The Thinking Behind The 230 Million Pixels Of Display At Outernet London, With Ben Maher

February 15, 2023 by Dave Haynes

I spent a few days in London, UK ahead of Integrated Systems Europe – in part to break up the trip and flights, but much more so to meet with several companies and see some projects that I’d only been able to see in photos and videos.

The one I particularly wanted to see was Outernet London, a very ambitious, multi-faceted development in the city’s center that has, as its visual centerpiece, a huge set of wall and ceiling LED screens that are fully open to the public and positioned in such a way that they can’t be missed as people flow from a main exit of the busy Tottenham Court Road Underground station.

I assumed, wrongly, that this exists primarily to run Digital Out Of Home advertising and compete with big screens like those in nearby Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus. But there is much more to Outernet, as I learned walking and talking with the developments Chief Commercial Officer, Ben Maher.

The audio may be a bit hit and miss, as we did this on the go and in the crowds that were there even on a chilly January afternoon.

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Ben Maher: We have this incredibly famous set of assets on this side of the district, which is Denmark Street. So as a business, we’ve been a landlord on Denmark Street for over 25 years looking after the music stores and we’ve made, as we said, a huge number of acquisitions, meaning that we own nearly all of the property there by Parcel two or three, and we run a baker for Baker Policy. So if we lose a music store, we replace it with music because we wanna maintain it, sorry, I don’t know how familiar you’re with Denmark Street, but as an asset, we wanna maintain this as one of the nice, iconic music streets in the world. 

The first music store opened in 1911, Charlie Chaplin wrote the song, Smile, here in 1926. The Melody Maker was founded here in 1954. The NME was found here. The owner of the NME went around the street with a ledger of all of the music that was sold, and that became the first-ever music chart, which was compiled on this street.

Elton John had his first job as a runner here, and it was the home of the labels, the writers, it was the home of the lawyers, and the management, so people would hang out here in the hope of being discovered. But importantly, talent would wanna be discovered and they’d hang out in the cafe here, this was called the Gioconda Cafe and you’ll see Tin Pan Alley, the home of British music. But importantly it would be people like Marc Bolan, it would be Jimmy Hendrix, and David Bowie moved and converted an ambulance onto the street and lived here. So it really was an incredible, authentic crucible for music. We’ve maintained the music stores. We put in a 55-room luxury hotel residence, so you stay in the rooms where Frankie Fraser, the Richardson, the Gangland fame, their bar, which was called the Tin Pan Alley Bar. Number six here, out the back is the News House that Malcolm McLaren rented for the Sex Pistols. So you can now stay in that, that’s the Anarchy Suite. It’s complete with their original graffiti. 

Did they pressure wash it down? 

Ben Maher: No. For better or worse, it’s there and it’s good. It has a grade two listings on it now, but again, in a building like this, incredible history, and Hypnosis were based here. They were the world leading album cover designers. So they created album covers for the likes of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon was created in that room.

When you stay in the rooms, they have names like Hypnotized for that room, and then Kiss the Sky is the name of the room where Hendrix used to jam. This is the store where Bob Marley bought his most famous guitar, which was destined for a dustbin for a car mechanic from Essex. This is where the Stones did some of their first-ever recordings and people recorded here all the way through to the likes of the Brit Brats, Adele, and other incredible artists.

So all of this is part of the district, and as I said, we’ve not tried to Disney-fy this area. We’ve tried to preserve it. The area dates back all the way to about the 7th century when the church was created to support the Hospital. But once you build infrastructure, communities develop, so this became one of the first slums in London. It was home to 3,000 residencies, and over 500 distilleries and this is where Hogarth depicted the Gin riots. So when you see things like that’s where that occurred, and this is where it’s depicted.

You have elements like Dickens who live down the road in Bloomsbury, wrote Oliver Twist here, and Robert Stevenson. There’s incredible history to the area. That is all really important when you’re creating platforms and telling stories so that you understand the context within which you exist, not just the recent history. I’ll come to some of the other music venues.

So now we’re going to enter the district. Importantly, we have 30,000 square feet of offices, we have 18 retail units, we have pop-ups. We have 13 bars and restaurants and we obviously have screen-enabled spaces. So this first space is the arcade, The Now Arcade. As you can see, it’s a full-screen enabled, three-mill pixel-pitched laden environment. All are equipped with acoustic audio. So we have venue-quality audio in all our spaces. 

