities prices and foreign exchange rates. The final result being a "sign system that had become a living representation of what the company is all about." photo by SuZen
    In 1996, Morgan Stanley, a financial services company, commissioned from Daktronics, an electronic sign manufacturer and world supplier of LED and incandescent electronic scoreboards and computer-programmable displays and Artkraft Strauss, a firm building signs in Times Square since 1897, the creation of a multi-tiered sign configuration. This spectacular included an international time zone display and a triple-header 'stock ticker' message reader board display of financial news headlines, stock quotations, commodities prices and foreign exchange rates right in the heart of Times Square. The Morgan Stanley spectacular was summarized by an Artkraft spokesperson who noted, "their sign system had become a living representation of what the company is all about."

    The Daktronics/Artkraft Morgan Stanley spectacular consisted in part of three horizontal message reader boards that stretched the length of an entire city block from 47th Street to 48th Street along Broadway. The top board, which was a financial headline news ticker, was 10.5 feet high and 155 feet long. The sign was illuminated with amber LEDs with a resolution of 28 pixels by 584 pixels. The lower two ticker boards were also amber LEDs and slightly higher at 12.5 feet also by 584 pixels wide. The middle ticker is an output of New York Stock Exchange data and the bottom ticker displays current NASDAQ information. The design was shared with Artkraft Strauss who also fabricated and installed the complete sign on the front and sides of the Morgan Stanley building in March of 1996.

    The Morgan Stanley sign package was the opening gambit in Times Square which transformed reader boards from just a signage display to the level of a 'spectacular,' meaning a huge, one-of-a-kind sign package dedicated to one sponsoring client and emphasizing the corporate brand of that client. Furthermore Morgan Stanley enhanced the evolution of the reader board into a complete architectural integration of exterior building facades. It also introduced the complexity of multiple messages with three reader boards streaming different financial data outputs simultaneously.


    ABC News - A Reader Board of Magnificent Excess

    The ABC News LED video display is so large that it is as much the front of the building as it is a sign. Multimedia developed a new generation of reader board esthetics that melded architecture, media and entertainment into a single integrated design. Photo by SuZen

    In 1999, the message reader board was once again elevated into a new generation of design from just streaming text, to a board that could transmit color graphics or video information as well. In a classic design enhancement, it was the sum of all the parts being greater than the output of any single reader board of its group. Here the sign design called for nine reader boards with seven of them placed one on top of the other to form a fully functional video sign, but also one that was curvilinear with a look like a flag waving in a breeze.

    Created by Multimedia of Rancho Cordova, California, the full color, LED spectacular was commissioned by the Disney Corporation to create a state-of-the-art sign viewing system for its new studios in Times Square to be used by its ABC Television Network division. The resultant sign system included nine separate horizontal ribbons of full color, programmable LED displays. Each ribbon was approximately 133 feet of horizontal bends and curves all undulating around the front of the Times Square Studios building. This incidentally, being the studio that broadcasts Good Morning America every day, occasionally highlights other Times Square signage immediately visible outside its window.

    George Sugarman, president of Multimedia noted that the Times Square Studios video display was so large that it is as much the front of the building as it is a sign and can be seen from almost the entire north end of Times Square. Susan Bonds, Disney show producer for the exterior signage of the building noted how its LED sign melded architecture, media and entertainment into a single integrated design. "We now have a sculptural LED display board that conforms to the building and is constantly changing its look from minute to minute."

    In a clever design integration, the Times Square Studios (TSSL) sign combined video displays and message reader boards into a single sign system as described by Meric Adriansen, principle of Tigris Systems Corp. who was project manager for the sign system. "The center of the TSSL sign incorporated a SONY JumboTron video display which fitted into an even larger Multimedia built video screen composed of seven separate full color reader board ribbons that wrap around the front of the Good Morning America studios building.

    The resultant imagery of the two signs are a subset of each other; the smaller JumboTron (describing JumbroTrons as 'small' is usually a misnomer except with this sign) shows a continuing stream of video promotion scenes of forthcoming ABC TV programs. The bigger screen shows accompanying graphics with text. By combining the JumbroTron video screen and the Multimedia graphics animation screen, the Times Square Studios sign transformed two separate visual processes into a single display system. Below the video screens underneath the studio windows are the final two message reader boards. The upper sign references ABC News headlines and below that, the bottom zipper is an ESPN link streaming the latest sports headlines.


    The metaphor for the vertical part of the Reuters sign is an antenna as all the news is in the air and the sign is just pulling it in. The reader board was created by ESI Design with LED boards supplied by Diamond Vision. Together the eleven signs are synchronized to create the effect of a single surface - a window into the world of Reuters and the Instinet. Photo by Diamond Vision

    Reuters reader board as it appears in building lobby. Photo by ESI Design
    Reuters ­ World’s Tallest Reader Board

    Reuters reader board base where vertical board merges with horizontal strip. Photo by ESI Design
    The message reader board format took an even greater leap in aesthetics with an installation on Three Times Square, otherwise known as The Reuters Building. This recently completed reader board pushed the form and function of the zipper into several unique dimensions of defining news content in a public space. First off, it redefines the readability of the zipper from just a horizontal strip to a structural integration between a vertical reader board (at approximately 250 feet or 22 stories high) with its horizontal counterpart that averages between 16 to 18 feet wide and 148 feet long and wraps completely around the base of the Reuters building and extends inward into its lobby area.

    The sign package was designed by ESI Design, a New York City-based firm headed by Edwin Schlossberg. ESI reasoned that a zipper doesn't have to be just a 'narrow ribbon' nor should it be only restricted to an alpha numeric of monochromatic text. Thus the Reuters sign display is a full color, LED video display courtesy Diamond Vision (Lawerenceville, GA), a division of Mitsubishi Electric & Electronic. All told, the Reuters sign displays over 7000 square feet of LED acreage.

