A team of researchers at Shizuoka University is hitching a ride on Japan’s bullet train technology, aiming to transmit targeted advertising at high speeds.

Using a groundbreaking technique called high-speed suggestive particle mapping (HS-SPAM), the system relies on embedded arrays of microscopic LEDs that flash subliminal messages. The initial tests, conducted in 2015, confirmed that images could be effectively transmitted and recognized by viewers.

Not long after they released their research, the team was approached by JR Tokai about deploying its HS-SPAM tech as an advertising medium for next-generation magnetic levitation trains.

“While branded ads were considered profitable for slow-moving trains, they realized that the approach wouldn’t be very effective with maglevs, which can travel as fast as 600 km per hour,” said professor Tetsuto Hayakawa, leader of the project team at Shizuoka University. “Beside, plastering such iconic trains with Hello Kitty and Super Mario would be a bit tacky, don’t you think?”

Hayakawa’s research team took up the challenge of implementing the trailblazing technology for JR Tokai, which operates shinkansen trains between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka.

“It occurred to JR that when these very rapid maglev trains go whooshing past, they invariably grab people’s attention, even if only for two or three seconds,” said Hideo Mabataki, a graduate student of ophthalmology and member of the research team.”We had a breakthrough when a team member noticed how warning lights on emergency vehicles boost their visibility by alternating direct and reflected light.

“We basically miniaturize the process with arrays of light-emitting diodes in the visible spectrum, which flash and reflect every one four-thousandth of a second. The viewer’s optic nerve receptors receive double the stimuli of a camera flash. If done right, it’s remarkably effective for up to 30 characters.”

A second breakthrough was the embedding of NoSenSui — low-energy LED arrays — into the train’s exterior by use of electrolytic paint, which turns the surface of the train into a “huge, powerful projector,” said chemist Senryo Nuritate, the paint’s inventor.

NoSenSui was coined by using “no” (the Japanese character for “brain”), “sen” (from the English “sensory”) and “sui” (which plays on the onomatopoeic sound denoting “something done easily”).

Nuritate believes the applications are limitless, though due to an ongoing patent dispute with a similar Taiwanese technique, Nuritate couldn’t cite specific examples.

Experts who asked to remain anonymous believe the Japanese government is keen on applying the technology as means of crowd control, consumption stimulus and even as a libido booster to combat the country’s declining birthrate.

Hayakawa’s team achieved its first successful test of HS-SPAM on April 21, 2015, when the L0 series maglev set a new world record of 603 kph.

“We asked a group of 18 test subjects to view the passing train,” he said. “Afterward the subjects were bussed to a nearby convenience store, which had a wide array of Kit Kats.”

All of the subjects made a beeline for the sports-drink-flavored Kit Kats, one of the company’s biggest flops.

“That was when we knew we had a winner,” Hayakawa said with a grin.

The possibilities of subliminal advertising were first tapped 60 years ago, when 42-year-old marketing researcher James Vicary claimed that concession-stand sales were boosted by the flashing of phrases “drink Coca-Cola” and “eat popcorn” on a theater screen for one two-thousandth of a second. Although the technology’s efficacy was never conclusively verified or debunked, the use of subliminal advertising in broadcast medium has generally been banned in most countries, including Japan.

Despite this, Hosei University law professor Takashi Suenaga doesn’t see any potential hurdles.

“The letter of the law clearly applies only to television and other broadcast media,” Suenaga said. “If the ads appear on the carriages of the trains, which are the railways’ own property, that makes them no different from any other type of advertisement.”

This is definitely good news for JR Tokai, which has been under strong pressure from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism to hold down ballooning construction costs on the new maglev line. The company clearly anticipates that revenue from transit advertising will help to mitigate the shortfall.

The current charge for a double-car ad on Tokyo’s Yamanote loop line runs as much as ¥28 million for four weeks. Compared with a single full-page ad in a nationally circulated newspaper, which may run from ¥2 million to ¥4 million, ads on trains are seen as highly cost effective.

“With HS-SPAM, ads on the same train can be pre-programed to appeal to different demographics along the route,” said Jimmy Yamazaki, an account executive at JEKI, an affiliate of the East Japan Railway group that specializes in transit ads.

“This, for instance, would give it the capability to advertise soba noodles while passing through Tokyo, kishimen in Nagoya and udon in Osaka,” he said, naming local noodle favorites in three major metropolitan areas. “What’s more, by the time of the Olympics in 2020 we’ll be able to transmit ads in virtually any language and do it on the fly. I wouldn’t be surprised if someday they will even be able to flash reduced prices instantaneously when items go on sale.

“This is going to dramatically change the landscape of advertising as we know it,” Yamazaki predicted.

For more information, see jtimes.jp/maglev/

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.