And the audio is on the bars down below? 

Ben Maher: The district as a whole, through all the spaces, is made up of 230 million pixels. It has 192 km of CAT6 table enabling this and I think it is really important, we have positioned this as a canvas. We’ve positioned this as a storytelling platform, and that’s really important to start with content first so that you can establish the context and the interest of the audience to allow you to tell better brand stories and deliver brand messages. So that has always been the ethos of what we’re doing.

We don’t stand with one editorial voice or polarizing thought around what we say. We try to democratize access to the platform. So we try to provide as many different interest groups and users to create for the platform because, in all honesty, screens are relatively cheap against the cost of actually feeding them, and creating environments that remain interesting all the time is the biggest challenge we have. So again, one of the things we want to do by using multi-sensory environments is to hand back some of that control to the audiences, not only to create for the platform but also to control their experiences. So although we start with audio-visual, we’re on a sort of a technical journey on a path to bleed out new technologies and ensure that people can then interact and control generative experiences for themselves. 

All of the spaces have cameras in them, for example, which will allow for interactivity. So you can come into this space, you might receive a standing ovation or trigger a Mexican wave. The joy of technology as it stands at the moment, and you won’t hear talk of Covid. But the reality is people now understand better the reasons to be utilizing QR codes. So these screens can become a launchpad or anything: to commerce, obviously AR experiences, or anything else that we wanna leave. It makes data exchange a much cleaner and more natural sort of methodology. So really important for us to be able to control all of those elements.

As we head down, this provides a queuing function for our venue as well, we have a 1500-person capacity music venue underground, which is the largest new music venue built in central London in the 1940s. This is load in, load out, for the venue. So again, we’ve configured the streets so that we can have a clean, easy ecological load in, and load out so vehicles can come and jack power straight from the main rather than running their engines and things like that, which is smart.

As we come into the district now, you’ll see that we have what was a very traditional maze of News Street. So this was Denmark Place, and we’ve got here the ability to gate and control the environment so we can create all sorts of experiences and fields and allow people to have events or dress a district in any interesting manner. So five different egress and ingress points across the district. On this side, we’ve got 14 more hotel rooms because the residences are based in 16 different buildings. So a really different unique point for the hotel. 

Here we have what will be the Denmark Street Recording Studio which will be a pro bono recording studio, again, adding to the ecosystem that we have, bringing people and rewarding talent, just as Denmark Street always did. This is the more historical and music side of the district. This is the more modern screen-enabled place. On the rooftop here. We have an 8000-square-foot modern Chinese restaurant called Tattoo. We have another restaurant on the fourth floor, which will open later this quarter that’s called Cavo. They have a rooftop garden here which is joined by a glass bridge, which leads over to the fourth-floor restaurant.

So what you’ll see here is we have 2600 LEDs across the runway here. So when we create a red carpet leading to the venue, we can light it up through LED color hues so that we can control those environments. 

So you’ve got show control, so you can orchestrate the whole thing?

Ben Maher: Brand colors, mood, you name it. We’ve obviously lifted up causes such as Holocaust Memorial and also for the Ukraine crisis and things like that, that’s really important. We understand our environment, we understand the mood.  If you think of the context of certainly out-of-home and. storytelling, smart cities, and IoT play a big part in city planning now, and our environment should be able to adjust to those needs and requirements. We shouldn’t just be screaming at audiences. We should be creating dialogue and also understanding the context within which we sit.

So for example, or within GDPR, if somebody comes in, I know if they’re looking for WiFi, where their SIM card originates. I know what their default language is. I don’t need to invade their privacy. But I can assume when the 50th Dutch person or the 200th Canadian crosses the threshold, I might play the national anthem and change the color of the district. So that creates incredible surprise and delight. 

And that would be data triggered? 

Ben Maher: Completely. We can utilize a custom stack, which controls all of the programs for the district, and that proprietary technology allows us to configure different environments, to configure the different spaces, either in unison or alternatively to have them operate autonomously. And I think it’s really important, our point of difference is having that versatility of space. It doesn’t just do one thing. We do four core things. We can hold events in our spaces, so that could be a private or public events. We have 32s spots in our spaces, which is, essentially a standard TVC, monetization.

