This spring, Las Vegas, the American city most associated with celebration is celebrating its 100th Anniversary. Hard to believe that this monument to excess sprung out of a barren desert one century ago-especially when one considers the presence of those fantastic ancient Roman ruins at Caesar's Palace.
That is a perfect example of the contradiction that defines this neon oasis. The notions behind Las Vegas' role in our culture have their roots in ancient civilization, but the means by which the city sells itself are purely modern. Until recently, the sensory overload presented by the experience of walking the Strip was unique to this city. But lights, sound and video have proven so successful as marketing tools that we now have a "Fremont Street Experience" every time we go to the mall. Even cinema multiplexes have abandoned the old model of narrow hallways leading to cramped theaters and taken on the guise of "destinations" in order to retain customers, building indoor "downtown" areas complete with restaurants, arcades and park benches that encourage loitering.
Recognizing Las Vegas' centenary provides an opportunity to acknowledge its development in tandem with technology. This city didn't emerge in its present-day form like so many 'planned communities' of today. Las Vegas actually evolved into what it is now, which by Darwinian standard means its many bizarre features have made it fit for survival.
The academic analysis of Las Vegas' visual attributes began more than 30 years ago, when Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and the late Steven Izenour wrote Learning from Las Vegas. With this book, Venturi established his "father of post-modernism" status by praising the city's "ugly and ordinary" architecture as more in tune with people's needs. Specifically, he cited the bright, big and bold signs so common both indoors and out as the future of communication.
Think back to the Strip's humble origins as a few glowing signs promising an escape from everyday reality, and then leap to the Las Vegas of the 1970s, where neon animated not only casino names but also the facades of buildings, which became moving beacons beckoning passersby to "stop here, choose this one." This was a new kind of marketing. The destination itself was the biggest advertisement, drawing patrons like moths who cannot resist the lights' power.
Next came the Las Vegas of the 1990s, where themed entertainment became the name of the game. Attractions again combined signage with architecture that defied function, which together took on an even more spectacular form. And this time, audio and video were beginning to have an influence. The Strip became an aural experience as well as a visual one. Visitors heard a staged battle taking place on a pirate ship a long Las Vegas block away. They heard show tunes that accompanied choreographed fountain "dances."
This was a major leap in the evolution of Las Vegas. These were not carnival barkers with megaphones, these were sophisticated branding schemes that presented the image of a casino out onto the street.
Now, as we travel to Las Vegas for InfoComm June 8-10, digital signage is the new name of the game. While the display, delivery and content technologies behind digital signage are an important part of what we'll be looking for on the show floor, it's what we'll see outside on the Strip that will provide a real-life example of the trend away from static signage.