Commandeering Public Video Screens: Real Or Fake?

It’s time for everyone’s favorite comment thread game: Real or Fake? This week’s edition comes in from a tip that [Phil] sent about a way to take over video screens in Times Square. Watch the video after the break to see the hackers using a two-part solution to rebroadcast video from an iPhone onto a screen in the busy urban setting. The first part is a transmitter that plugs into the iPhone, the second is a signal repeater that, when held close to a video screen, overrides the clip currently being displayed with the video from the handheld. The image above shows the repeater being floated up to the big screen using a giant red balloon which you can make out in the black bar to the left of the replayed video.

Our first thought is that someone just watched Tron: Legacy and wanted to have a little Sci-Fi fun with the Internets. We can’t imagine a hardware solution that would actually make this work, but please do share your thoughts about that in the comments. We’d suspect this is more of a video hack that uses After Effects, similar to how the stopped motion candle video of the eyelid shutter glasses videos were faked. But apparently there is a follow-up video on the way that will show how the prototype was made so we could be wrong.

update: [Phil Burgess] points out that the “repeater” looks awfully familiar.

Fake for a variety of already-stated reasons (e.g. video out the headphone jack?). But the smoking gun, watching the 720P video on YouTube, is that I plainly recognize the hardware they’re using as the “repeater”: it’s simply the internals from a Digipower JS1-V3 cell phone USB boost charger (having torn apart a few myself):


66 thoughts on “Commandeering Public Video Screens: Real Or Fake?

  1. Fake. Nicely done, but no way all those different makes of screen would use the same video format, or for that matter be receiving video from outside sources. Advertisers wouldn’t want to risk interference damaging the visual appeal. The videos are loaded on to local data storage.

  2. I’d like to believe that no advertiser would be caught dead driving a screen live over an unencrypted/unprotected wireless network with no buffer that can easily be overpowered by a µC, but theoretically…

  3. Didn’t Engadget have a thing where they went in and checked out the backend of some of those huge displays? The resolution is unreal, there’s no way they’d be sending it over a wireless signal.

  4. IMO, faked. The video should be able to either hold it’s aspect ratio, or it would rely on what the screen already is set at. Also, why would the quad-screen set up not show the same video on each screen?

  5. FAKE, FAKE, FAKE, Did i mention FAKE ? – IF it even was possible to inject a signal from a transmitter into the display electronics it would only be noise in the picture, or even shutting down the computer controlling the display (the software locks) so no way of this happening, ever.

  6. I would wager it’s fake, since only induction would work with ‘holding something near the tv’.

    Since TV signals don’t work by induction in that way, especially the giant hard-wired Times Square screens, the best you could do is a TEMPEST attack and READ by induction the signal from the screen.

  7. I think what they are doing physically happened because the lighting on the balloon and on the presenters jacket match what is happening on the screens. From a CG standpoint this would be pretty expensive and time consuming to fake (but not impossible). Though the transmitter on the balloon is questionable to me.

  8. Looking at all the comments, the prevalent (though welcome) geek mindset has blinded you all to the obvious.

    Reason it’s fake A: the supersynaptic hypoplexy could not decombobulate the flux capacitors.

    Reason it’s fake B: Tie a penny to a balloon, see if it lifts. Not really? Tie two… yeah. Balloon isn’t going to lift the coin cell let alone the components.

  9. its fake but i think it could be done. i dont think it would look like that though, firstly you would have to know how the video signal was being sent. if it was at a different speed one might get image tearing. and of course heavy noise too.

  10. Am I the only one that noticed that the picture on the phone, and the picture on the display are not the same? IE, the picture on the display shows more at the top and bottom than the picture on the phone.

  11. One tough thing about their video editing… I’m wondering how they blended the baloon with the large billboard… unless it’s just a 3d sphere in the video effects. That’s most likely it. Also notice the nice little glow on the sphere.

    Nicely done, I don’t believe it though. Would be nice to try it.

  12. A few years ago they were holding some anti-smoking thing in Times Sq. Basically, they would stop smokers in the street, get them to pledge to quitting smoking on camera and broadcast it on one of the bigger screens. The point of the story is, it is 100% possible to broadcast a wireless signal to at least one of those screens.

  13. Isn’t the way they output data with the audio cord to change it into sound pulses? There is no way that you could get the bit-rate to output video. And seeing that the bottom connector has video out why didn’t they just use that?

  14. I’m not an engineer or computer scientist by any means, but that ‘transmitter’ looks like what a three year old would put together if I asked him to make me a wireless video transmitter.
    It’s a generic piece of a motherboard with fancy bits glued on it. Why the need for the little red light? Why keep it uncased and prone to elements/dust/unexpected hits? What’s the power source?

    Started watching it as entertainment after the first 20 seconds. Nice idea, less-than-perfect fake.

  15. Those screens use a separate processor loaded with a map of how the screen is daisy chain wired for signal. You have to get a video signal hard wired into the processor, and it is usually HD-SDI. If you were to hack into the device feeding the HD-SDI signal, then you could change the content, but it is pretty dependant on physical access.

  16. first thing i noticed was that when he holds the camera up to take the initial video of him standing there on the street, he is already in frame on the phone before the it’s even pointing at him

  17. Small point that everyone seams to have missed, none of the public react to seeing the video suddenly flicker and change to a video of the guy stood in front of it. Also the balloon seams to go to and stay in a very convenient place…

  18. this reply isn’t about real/fake, but answering some other comments about the screens and iphone video.

    iphone/ipods current generations can output video through the headphone jack on a 4th contact(MS zune can do it too).

    the quad-screen one is connected to a controller computer that already knows which screen is 1 2 3 and 4 and outputs a larger image as though they are all one. if it were to display a tiny picture it would either center it or fullscreen it, whatever the controller is set to do.

  19. Fake for a variety of already-stated reasons (e.g. video out the headphone jack?). But the smoking gun, watching the 720P video on YouTube, is that I plainly recognize the hardware they’re using as the “repeater”: it’s simply the internals from a Digipower JS1-V3 cell phone USB boost charger (having torn apart a few myself):

  20. I think it’s real
    Tony Stark did it to the government! The fucking GOVERNMENT MAN!

    Plus I have seen this done with an old CRT NTSC TV picking up NTSC noise coming from a DS and showing it in fuzzy black and white.

  21. Back in the days of analog tv this might have worked (it’s famously how the max headroom prank was pulled off). But, I very much doubt that you can jam the times square displays because it would make no sense to let them be wireless in the first place.

  22. Fake, no doubt.

    HOWEVER, it would be possible to output a video signal from the headphone jack. The headphone jack outputs a continually varying DC signal produced by a Digital-to-Analog-Converter (DAC). On an iPhone, you could encode your video signal by packing it into audio data which is played out of the headphone jack. The plugged-in device could then decode the audio signal back into a video signal (if it weren’t a cell phone charger, that is).

    Doing this would, of course, be one of the stupidest things you could ever waste your time on, because it would support a very low image resolution and be incredibly error-prone, thanks to the digital-to-analog-to-digital conversion process. But it’s technically possible.

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