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Digital signs: public displays of interaction

Digital signage is shifting the way many organisations interface with the world, and its success is driving innovation in areas like display and systems integration.

It's not just a pretty face. Digital signage (DS) has been at the forefront of a major overhaul in the way IT is used to convey information to the world – and has also spurred technological innovation and market-fed investment.

DS provides new ways for public-facing organisations to communicate and interface with a variety of target audiences, and has some similarities with the way the e-commerce started to usurp 'bricks-and-mortar' retailing methods in the early 2000s. Although mostly based on standard computing and display devices, the requirements of DS are causing some innovative R&D in both information and communications that could, in turn, influence developments in mainstream technology.This is shown by the fact that some of the biggest IT and communications providers have been scrambling to secure a position in a market that is now worth $455m annually. Projections by analyst Frost & Sullivan show it is set to grow to $560m by 2014 – yet major industry players like Intel, for instance, only started establishing a DS division as recently as 2009.

As an emerging market where many ground-rules have yet to be established, DS creates opportunities for new entrants with inventive ideas on how the technology can be used. Its growth in tough economic times has also provided a handy revenue stream for consumer technology players such as LG, Sony and Sharp, which are able to draw upon their existing product lines to build digital signage portfolios for business customers.

On top of this, DS is a global technological phenomenon – the information medium of choice for emerging economies where its growth rate is not conditional on the transition from legacy signage. A tour of any downtown district in the East Asian capitals shows DS looming larger than the neon and LED signage that is still common in urban centres in western countries.

In the UK, at least, this is changing – fast. LG's Digital Signage Survey, published in January 2011, reckons that in the UK alone the number of retail outlets using digital signage has nearly quadrupled since 2007, and continued growth is assured. The survey states that just over 46,000 stores are now employing some form of DS (compared to 12,500 in 2008), and its figures indicate that this will rise to 58,000 by the end of this year.

The survey sees trends in shopping centres as a key trend indicator, where DS-serving network installations have risen from 12 to 44 in the last four years, with a commensurate increase in the number of DS displays from 160 to 469. Given the nascent quality of the DS market, suppliers have yet to feel their sales margins squeezed by cut-throat competition borne of industry-wide standardisation.

Spotting the opportunities

As the market grows, vendors are starting to be a little more intelligent about identifying key opportunities. Intel, for instance, sees opportunities for signage to extend from Point of Transit (information outdoor advertising consumption) to Point of Sale (sales from products being advertised).

A third-dimension is the so-called 'Point of Wait' – these are marketing messages based on information consumption and would be found in healthcare, corporate and education contexts, explains Jose Avalos, Intel's director of retail and signage.

Point of Wait tests DS's technical attainments most, because consumers or information seekers will arguably scrutinise it more closely than if they are in motion. Intel also integrates Anonymous Video Analytics (AVA) in digital signage advertisements to gather information on viewers and correlate advertisements according to their demographics.

By equipping DS with a sensor, Audience Impression Metric software, and Intel core i5 and i7 processors, AVA can analyse millions of pixels per second, giving it the intelligence to anonymously gather data and adapt content to suit the audience.

Market definitions of what constitutes 'digital signage' are still somewhat woolly. Some definitions refer to a 'display screen'. A 'screen' can be defined as any surface used to display a sequence of still or moving electronically-generated images. This includes plasma screens, TFT screens, LCD screens, LED displays, and advanced projection systems, and even traditional CRT TVs although these are almost exclusively confined to legacy systems – flatscreen displays are a vital part of the DS's success. A 'screen' may also have added interactivity such as touch-sensitive or button-driven content.

According to Steve Rickless, CEO of IP media firm Tripleplay Services, DS's prime draw is that it meets multiple requirements in a single solution. 'Dedicated digital media players give clients much more control over what they want to show,' he says. 'There's a big advance on using DVD players to 'stream' content. They also mean that clients can be first to market with new product and services, and branding and product campaigns can be updated easily and quickly. At the same time state-of-the-art DS brings clients the power to place delivery points – i.e. the displays – pretty well anywhere they like in proximity to consumers.'

Display adaptation

Early attempts at PC-based DS came up against technical limitations at several points of the process. Up until about six years ago, the available displays, video servers, and control software had largely been adapted to the task, recalls Barry Husbands, managing director at industrial computer and single board computer maker Bluechip Technologies, which develops embedded systems to drive DS servers. Bluechip has been supplying dedicated video servers for DS applications since 2007. The company sees the sector as primary for its recently launched RE2 embedded computing platform; it partners with Davali Software for the system front end.

'In the last three years there's been a confluence of technological evolution on several fronts that's come together to push DS forward,' he says. 'Video processing has advanced, display technology has evolved, graphics controllers have evolved. Many inherent limitations of PC graphic output have been overcome; plasma display resolution and luminosity has improved.'

Had this not had happened, Husbands says, traditional DS would probably have remained in the doldrums: 'Customers' expectations were high, and they were often disappointed. They really wanted to display TV-quality live-action advertising across strategically-placed computer screens, and that proved not to be practicable. The technology wasn't there; you could not even feed through standard broadcast or cable TV signals with any degree of flexibility.'

Many content-management issues were addressed with the emergence of video servers designed solely for the task of feeding signage content to display, be it static, animated or full-motion video, using VGA, DVI, HDMI, or component video connections. In some ways these DS video servers can be seen as mini workstations, designed and built as applications-specific platforms.