    The Reuters sign is mounted on its United States headquarters in the middle of Times Square where upwards of almost one million people a day will eyeball it. Reuters is about up-to-the-minute world news and wanted its sign to transmit that presence visually. Thus the content is not only text, but also sports and financial news as well as graphics, photography and video imagery, all news content that is fed directly to the sign from regional Reuters offices from all over the world. Data flowing into the sign is prepared and massaged into its final sign-ready information form which moves in both directions; raw data flows down the sign and into the building, and processed information moves outwards and back up the sign.

    "The metaphor for the vertical part of the Reuters sign," says designer Schlossberg in a recent WIRED article "is an antenna. All this news is in the air and the sign is just pulling it in. Together the eleven signs are synchronized to create the effect of a single surface - a window into the world of Reuters and the Instinet." Brad Wieners of WIRED refers to it as front-page news in real time.

    TIME-0-MATIC

    The market trend by companies is to establish direct contact with their customers and electronic readers have become the perfect medium to do that.
    Although the previously mentioned zipper displays are all one-of-a-kind over-the-top spectaculars, the more prosaic and conventional zipper of simple one and two line horizontal reader boards are what is seen on most buildings in cities and towns through the United States and abroad. Time-O-Matic of Danville, IL, is one of the many sign companies dedicated to manufacturing and installing reader boards, having done so since 1932.

    The Company, whose product brand is watchFire, presents reader boards in three distinct product lines including message centerboards, time and temperature boards and price signboards. John Kunze, National Sales Manager noted, "that at least 90% of Time-O-Matic's sales are directed to the message center reader boards. The major customers for these boards are banks, retail businesses, churches and schools. The latter two using them as public service announcement displays."

    Electronic reader boards are a perfect way of communicating a company's specific message, be it upcoming sales or a branding statement. It's also timely and literally up-to-the-minute. "The market trend by companies and public institutions," noted Kunze, "is to differentiate between indirect marketing (newspapers, television and radio) and direct contact with their customers, and electronic readers have become the perfect medium to do that."

    In the world of the Internet, cell phones and satellite television, people use these medias to be connected to the Global Village. Message reader boards have become a part of that linkage by creating public 'media windows' in the streets and in town squares where people at a glance can watch the world unfold in breaking news headlines, one zip at a time.


    Perhaps the most fascinating zipper of all is tucked away on 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. Established by Semour Durst and accelerating along at an insane pace, it ticks away like an out-of-control odometer. It is a record of the outstanding public debt and known as the National Debt Clock. On February 23rd 1996, it jumped almost $30 billion to $5,017,056,630,040.00. That's trillions, folks!. photo credit: Steve Freidman


    Readers who wish to follow the entire story of Times Square can follow with these other pieces related to its history:

    One Times Square: A Global Icon Marks Time - 2003-2010, Part III
    In this third and final part of One Times Square, we examine even more of the fascinating, ever-evolving changes to this iconic landmark and how technology plays a very interesting and important role.

    One Times Square: A Global Icon Marks Time - 2003-2010, Part II
    Slowly, but surely between 2003 to 2010, one spectacular display after another on One Times Square has been upgraded with a more modern version of itself or outright replaced with a new client and a new spectacular.

    One Times Square Revisions: Signage in the crossroads of the world through the years
    If any building was to be dedicated as homage to sign displays, honors could easily point to One Times Square. It stands tall not only in height, but also throughout its 100 plus year history with its influence on iconic advertising, on sign displays, with its vinyl and electronic billboards and its timeless metaphors, all wedded to the building from top (the annual New Year's Eve ball drop) to the bottom (the news zipper wrapped around the building's base).

    Toy's R Us Interior EDS Signage
    The Center of the Toy Universe can be found in Times Square and it's operated by Toys 'R Us. With 110,000 square feet of various toy shopping zones, all aligned within three floors of merchandising space, the toy universe is a vast space.

    LED Electronic Message Reader Boards: Watching the world go by in streaming headlines
    The electronic message reader board is the town crier of the modern age. It is a simplistic, horizontal column of light bulbs or LEDs whose intermediate flashes of world watching headlines, slide effortlessly across reader board signs attached to banks and financial institutions and to the front walls of major corporate headquarters.

    King Kong Embraces Times Square with Electronic Signage Debut
    The latest remake of the King Kong epic, directed by Peter Jackson, sought out its east coast premiere in the place where the big ape met his demise, in New York City. Nothing is too good for the premiere of his latest film and only in New York City could a film of such epic proportion have an opening of similar grandeur.

    Hershey’s ­ How Sweet It Is: The Eye-Candy of Times Square
    In the middle of all its surrounding Times Square spectaculars, billboards and sign edifices, stands the flagship Hershey Times Square, a retail gift store which is a chocolate confectionary paradise that is the center of the chocolate universe.

    Minskof Theater
    The Minskoff Theatre (1,597 seats), one of the many major live performing venues along Broadway has recently undergone a signage transformation of its old blade / marquee and window display into a very modern and elegant sign package that was fit for a king: The Lion King that was.

    ABC Times Square
    It may be home to ABC's Good Morning America, but to Times Square passersby it is the building with the curvy front wall that is a gigantic television screen displaying current news and ABC TV previews all day long.

    Signs of Love: A spectacular marriage proposal on the white lights of Broadway
    This is a story of unrequited love converged with New York City's first electronic billboard, where a marriage proposal was displayed in all its glory directly above the Crossroads of the World.

    Louis M. Brill is a journalist and consultant for high-tech entertainment and media communications. He is also writing a book on the history and future of film entertainment. He can reached at (415) 664-0694 or lmbrill@earthlink.net

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