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Decoding the Phenomenon of Giant Digital Screens – How Technology and Content are Driving China’s “Big Screen Movement”

Following its completion in September of this year, the MSG Sphere, colloquially hailed as the “Sun on the Earth,” has encountered recurrent disconcerting developments over the past three months. A substantial financial setback of 700 million yuan (equivalent to 98.4 million U.S. dollars) has cast a shadow on its profit model. Moreover, the Mayor of London has unequivocally rebuffed the proposal to erect a new Sphere in Stratford, East London, citing concerns over light pollution. This decision has triggered widespread censure of MSG Sphere, encompassing apprehensions regarding light pollution and energy profligacy.

Reflecting on the unveiling three months prior, the MSG Sphere, an opulent creation that required a five-year, 2.3 billion U.S. dollar investment, seized global attention. As the preeminent spherical edifice globally, MSG Sphere boasts an exterior adorned with 1.2 million fist-sized spherical structures illuminated by LED lights, programmable to manifest an array of shapes incessantly. The edifice accommodates 18,600 seats within, and its screen display area dwarfs that of the cinema’s iMAX screen by over 40 times. Patrons can indulge in a virtual reality experience with unaided eyes.

On-site observations reveal an absence of conspicuous light pollution, challenging prevalent perceptions. The public’s perception of this internet sensation varies, with some viewing it as an amalgamation of technology and art, others perceiving it as an extravagant and potent marketing endeavor. Meanwhile, concerns persist regarding potential adverse effects such as light pollution.

Lin Yunfan, the Chief Executive Officer of Guangzhou Digital Entertainment Information Technology Co., Ltd., responded to these divergent views during an interview with “See the World,” grounded in his firsthand observations during a recent visit to Las Vegas. It is worth noting that numerous investors in Guangzhou are actively engaged in discussions with pertinent entities regarding the initiation of projects reminiscent of MSG Sphere.

Lin Yunfan elucidated that the images circulating online do not entirely capture the essence of MSG Sphere. He emphasized that the LED screens’ resolution on the sphere is denoted as P200, a measure 100 times or more coarser than conventional large screens (P3 or even P2). Consequently, the power consumption of MSG Sphere is relatively modest, approximately tenfold that of large screens in certain cities. Notably, the brightness of the LED screen is meticulously regulated, precluding any glare or conspicuous light pollution.

Insiders assert that this underscores MSG Sphere’s adept resolution of construction technology challenges. Reports indicate that MP, a major stakeholder in Unilumin Group, an eminent LED industry enterprise, constructed MSG Sphere’s facade dome control system. While domestic screen manufacturers supplied the LED screens, Lin Yunfan posits that the core control technology is not beyond the purview of local expertise.

Contrary to circulating reports of MSG Sphere’s staggering 700 million yuan loss in three months, Lin Yunfan contends that the variance is attributable to disparate amortization methods. He asserts that, over the long term, the economic benefits are substantial, given the performances presented in the initial stages. Lin Yunfan envisions MSG Sphere as more than an advertising venture, characterizing it as a cultural tourism initiative and a novel business model for cultural venues.

In addressing London’s rejection of The Sphere’s application, Lin Yunfan posits that the city’s distinctive urban construction planning requirements and environmental protection management logic might be the underlying causes. He suggests that this refusal may not be an isolated incident but rather part of a broader trend in rejecting large-screen constructions.

Li Li, a practitioner in brand promotion, perceives MSG Sphere as an innovative artistic display resulting from technological advancement. She deems it an industrial innovation product with boundless display potential, amalgamating a colossal sphere with dynamic display technology to convey richer content information. Li Li believes that this groundbreaking form of display, born of unlimited imagination, will impart more surprises and enhance the city’s allure.

There are reports suggesting that the forthcoming Sphere may “alight in South Korea.” According to the author’s cognizance, numerous metropolises presently exhibit a keen interest in initiating undertakings akin to the MSG Sphere in Guangzhou. Lin Yunfan posits that the implementation of a sophisticated technological initiative in Guangzhou could augment the city’s cultural milieu and propel the cultural interpretation industry’s advancement: “We should employ more cutting-edge technology to embellish our urban landscape.”