We can do sponsorship. BMW has been a sponsor of our art program. We’ve presented our wellness program in association with Panadol and importantly, this new stage is gonna be about branded content, telling stories in a slightly longer form in an audiovisual sense in the public domain, and I think it was one of the most incredible moments I’ve had since being here, reaffirming that we’ve got an environment that has that versatility and what we wanna do is bring that longer storytelling moment to the form because brands are doing things with brand advocates, with talent.

They’re doing things based on purpose or the craft that they create. So we’ve had driving stories. We’ve had the launch of the Beatle’s actual master Revolver album, the videos that went with that, and again, that creates a different environment. It creates a different context. We’ve done interactive games, so again, as I said, what you don’t wanna be in any environment is a terrible magician. If you do your best trick on the first day, or second day, it’s diminishing returns. You’re not doing anything innovative or different. 

That’s a mistake made over and over again?

Ben Maher: Yeah, and I think it’s also quite been quite cathartic knowing that we don’t know everything about this space because no one’s ever done this anywhere in the world. So to say that we don’t fully understand how the public reacts to work, we have to embrace versatility. So knowing, for example, on the left here we have popup two. On the back corner of the building, we have another popup, which is about twice the size.

These spaces are fully screen-enabled and audio enabled as you see here. If they’re not being used for an event, they’ll be programmed with our content so that they’re relevant. TMP, for example, Take More Photos is a grassroots creative collective. They release briefs on social media and people can submit their photographs and then it curates an exhibition based on the brief. So they do one on Welcome to London. So this one’s Welcome to Love in London. They’ll do one for International Women’s Month, or they’ll do one for Black History Month. They did one for the World Cup, for example.

Now these are organizations that don’t have budgets typically. So this is pro bono stuff, right? 

Ben Maher: Very much, but again, it exactly comes down to what I said before, which is we want to give access to the platform. We wanna hear different voices to be representative and inclusive of our communities.

Was that part of the pitch as well to Westminster Town Council or something like that? Look, we’re building, but it’s going to have all sorts of community involvement? 

Ben Maher: Good question. So importantly, when we were talking before, when I showed you everything in front of us, that’s Westminster, the road here literally the line down the middle is Camden. So Camden has a very different approach to Westminster. They’re just different borrows and it’s what you expect, different councils. So we were applying to Camden for our licenses. This area historically had a number of late licenses and bar licenses for the different premises that were here previously and have historically been a musical district. So again, it’s quite an entertainment-based space. 

Yeah, I was gonna say they’d be in the mindset anyways for this. 

Ben Maher: Importantly, they have embraced what we’re doing, but they have also gone on the journey of understanding what we’re doing. Because it’s very new. So that is always a challenge. The building and its main purpose of it though is an interesting public space. So if we had created a new private, totally private and shut environment, I don’t think we would’ve been received in the same manner. 

If you’ve got a second, you might want to stop for a second only because we’re gonna watch the Summer Palace and it’s about two and a half minutes long and you’ll want to see this, but this is a good example of our house content. Something we commissioned to play in the public domain, which allows brands to sit alongside incredible experiences, and as you can see, people naturally get their phones out to record.

I’ll tell you the story about how it began. So we ran a camp home for Italian Airways before Christmas, they were one of the first brands to use the space for a commercial message, and they made us nervous. We didn’t know what was gonna come cause no one had we’ve got best practice guides. We’ve got creative specs, and they created an experience where planes fly over the head of amazing landmarks in Italy and people applauded. For somebody who’s worked for 25 years in advertising, yeah, that’s an incredible thing to be able to say, quite a lovely experience.

But this was part of the commission that we did or RFP that we did for people to create for the space, and it’s an ethereal journey through space-time. But interesting it uses the ceiling as the main communication plan. 

I’m a big fan of these kinds of environments where you look at it and there will be any number of people here who will assume that that’s real.

