Mariah Gresham-Conant strode down the stairs into the Harvard Square MBTA station Thursday and entered a brave new world.
Bright, bold, crisp video images flashed on a 70-inch-tall screen in the center of the atrium.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” said the 25-year-old, as she waited for a Red Line train. “The future is now!’”
Digital advertising signs, promised by the MBTA last year as a way to raise revenue, made their debut Thursday afternoon, gracing the station’s atrium, as well as staring out at waiting commuters from across the inbound tracks.
The signs, which will appear at three other stations by March, elicited a few oohs and aahs from riders, who do not often see major cosmetic additions to the Cambridge station.
For T officials, the goal is financial: The high-tech screens could bring in millions of dollars that would be used to fund operations of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
The screens were free to the T, installed through a partnership with the digital advertising company Titan Outdoor LLC, which takes a 37.5 percent cut of advertising revenue.
“We are thrilled to be bringing information to our customers and revenue to our system in such an innovative way,” said MBTA general manager Beverly A. Scott.
“The installation of these screens not only makes our busiest stations more visually appealing, but also provides a new source of advertising revenue and offers customer information to riders.”
After Harvard, the digital screens will be rolled out at Park Street Station, North Station, and South Station by March. Depending on advertising demand, the screens could appear in other locations.
Other transportation authorities have been pursuing digital advertising for years. The Chicago Transit Authority, which also contracts with Titan, has one of the most extensive digital advertising networks in the country, with 132 displays in 29 stations and 12-foot digital ads mounted on the sides of 25 buses. Last month, it extended its agreement with Titan for five more years.
At the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, Philadelphia’s network, feedback on 16 digital signs has been only positive, said Dennis Hiller, chief officer of revenue, ridership, advertising, and sales.
“It does generate revenue dollars,” Hiller said, “and believe me when I say that’s our big concern.”
The screens in Harvard Square present weather reports, news alerts, T service announcements, and advertisements for local and national brands. In the atrium, a Nike ad showed a man clad in athletic gear, flanked by vivid, roiling flames.
Slightly smaller screens face riders waiting on the inbound platform. The ads are silent, good news for the folk singer crooning along with his acoustic guitar on the platform benches.
On Thursday afternoon, most commuters gazed zombie-like at the advertisements, less with glee than with wry interest.
“They’re better than the ads that get really grubby,” said Andrea LeBlanc, 29, of Beverly. “These look nice and new.”
John Slyconish, 35, of Cambridge had noticed the blank screens for days and wondered about their purpose. He chalked them up as slight improvement on printed ads.
“I guess it’s a little better,” he said. “But not a lot better.”
Jaime Vasquez, 43, watched a screen as he sipped coffee. Sure, he said, the screens look good. But he didn’t care, unless they help fund maintenance improvements.
“I’d rather have better T service than anything,” Vasquez said. “I’m an everyday T user, and every day is awful.”
Carl Nicolas, a fortysomething who was sporting a flat cap, shook his head. Advertising, he said, is already taking over the world. Now the T station, too? “It’s more noise for us,” he said. “It’s not like it’s giving us useful information.”
But Al Totten, 74, of Norwood approved.
“I kind of like them,” he said as he waited for a train. “They look kind of interesting.”
And they weren’t too bright? Too distracting? Too garish?
He cast a sideways glance at a woman engrossed in her iPhone. “A lot of people are on those things there,” he said. “At least this screen keeps your mind here.”