Sunday, July 30, 2006

Posters in the train station

If you've ever had the chance to ride the trains here in Tokyo, you'd be familiar with the overwhelming number of posters both on the train and in the stations. Today I saw some station attendants taking down old posters and putting up some new ones on the station wall.

Each poster board (where posters get stapled to) can hold up to eight standard posters. Each poster looks to be about JIS-B1 size. So the entire area is somewhere on the order of 4m x 1.5m. Not small by any means.

But what is the cost of something like that? Each poster requires the design and printing run and the costs associate with that. Each station requires two attendants to take down and put up the new signs at least once a week. And the old posters need to be recycled, so the cost of recycling all the posters for all the stations every week is non-negligble.

I haven't run the numbers, and I expect they do not come out especially favorably in favor of replacing all the posters with large LCD screens, but I wonder what the impact of having electronic billboards rather than paper posters would be.

Obviously you'd have some drawbacks. The first being that the cost of replacement is going to be enormously high. LCD screens of the size mentioned above are prohibitively expensive. They are prone to break more often than corkboard (which I suppose could fail eventually given the humidity here in Tokyo). And the cost of replacement or repair in the event of defacement is very high. All in all, it's a pretty risky deal.

Other debatable drawbacks include the putting out of work those poster printers, station attendants, and some staff at the recycling plant. These are some of the social costs involved in replacing human work with machinery.

On the technical side, it's always risky to put out programmable displays where the public can access. A hacker could find a hole in the security system and display whatever images he wished. This is still possible with posters, all it takes is a printer and some staples, but the ability to attack all vulnerable screens in one fell swoop is pretty enticing.

So what are the benefits?

First, it would reduce costs in the long run, if the cost of the screens could be minimized. Lower insurance costs as a result of no more ladder falls and no more staple-pierced fingers could be realized. Paper would not need to be purchased by the advertiser, the poster image can be sent directly to the railway offices for immediate upload rather than to the printers for an expensive printing run. In the back room, a handful of engineers could handle the uploading of all new posters instead of two station attendants per station physically taking the posters down and putting them up.

Given the cost reductions possible, it seems only a matter of time before rail companies here replace the current system of paper posters with LCD screens that can provide a better experience than paper could. The amount of time it will take is the amount of time it requires to bring LCD screen prices down to levels that would make this a realistic alternative. Unfortunately, that is not yet the case.

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