Ben Maher: Oh yeah, and the joy is we’re using a 3mm pixel pitch so you can create that depth of illusion. The total resolution size here is about 6k, so it’s not without its challenges, and we have found it unforgiving for things like raw photo footage because it’s just so unforgiving on talent so then we can use templating and things like that to accommodate lower resolution assets, but still have them looking credible in the space.

The use of negative space. So not always trying to fill every pixel is also incredibly powerful, so we’re trying to utilize that as well. For this, I used to present this in VR, so people are presenting on teams and zoom in VR during the lockdown, trying to explain what we’re doing because it’s one. It’s one thing explaining a new ad format, but it’s a different thing explaining a new environment altogether. 

Yeah, I’m somebody who’s been around this medium, if you wanna call it the technology for 20+ years now and not seen something like this before, particularly the way it’s stitched together with everything else, quite honestly, not just, here’s this big screen. Be excited!

Ben Maher: Yes, and I think we have to create, as I said, multipurpose and interesting use environments because cities deserve them. You’ve got, as I said, as many on the weekends as 350,000 people coming through this area and it is becoming an attraction. You, we have six to eight hours of free art programming in this building on a Sunday.

And people email and go, can I see this? When is this happening? And that I think is a good testament to doing things the right way. It’s new. We are learning. When we first opened the now trending space, which is the smallest of the spaces, that silver Line proved an incredibly challenging threshold for some people. Because it was like an anthropological experiment. They didn’t know whether they could step in. They didn’t know what the transaction was. Because they’d never seen a free public entertainment space like that, and as you’d expect children and people who’d had a drink were the first ones to cross the threshold.

But then interestingly put seating in there and people act completely differently. So the psychology of the spaces is also important. Another thing that may be of interest is that this hero screen here on the south wall and the east wall here is permanent deployments, as you can see the slight lines between the wall here, these screens on the north and west are on rails and they can completely retract ah, and the building can open up. So it’s one of the first buildings in the world with kinetic staging built in. 

You do have doors too, so you can close the area off for private events? 

Ben Maher: You can see better with the white there. You can see the slacks between how they work. So we’ll be bringing new appointments to view to city centers where you’ll come with a real-time of day to actually see something happen. You can see, in fact, these ones are usually completely closed and they’ve been open today for windows. The small area here can operate as a retail unit. It’s been a trainer store for Puma. It was a classroom for Mercedes F1 MG with Toto Wolff. It was a studio for the photographer ranking. It was a red carpet zone for Sky. It’s been a party for Apple, and NBCU. So again, having addressable spaces that can do a lot, this pixel pitch at 3mm is akin to what they use in the Unreal Engine SFX studios. So that’s essentially the backdrop that they shoot. White, shiny floor shows content. The resolution there, as I say, is 3mm-5mm pitch on the outside here because up higher which is still the highest resolution out of in Europe currently certainly at that scale. 

Yeah, I’ve heard a few 6mm in New York, but not 5mm. 

Ben Maher: So we’re really pleased with it. But at that resolution, it’s interesting. We do need higher-quality content. Because of that pitch, it can be unforgiving. You’ll see Netflix is doing an incredible job. They’re a very frequent client of ours, but the animation on here will always look incredible cause it obviously scales infinitely almost. But they produce beautiful output and the resolution is incredible. 

That space, is it also leasable for if BMW wanted to launch a new electric vehicle or something, you could block off this?

Ben Maher: Absolutely. So we held the launch of the new FIFA 23 there and did the FIFA Women’s Summit. We’ve done live boxing with DAZN and Matchroom, so we’ve held boxing there. We’ve done events for UNICEF. We’ve done events for Mothers of Gucci, which is a Gala event. So yeah, we can do private things, but the best way we like the district is having the public in because the more spaces that you privatize, the less inviting the world is, and we want people to come in, experience things free, be entertained, and create moments that ultimately they wanna share and create a destination In the cities we’re in.

What would you do if there was a big England football match and I remember Lester Square got kinda destroyed, would you just close this off?

Ben Maher: So we face the challenges that any public destination would face, and we have to manage the environment. So we do risk assessments on anything. We have a really good security team and we do all of the listening and monitoring of those feeds to know what’s happening.

We get advice from our partners like TFL, which are local. We’ve got Camden, and then we liaise with the greater London authorities and also the Emergency response services. So we got a good understanding of what’s happening. But yes, we’ll make a call based on what’s going on to decide how we manage the district because we wanna keep people safe. 

