Lightship blimp brings full-motion, full-color LED screen to the skies

The NAB Convention has long been home to some fascinating technology developments but this year attendees will have to head out to North Las Vegas Airport or look up in the sky to see one of the more eye-popping products in years.

Lightships, an Orlando, FL-based blimp company will introduce the A170 “Video Lightsign” Airship. The 175-foot long blimp is the first in the world to feature a full-motion, full-color LED screen that has 33,000 pixels (each three inches apart) and measures 30×70 feet.

“Something like this has been a quest for our company,” says Mickey Wittman, Lightships director of client services. “Goodyear has had the only video sign in the industry and we wanted to give a real update to that sign.”

Three years ago Lightships began working with Tampa, FL-based HiTech to build the screen. During that time technology has continued to advance, making it possible to display full motion video and graphics on a massive scale. “LED technology has gotten better each year,” says Wittman. “And the materials have gotten lighter which is important for a blimp.”

The screen is mounted on a number of boards, making it possible to curve the screen around the blimp’s side and also easily fix any problems without having to replace the whole screen. The blimp is lit internally, providing illumination for the screen, and video and graphics are played to the screen via a Windows-based PC. “Any kind of animation or video that is Windows compatible can be displayed,” says Wittman.

Wittman says visibility depends on weather conditions and that under ideal circumstances images are visible from up to two miles away. The blimp is also “language agile.” A GPS device in the blimp lets the operator know what neighborhood the blimp is flying over so that as it passes from flying over Chinatown to Little Italy the language can change.

Wittman says the potential uses for the blimp are almost limitless. In one recent test a DVD of “Shrek” was played over the screen, giving new meaning to the drive-in movie. And with a TV receiver built into the PC it’s possible to pull in live TV signals and display them over the blimp.

“We can also do text messaging where someone can send a message to the blimp and then the blimp can display a message back,” says Wittman.

Lightships is the only company in the world that makes its own blimps (they’re manufactured in Oregon). Wittman expects 8 or 9 blimps similar to the A-170 to hit the skies in the next two or three years and Lightships is already working on a next-generation model.

“This one can only display images in black and red during the day and then full color at night,” he says. “But the next one will be full color all day long.”

Wittman says he’ll be talking to potential sponsors during the NAB convention and expects to have at least two or three clients on board by the end of the show. “Out-of-home advertising continues to become more important and complex,” he says.