Intelligent marketers and business operators who place value on modernization see improved brand awareness, thanks in part to today’s digital signage technology. Upgrades in image and technology are helping companies visually distinguish their products and services among consumers.
FULL SPEED AHEAD
Digital signage is a fast-growing industry within the AV space, constantly adapting to changes in consumer needs and technology. According to Malik Khan, senior vice president of integration and product development at ANC (Purchase, NY), some of the biggest trends found within the industry are displays customized to fit in seamlessly within a variety of environments, such as thin cabinet models, flexible technology, high-resolution transparent screens and other custom applications. “Interactive and touchscreen displays are also continuing to spread through-out the marketplace, increasing the opportunity for interactive and immersive content,” Khan said.
Within today’s digital signage arena, more end users also are asking for cloud-based content programming and scheduling. According to Ted Neelands, national sales executive at Burton Signworks Inc. (Mount Airy, NC), the communication is changing as well. “From fiber optic to cell communications and some direct internet connection – LED displays are easier to program and service,” Neelands said. “Many manufacturers can go in remotely and diagnose the problem before you go to the site.”
LED monitors also continue to drop in price and increase in quality every year. With LED technology, there is no need to replace a screen in a matter of months because of burned-in images. “What’s more, screens with 4K resolution are dominating the consumer monitor space, but commercial monitors have still not made the full switch to 4K resolution across the board,” said Eric Olson, technical sales engineer at Spectrio (Oldsmar, FL). Today, the issue of resolution is still a function of the content that all digital sign deployments rely on to be successful.
And digital signage media players themselves have become smaller, more powerful and more affordable. As Olson explained, with Android and Raspberry Pi players becoming prevalent in the field, more digital signage software is being created to be able to use these platforms. “There will always be a place for higher-powered systems to push high resolution motion graphics and video, but those devices are also becoming smaller in footprint so they can be easily deployed in more locations as needed,” Olson said.
Andy Gaillard, senior account manager of digital media at Miller Zell (Atlanta), said that the signage industry is going larger and larger with displays, putting a lot of focus on LED “walls” at outlets such as tradeshows. “But LED walls can cost in excess of $100,000,” Gaillard said. “This high cost remains a primary barrier to entry for traditional businesses. However, digital signage allows for quick customer engagement with the most meaningful content.”
INFILTRATION OF SOC TECH
System-on-chip (SoC) technology has recently helped take digital signage systems to the next level. At its core, SoC technology combines the required electronic circuits of various computer components onto a single, integrated chip. Along with an application processor, a SoC typically contains memory, power management circuits and a range of peripherals.
As Neelands explained, in the old days, a separate computer ran the content to the display. Then the LED message centers got smarter with a board mounted in the master unit that would hold the content scheduled to run independently of any computer or player external of the LED message center. “Now the player is embedded in the master LED unit and plays the content as scheduled and plays it to the master screen and slave screen,” Neelands said. “Cloud-based content programming and scheduling are easier and remote diagnosis of a system’s problem is easier as well. The challenge for sign companies is that the sign service technician is not necessarily a LED message center tech.”
Olson said that advancements in SoC monitors and lower-cost digital signage media players have given rise to the self-service digital signage model. “Many manufacturers now have intuitive software to assist in creating digital signage programs that are simple to deploy on a single screen or a small local network of screens,” he said. “Users who may have been previously deterred by the cost of a managed service or complicated platform are now able to enter the digital signage space with a smaller up-front investment.”
That said, Olson stressed that there are both upsides and downsides to the increasing SoC technology. As he explained, since the media player hardware is contained within the monitor itself, the installations are less complex and generally cheaper.
And there are fewer points of potential hardware failure with the removal of cabling or signal-transmission hardware.
“Some of these upsides also play into the downsides of these devices,” Olson said. “Since the units are all-in-one, if there are hardware issues with the display or SoC hardware, the entire monitor may need to be swapped out in some situations.” This issue is particularly important to network operators, where being able to get a new monitor to a location may be difficult within designated service level agreement (SLA) timeframes.
Khan agreed that while there are benefits to SoC, such as being able to reduce the cost of the deployment, the challenges many sign companies will face is educating their clients regarding the differences between SoC and a true operating system. “While the upfront costs may be intriguing based on what is being deployed, there are content limitations with the technology,” he said. “One display that is running a simple loop of content will benefit from SoC, but multiple displays or a display, [the] intended use [of which] is to engage an audience with frequent changes, may be better served with a traditional control system.”
TRENDS TO WATCH
In today’s retail environment, we are seeing more companies use high-quality digital signage or message centers to enhance their presence. Companies focused on improving profitability, maximizing margin capture, managing price control and monitoring employee efficiency are prime candidates for digital signage systems.
According to Neelands, in QSR retail, the biggest industry trend includes incorporating digital drive-thru signage and RGB LED message centers – both of which are replacing the old changeable copy boards. “QSR on the interior is largely about digital menu boards and digital display advertising managed in the cloud,” Neelands said. “In theme parks the digital signage is going to a lot of freestanding LCD LED kiosks for advertising and wayfinding.”
Window LED displays also are popular at ticket booths and parking toll booths as are automated LED display parking directional signs. In newer shopping center developments, the directories and some wayfinding are “going digital” with displays that can handle the outside temperature extremes.
In addition, there are a myriad of advancements within the digital signage technology industry that sign manufacturers need to pay attention to. These include higher resolution LCD screens and LED message centers that have iPad control and programming, emergency alert systems tied directly to IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System) managed by FEMA, and live RSS feeds for news and weather.
For instance, Watchfire Signs continues to see a tighter pixel pitch on LED signs both indoor and outdoor. The adoption in the indoor market has been faster because of the need for closer viewing distance. A good indicator of this trend is that Watchfire is seeing more traditional LCD video walls being replaced by LED signs with tighter pixels. Facilities are starting to understand that LED signs deliver a high-quality image resolution and can be purchased and operated for much less than TV screens.
There is also a trend in advancements in display media used for digital signage and packaging options used for LEDs. Watchfire is beginning to see the adoption of reflective technology in special niche markets. This is the same technology used by e-readers like Kindles, and delivers high-contrast images even in bright sunlight.
Industry players are also seeing continued advancement in content management software capabilities. Using big data analytics, a manufacturer like Watchfire provides content management software that can now determine the demographics of viewers based on where the sign is located and other factors, which allows targeted content to be displayed in real-time. “Interactive content experiences are also becoming more commonplace,” Olson said. “Not only are wayfinding and interactive kiosks becoming more prevalent, but also, digital screens can now provide content that changes based on the environment and activity.”
And in addition to customizable displays, the ANC team continues to see huge advancements with augmented reality (AR), as well as interactive and responsive content. “Data feeds and sensors are being integrated to help dictate content played, working to tap into the needs of the consumer at any given moment,” Khan said. “Scheduling programs have also begun to use analytical data to dictate these content choices, helping to create a more automated response system.”
So what’s in store for the future of digital signage that sign companies need to pay attention to? “Display technology encompasses most of the newest advancements in digital signage technology, including 4K resolution screens, video wall monitors that have little to no visible bezel, and flexible screens that can be molded around curved surfaces,” Olson said. “As has always been the case with the newest technology, the cutting edge will dig deep into pockets.”
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