How many people work on this, setting aside security and all that, working with the canvas, and everything else?

Ben Maher: So the Outernet team as a whole is around 80 people. So that’ll divide up between everything from the scheduling to the sales teams to the data and center people, creative teams, et cetera.

When did it open?

Ben Maher: Officially, the arcade and the trending spaces opened around late August, and what they’re now building came online from midday each day in November. So it’s not been open for long, we’re still very much in our infancy but it’s nice as I said, to see the behavior of the public and have been here just over four years, to see it come to fruition is very rewarding. 

Did it go through a lot of revisions? 

Ben Maher: Yes, in terms of what you were good at? I think there were about 11 years of planning before I was even anywhere near this, and then once the planning is in place, you have to then reinterpret it as an experience as a platform, both for how stories are told, how stories are configured, how content is rendered out, how content is served and then how it can be taken to market for brands, storytellers, creators, you name it. So yes, a lot of revisions, and we’re still revising. 

There’s a number of businesses, operating hotels, everything else. Is this element of it or its own business unit with its own P&L?

Ben Maher: Outernet is a media business, and we control the screen-enabled spaces that you see above ground here. 

I’m gonna assume that you’re not plugged into programmatic or anything like that because it’s a very distinct kinda canvas.

Ben Maher: That is correct. We’re not plugged into programmatic. It’s not to say that we would never do it, but the reality is the way that the content needs to be served today, it is very unique. As I said, it’s a proprietary stack. It uses lots of familiar techs but it’s more programmed like a channel like a traditional broadcast channel as opposed to a media. There’s a little bit of rendering that’s required, let’s just say. 

I assume you know who was the LED supplier?

Ben Maher: The screens are from AOTO. We went and did an analysis globally of the best screen providers and for what we needed AOTO had a great product, and this is certainly the biggest one of the first in, certainly the biggest deployment that they’ve done of this product.

We’re running one triple GPS and are now building a load. We did go as far as doing a sort of quality assessment. We visited factories. We even went as far as looking at where raw materials were mined, because of the importance of having single-batch silicon on a canvas of this scale to ensure that you didn’t get that different, particularly obviously on the reds within this car, within this canvas was really important. Another important thing about the LEDs, we degrade panels at the same pace that they are running, so that if we need to replace them, we’re replacing them either from our own environments or right into the environment. So again, they’re in the same life stage of the panels to ensure high quality. 

You have a pretty big spares pool, I would imagine?

Ben Maher: We try our best, it’s a revolving. If you look at this, this is a drone shoot done by one of the Wrigley Scott Associate directors that we met, and he shot it on an Icelandic beach and it is a music video. But if you look at how some of the B rolls so creating doesn’t need all new assets, it can come from existing architecture.

The supplier of this kind of creativity told you, here’s what we would like you to do with it, or do they give you a license to say, look we’d like to do an edit, this is how it’s gonna look? 

Ben Maher: It depends on the creator, and it depends on where they are with them. If they’re shooting for us, then we’d say, this is the brand kit and this is what you need to produce and this is how you need to play it out. We’re always updating our learnings. We get new challenges and new opportunities and we learn from those. But as we see these mega canvases across the world. These sorts of fantastic pieces become more relevant because they’ll play out across networks. Across other major cities. I think one of the questions you posed was, is London a model for elsewhere?

It is, and we’re in discussions in New York, LA, the Middle East, and Asia, at launching these networks and then sharing experiences, interestingly, might always be this exact look and feel. This was put together over 26 years across a horizontal plane. If you go to Manhattan, you’re probably gonna have to use a vertical plane, and so it becomes a completely different onboarding process and journey. So it’s gonna be interesting how we take our learnings and then we utilize those in other environments. 

If you’re gonna take this to other locations, does it have to be multifaceted in the same way, and that there’s a retail component, there’s a hospitality component, there’s a restaurant component?

Ben Maher: Every case is different. So if you look at environments creating a campus or a district in other cities, particularly New York, or more challenging real estate payment tables or even the planning commissions. So we have to look at them in each case often partnering with other established institutions is wise.