In the early period of its development, DS integrators using standard PCs to serve content found its 'always-on' nature meant that hardware and software were being pushed in ways that had not been tested in conventional operation, says Tripleplay Services CEO Steve Rickless. 'PCs were not ordinarily being used solely for serving graphic content for extended periods of time, day after day,' he explains. 'Any hardware failures also exposed the problem of call-out engineer response times – the longer PCs took to be fixed or replaced, the longer the time digital signage was 'off air'.'

Rickless adds: 'Earlier generation PCs also posed environmental issues when installed in places like retail and entertainment premises when they were positioned where ventilation was not good.'

Although standard PC platforms are still used in some installations, alternatives to video servers are appearing from unusual quarters. Sony's Professional division contains the DS arm of the electronics products giant and, as well as supplying modified versions of Sony's Bravia display range for DS deployment, has also been investigating how its Playstation games console could be repurposed as a DS server engine.

'There are similarities in the direction that games technology is innovating, and directions in digital signage,' explains Martijn Bakker, Sony Professional's digital signage product manager. 'Playstations offer the raw power and graphical performance that future features like interaction will demand.'

For instance, Bakker foresees a generation of DS that will do more than just display content but that would 'react' to people as they approach it, and be able to respond to specific information requests. Bakker says: 'This creates ways in which organisations can interact with customers and potential customers, or present them with secondary information they are looking for.'

Public displays of warmth

Advances in display technology have been a driving factor in DS's fortunes, allowing point-of-delivery to be located in places that would have been impossible with previous generation CRT sets. Display heat generation is another issue that has to a great extent been remediated by developments in LED flat screen technology. Advanced LEDs do not necessarily get hotter the longer they are switched on and working. Standalone DS players are pushing down the heat generated by the backend hardware. Sony Professional's Bakker claims his company's latest generation of devices operates at a average of 8W, as opposed to 75-150W for an average PC, but this issue has also been one that display manufacturers have had to tackle.

As Bluechip Technologies' Husbands mentions, LED displays offer advantages over yesteryear's CRT displays in almost every way. They are, on the whole, not prone to screen burn caused by static images being displayed constantly over long periods, are flatted and easier to incorporate into retail interior and point-of-sale décor, generate less heat, and with modification are robust enough to be deployed in external environments where they will be subjected to weather and wildlife.

Another factor here is that displays are getting bigger. LG's Survey found that although most screens used in UK DS are sized at least 32in in size, increasing numbers of retailers (13.8 per cent) are installing 65in screens. LCD is the most common type, but use of LED screens is on the increase. (The use of audio in DS remains somewhat under-used with around 65 per cent of all UK DS screens operating mute.)

DS has, in addition, provided a boost for LED display vendors whose portfolio also includes video-wall display technology, such as Sony and Sharp. The press launch of designer Paul Smith's Spring and Summer 2011 collection used high-definition display on a video wall made up of nine 60in Sharp LFD (large format display) panels.

Signal improvements

As stated, the big attraction for clients of DS is that different content can be streamed to different displays at different times. Getting computers to handle this requirement is tricky – and expensive. Initially, early DS projects tried dedicated feeds from behind-the-scenes servers that might or might not be part of an organisation's enterprise IT estate. Over time, as with other applications, there have been moves to further migrate DS traffic across enterprise IP infrastructures, and have the DS content trafficked over the same network as enterprise applications. Predictably, perhaps, IT departments did not warm to the notion of having additional bandwidth-hungry traffic contesting the available capacity during working hours.

'There is still debate over whether the DS hardware and software should be counted as part of the IT estate,' says Bluechip Technologies' Husbands. 'It can throw up all kinds of complications and exceptions that IT managers don't like.' Husbands cites the example of security, where periodic anti-virus software checks can momentary cause interruptions to system performance that would interfere with DS delivery.

In installations where DS is used to show basic and mainly static information – such as airports or fast-food restaurants – this is less of a snag. What will happen when such places start to migrate existing third-party advertising to DS is speculative. In a shopping mall it could be like plugging in dozens of new PCs all displaying rich media, and all contesting the available bandwidth on the local network. This conflict will need to be resolved, because, if not well managed, the traffic overload could impact the payment and inventory systems that are using the same connections.

Wireless connection is not popular for indoors installations – Wi-Fi traffic still has to join the wired local traffic when it hits the router – but can provide workable alternatives for externally-based DS. If it is true that mobile phone networks are gearing towards machine-to-machine (M2M) communications implementations as a new expansion opportunity, one that will encompass DS. The concept is relatively immature for traditional mobile operators, so specialist service providers are emerging to bring the business opportunities into being. One such example is Stream Communications, a M2M mobile virtual network operator based in Glasgow.

'In some contexts DS displays need to be connected to the Internet via a fixed wire, meaning, because of health and safety issues, they cannot be used just anywhere,' explains Nigel Chadwick, managing director at Stream. 'If a retailer, say, has 100 outlets, it cannot have a portfolio of 20 screens that are constantly moved around from one outlet to another – well you can, but you would have to pay for 100 phone lines to do so.'

To date, the mobile networks and tariffs available have meant that M2M communications has not really taken-off in the way some market-watchers had predicted.

Chadwick says: 'By combining our own technology with the mobile networks, we are seeing broadband speeds for M2M communications that can match or better that of fixed telephone lines.' He says that mobile endows digital signage a flexibility that will 'free the screens' and enable DS to be placed strategically without being hobbled by fixed-line connectivity.

'Up until now digital signs have had to be placed somewhere there is a telephone line,' Chadwick adds. 'Mobile connectivity means chains of stores that have a limited number of digital screens can also rotate these around a range of retail outlets without having to plumb in a fixed telephone line each time.' *

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