Yunfan himself inclines towards erecting such venues in locales of cultural and touristic allure: “Just as Las Vegas stands as a cultural and touristic nexus in the United States, we ought to construct such venues in picturesque sites. Devoid of apprehensions about luminous pollution, it transcends being a mere tourist attraction. The advertising façade transforms into a digital cultural venue and a novel cultural landmark, irrespective of its circular, planar, quadrilateral, or triangular configuration.”

Beneath the “big screen phenomenon,” content retains its sovereign status.

In reality, even though China lacks a spherical edifice, the nation’s “big screen phenomenon” in recent years elucidates the trajectory of correlated technologies. As per Zhiyan Consulting data, the market dimensions of China’s outdoor electronic screen advertising sector surpassed 20 billion yuan in 2019, exceeded 30 billion yuan in 2022, and is anticipated to surpass 38 billion yuan in 2023. The burgeoning demand for outdoor advertising remains a linchpin for outdoor LED screens, signifying one of its “realization” trajectories.

Regarding the “big screen phenomenon,” individuals from diverse vocations harbor disparate viewpoints. According to Zhou Runan, an associate professor at the School of Communication and Design at Sun Yat-sen University and chairman of the Guangzhou Social Innovation Center, the advent of the “big screen phenomenon” accompanies the maturation of extensive screen display technology: “From a communicative perspective, it indeed marks a pivotal communicative shift, as it signifies an occupancy of more expansive space, heightened display, a profounder impression, and even a more profound amalgamation with the environment and scenarios, thereby realizing the efficacy of information communication, outreach, and perceptual transformation.”

He divulged that reports indicate outdoor large-screen advertising commands attention surpassing 50%. In comparison to traditional advertising, outdoor LED large-screen advertising yields superior effects with diminished aversion: “Hence, although it lacks distinctiveness from a technical standpoint, it may not be deemed as esoteric technology or avant-garde innovation. However, from a communicative impact standpoint, it unquestionably exerts a captivating influence in terms of outreach and conversion rates.”

Cao Sen, with years of involvement in advertising planning, informed the author that the “big screen phenomenon” has been extant for a prolonged duration and is no longer a novel occurrence. Its primary function is to allure the attention and inquisitiveness of passersby, yet evaluating its impact on conversions remains elusive. Consequently, numerous clients he has engaged with are disinclined to launch such expansive screens: “To my knowledge, the video production costs are around 3 million yuan, and the annual launch price commences at 10 million yuan. The cost-effectiveness ratio is comparatively low unless there is a need for a sensational impact. Only nascent brands are willing to expend such sums.”

China’s “big screen phenomenon” in recent years also illuminates the trajectory of associated technologies.

Lin Yunfan utilizes “market demand” to characterize the “big screen phenomenon” – citizens derive satisfaction from its presence, and it proves efficacious for cultural communication, accentuating the paramount importance of content. He discloses that with the proliferation of production entities, the expense of large-screen content production continues to dwindle. This, however, is not the primary impediment: “It is not an issue of production intricacy but rather the elevated resolution and protracted rendering time. Yet, advancements in technology within this domain have demonstrated a spiral growth. For instance, our graphics card, once a 3090, has progressed to a 4090 within the span of a year. What may have taken 10 hours to render previously now merely requires 1 hour through our technological optimization.”

Li Li contends that the term most entwined with the “big screen phenomenon” should be “naked-eye 3D,” constituting a technological innovation. Beyond economic attributes, he discerns the impetus behind promoting this technological innovation as rooted in contemporary societal preferences, emphasizing the need for immersive experiences and personal sensory engagement. Scene design, he posits, is a manifestation of these inclinations.

He emphasizes that while hardware breakthroughs may not be glaringly evident, advancements in software and content assume greater significance. Artistic works possessing greater intrinsic value are bound to captivate the audience’s attention and impart a more awe-inspiring scene experience. “As works of art reach sublimity, necessitating more expansive, grandiose, and advanced hardware carriers to convey them.”