At American Eagle, Prysm’s Laser Displays Banish the Bezel; Startup to Present at Tonight’s 5×5 Event

12/8/10Follow @wroush

Prysm is trying to reinvent large video displays. American Eagle Outfitters is trying to reinvent the shopping experience in its retail stores. So it makes sense that first place you can see Prysm’s laser phosphor displays (LPDs) in public is the new American Eagle flagship store at Broadway and Houston in New York City’s Soho neighborhood.

American Eagle opened the location on November 9. One unmissable feature is the series of seven-feet-tall “video pillars,” each consisting of four Prysm LPDs stacked one atop another to form a continuous vertical image (see photos below). Strategically placed near the store’s escalators to provide a captive audience, the pillars show life-size, high-definition images of models dashing through the snow in their American Eagle winter coats.

Try using LCDs or other technologies to build a display that’s 20 inches wide and 60 inches high, and that runs on the power from a normal wall outlet. “The whole point was to go out and do something that can’t be done with other technology,” says Dana Corey, vice president of global sales at the San Jose, CA-based startup.

Video displays aren’t a new feature in retail environments—in fact, the fashion outlet right across the street from the new American Eagle has a huge wall of monitors in the front window. But those are conventional LCD panels, meaning each one has a thick rim holding lamps, electronics, and other components. All conventional video walls are marred by this network of bezels, which breaks up the image and creates what Corey calls “the jailbird look.”

Prysm displays at American Eagle OutfittersOne of the selling points of Prysm’s displays, by contrast, is that they have no bezels: the devices’ unique internal optics mean that the picture extends right to the edge of the glass. As a result, the individual 15-by-20-inch displays can be lined up in rows and columns to form a single image that’s as large as desired.

Member of the Xconomy community will get a special look at Prysm’s displays tonight at our Boston event 5×5: Five Cities, Five Big Tech Ideas. In a bonus presentation separate from the main talks, Corey will be on hand at Boston’s Fidelity Center for Applied Technology to explain how Prysm’s displays work and how the company’s technology promises to change the role of digital displays in retail stores, convention halls, airports and train stations, and many other environments.

I first wrote about Prysm in January, when the company unveiled its technology after five years in stealth mode. In June I got an extensive and illuminating tour of Prysm’s facility in Concord, MA, where the displays’ phosphor panels are manufactured. And now the startup has reached one of its first important milestones—putting actual units in the field. Installations like the one at American Eagle will give the company a chance to see how the displays perform technically and, just as important, whether they deliver on Prysm’s promise of increased impact for its customer’s visual branding and marketing messages. Prysm’s LPDs can be used to show any kind of information, but the company sees retail locations as one of its biggest initial markets.

To understand Prysm’s laser phosphor displays, think back to the old, nearly extinct technology of cathode ray tubes, once used inside all televisions and computer monitors. In these tubes, magnets guided electron beams, which swept rapidly across rows of red, green, and blue phosphors. LPDs work along roughly similar principles—there’s a panel on the tube’s business end finely lined with red, green, and blue phosphors. But in Prysm’s case, the video signal is carried to the phosphors by laser beams, which are generated by the same inexpensive blue lasers used in Blu-Ray disc players and aimed using a series of lenses and a spinning mirror.

I visited Prysm’s San Jose headquarters last week, and got to see how the company assembles the individual displays into huge, tiled video walls with nearly invisible seams between the tiles. Software divides up the images and sends a portion to each tile, while constantly rebalancing the brightness of each tile to match its neighbors.

Prysm’s walls are larger than the largest LCD screens, far brighter than projection screens, and far more detailed than LED displays of the type that adorn Times Square and Tokyo’s Ginza. They also require less electricity than these competing technologies, and don’t put out a lot of heat, meaning they don’t require special cooling or ventilation like most other large video installations. “It’s the ability to cross over the other technologies that makes [LPDs] really unique,” says Corey.

Prysm displays at American Eagle OutfittersWith its first-generation displays largely perfected, the company has spent the last year “setting the stage for distribution of the product around the world,” says Corey. That includes building a serious sales and customer-support operation. But Prysm isn’t selling its displays to everyone who knocks on the door. “We’re deploying carefully,” says Amit Jain, Prysm’s CEO. “You want to be sure of the performance and make sure if your name is out there, its in the best possible light. We’re picking and choosing engagements and verticals.”

So, do these big displays require big content? Not for now. A single LPD screen has an effective resolution of 320 x 240 pixels, so it would take 30 of them to match the resolution of a single 1920 x 1200 computer monitor. “You’re not talking about a resolution that you can’t capture,” says Corey. For the Soho video pillars, American Eagle is using video cribbed from its own website.

In the future, though, Prysm expects that customers will shoot and edit video with the potentially unusual sizes and shapes of the video walls in mind. “Customers look at it as a creative platform,” says Brodie Keast, Prysm’s chief marketing officer. “Their marketing teams will be inspired to deliver compelling content. But it’s a brand new thing, so it will take a little time.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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