Digital print ads get cheaper and easier (very slowly)

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To highlight new ambient lighting in its forthcoming 2017 models, Lexus once asked for print ads that would evoke the feature by lighting up themselves.

"Of course, they came to us wanting a million units two months from the day that print would ship, and that wasn't possible because there's a lot of integration issues with design," says Michael Helander, president and CEO at OTI Lumionics, the Toronto-based OLED tech company that Lexus asked to execute the stunt.

Fast-forward to today, and Helander says he could have met the deadline.

The company's new Aerelight for Print technology now enables light-up elements in print media using paper-thin flexible OLED panels. OLED displays are rich in color and can be found in smartphones like the iPhone X or LG's flagship TV set (which is insanely thin). OTI Lumionics says it just worked them into the cover of Frontier magazine, an annual publication from a design agency with the same name.

Blinking into existence

Although digital print ads aren't new, there haven't been too many, either. In 2008, Esquire printed 100,000 copies, a fraction of its overall print run, that flashed "The 21st Century Begins Now" in three parts on the cover. The project took some 16 months to complete—and hardly felt like the future had arrived.

"The Herculean effort and unmentionable expense has resulted in a cover that seems to be more flash than substance," Ad Age's Ann Marie Kerwin wrote then. "While it's an interesting use of the technology, it's obvious that digital covers are still in their early days."

Publishing took another crack in 2013, when Motorola ran ads in 150,000 copies of Wired that let readers change the color of the company's new Moto X phone. The ad itself felt like a thick piece of plastic when compared to regular pages.

Both those projects used bulky technology "that took away any magic," says Helander, who wasn't involved in either. Other hurdles included getting a printing facility to spit out digital print ads fast enough for deadline without breaking them. The end result also had to survive shipping.

The Motorola and Esquire efforts likely cost about $70 per issue, he estimates.

A new 'Frontier'

Now Frontier magazine has printed 2,000 issues with Aerelight for Print technology. Its cover, which is about as thick as regular cardstock, includes an embedded, flexible OLED panel that lights up when people press the right spot. The tech cost about $10 per cover, Helander says.

"For this particular issue, we wanted to show people a different side of print," says Paul Kawai, design director at Frontier. "It's invisible as a print product, but it's also a lovely surprise. Now we're asking how can we use this tech for clients? For beyond magazines?"

In magazines themselves, however, digital print won't be common any time soon.

"Full disclosure: We aren't turning a profit on our annual publication," Kawai adds. "At the end of the day this serves as an idea about content. We are thinking beyond the notion that OLED belongs in just phones or TVs."

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