Today, we live in a world dominated by screens. They’re in our homes, schools, offices, shopping centres, petrol stations, bars, airports – you name it. Ambient screens have allowed potentially anywhere to become a medium through which content can be displayed. But, where are they? What do we see on them? And, are people actually paying attention?

Funnily enough, just before I whipped out my laptop to write this blog post, my mum relayed to me her own account of her experience with an ambient screen. She explained how her visit to the doctor’s office was made less dull because of the television screen which sat in the waiting room. She also mentioned that some of the content on the screen was quite humorous and absurd but she was the only one who had noticed this because all of the other waiting patients were preoccupied with their personal screens.

And this intrigued me.

So, for the past week I have been observing the way that people interact with screens in public. Foremost, it became very clear that ambient screens are a ubiquitous presence in our world. They are found in abundance at my university, where they display various articles, marketing materials from the university, and promotions. Generally, people pay little attention to these screens, preferring the smaller screens on their personal devices. However, last week I did stumble upon my friends partaking in an intense battle of Mario Kart (and using a public screen to do so).

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I also had the pleasure of experiencing a few screened events. In one instance, the space was decorated with wall-to-wall screens displaying various sports. These screens were generally forgotten by the occupants, as they became background noise to the main event. In the other instances, there was one stand-alone screen with a large crowd huddled around them – like a large-scale family huddled around a living room TV set. Emotions ran high at these events, and there was more focus on the ambient screens – because people wanted to be there.

The intangibility of the experience of the screened events amplified the overall experience. The audience were those who couldn’t attend the telecasted event – so they were automatically invested in the content that was being displayed. In the instance of the screen depicting the AFL Grand Final – this was displayed at the Randwick Racecourse, and arguably attracted more viewers than the races themselves. As for the screens scattered around my university, they were appealing to an escaped viewer – because the individuals encountered these screens, rather than seeking them out. And that, is the key difference which I observed to affect an individual’s attention being paid to an ambient screen.

But where is the future of public screens headed?

Below, are two images which could appear to originate from the same scene. But only one is real, and the other is imagined. On the right we have an image of Times Square, New York in 2017, and on the left, we have a snippet of public screens imagined in a dystopian setting, in the year of 2384 (from Altered Carbon). 

To me, the possibilities for the future of ambient screens seem limitless. They hold untapped marketing potential, informative ability, and entertainment value. And, the future of public screens may even become screenless (as depicted in Altered Carbon). Although, the issue of the escaped viewer must be tackled for public screens to remain of any value. Whether this is an issue of an individual’s preference for an intimate screen, an issue of unexciting content, or an issue of consumer scepticism of marketing efforts – I do not know.

Where do you think the future of public screens is headed? comment below.

 

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Joshua Earle

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