We’re lucky enough to have a huge foot here. In places like Manhattan, you have those big footfalls. In the other cities, you don’t necessarily have this natural footfall. So you have to create a different style of destination or with another key destination to ensure the right sort of, so yeah each case on its own and understanding the needs and nuances of those cities and audiences as well.

Yeah, because there are a lot of immersive attractions popping up now. They’re almost all projection, but they’re very much ticketed locations and it’s programmed and it starts at this time and you’re there for 45 minutes and exit through the gift shop. 

Ben Maher: We’re very happy to have you exit through the gift shop here as well.

And don’t get me wrong, there is some incredible projection technology out there. We’ve looked at it in our venues and in other places. We have other locations with theaters and other things and, we would certainly consider projection there, but for the kinda canvas and certainly some of the gaming engines and things and future-proofing, we wanted to do this pixel pitch to create a very unique and beautiful canvas that to be fair, I don’t think we could have achieved in the same way with projection. 

Yeah, it’s very interesting. I’ve written about it and but it’s so much more interesting to see it in person, but I think more than anything else, to kinda understand the macro idea as opposed to, oh look, a very big set of screens. 

Ben Maher: What are these guys doing? 

Why did they do that?

Ben Maher: Which again, isn’t a difficult question always, and I think just seeing the way the public interacts with it has been enough of a validation that cities deserve these interesting cultural spaces and they deserve to be free and in the public domain. 

We’re early in our journey. We need more brands coming and telling their stories as well, but telling them in a way that will ingratiate themselves to the public and, out-of-home has done an incredible job at providing public utility forever, in major cities. If we can this model out, certainly for multisensory spaces delivering that as well, I think it sets a good precedent for other cities and other developers across world.

Are you affected at all by energy conservation requirements or requests? 

Ben Maher: Yes, of course.

We are obviously subject to the rising costs of energy as anyone naturally would be, but we have developed the most energy-efficient product that was available on the market. So the sort of coolness and the control of the environment, importantly, isn’t prohibitive to doing this. We’re not creating a huge carbon footprint that we cannot manage. We have all the relevant ESG scorecards. We’re working with the ISO qualifications for energy and for our social corporate responsibilities.

But it’s also this sort of magnet or those people who are concerned about all the voice energy on these things, do they really need them versus other stuff that’s drawing way more energy, but it’s not anything you think about?

Ben Maher: I think the fact that we’re providing a storytelling platform and we’re not just screaming at people in the public domain. We’re supporting arts and culture everywhere. We have a charitable foundation that donates time, and money for different projects. So we’ve done projects around sustainability with Unger. We’re doing things around social mobility. We’ve done things for AIDS charities, so we work with lots of different interest groups to provide them with platforms. We even audit the popups so that when we’re looking at the brands we’re working with, we’re not just working with the same generic brands that you get on every high street in the world, right?

We wanna ensure that these spaces are different and unique. So whether it’s non-white owned businesses, whether it’s LGBTQ+ owned business, female-owned, sustainable business, so again, being a conscious member of society, we don’t just wanna be a bastian for people who want a big ass billboard. 

So I think we’ve gone around things in a very different way. There is some incredible landmark out home structures in the UK and across Europe. But I do think we have good USPs and we do complement what is already in the market but with enough points of difference, yeah. We wanna attract people to this space and not cannibalize out-of-home budgets by sticking the same offering up. So if we can get more AV budget and that encourages people to do better and more in out-of-home, then that’s a fantastic thing. 

That’s very impressive. Obviously, people like it. 

Ben Maher: We’re getting there. There’s a piece called Heaven’s Gate that is the new art exhibition and it is on Sunday and it was absolutely crackers in here, it was just crazy to see how people enjoyed it and it just says conceiving something and then seeing it come to fruition is such a unique and pleasurable thing to be able to do. So we’re very proud of what we’ve done here.

  1. Bob Raikes says:

    The ‘Enemy’ founded in Denmark St was the NME – New Musical Express – a rival at one time with the Melody Maker as the main popular music news title.

    1. Dave Haynes says:

      thanks … the Brits have flagged this with me in emails and comments … I outsource transcription and this one slipped by the likely much younger and maybe not British transcriber!

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