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Display technology: coming to a screen near you

Digital signage and display screen technologies are getting closer together – and are now integral to helping us find our way in the world.

The amount of time we spend looking at displays has risen dramatically in the last decade: in addition to TVs and PC monitors in homes and offices, many people's gazes are fixed on smartphone and tablet PC screens when they are out and about.

Display-based digital signage has been gradually replacing traditional public space advertising and public information sources, transforming the physical retailing experience. Interactive in-store devices can combine enhanced reality and other interactive applications to encourage shoppers to buy.

Developments in display technology mean that even more of the information that we now use to navigate the world will come to our eyes via smart screen. Sometimes called 'digital-out-of-home' (DOOH), a catch-all that covers dedicated digital signage and other displays that more actively engage with the public, it is starting to both replace conventional methods of conveying information (such as billboards, video signs, flap displays and variable message signs), and represents a significant step-change in the way they add functionality by embracing innovations in interactive computing.

Prime advertising locations

Landmark locations, such as Piccadilly Circus in London, Times Square in New York, and Ginza in Tokyo, have been early adopters of successive generations of very large display. These locations have been among the first able to buy-in to such leading-edge technology because companies are willing to pay a premium to have their brands occupy sites that are the focus of so much attention.

While these forms of digital advertising are not ground-breaking, they are becoming innovated, smarter and in demand as consumers and businesses see the benefits in DOOH displays. DOOH generically refers to dynamic media distributed across location-based displays in venues including pubs and bars, caf's, education centres, health clubs, petrol stations, restaurants, stadia, and other high-footfall public spaces. Although not totally synonymous with standard digital signage, the two phenomena often overlap and connect.

Digital signage has evolved from simple static advertising that replaced printed predecessors to now providing a range of real-time information from different sources, social interaction, near-field communication (NFC) technology, and multi-dimensional and touch solutions, which are converging to form a new generation of smart digital displays. The opportunities these versatile and flexible display platforms provide have led to a broadening of the sectors embracing digital display as a communications medium. Retail, corporate and transportation sectors have shown the most conspicuous enthusiasm.

Market-value boom

This investment-led activity has resulted in solid market value growth. Research firm Global Industry Analysts 'Digital Signage Systems: A Global Strategic Business Report 2011' predicted the global digital signage market will be worth $13.8bn by 2017.

According to the report, researchers predict developing countries in Asia, Latin America, and Middle East will drive future gains in digital signage. In particular, the retail boom in China, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, India and UAE has provided strong business cases for these digital installations. In return, researchers forecast an economic growth, rising consumerism and standards of living, and an increase in disposable incomes in many of these countries.

In an increasingly-connected world, one of the emerging trends in display technology application is ensuring that screens do much more than just show eye-catching visuals. To enhance interactivity connectivity between the display, smart devices and people is a prerequisite. Interactive displays are no longer simple touchscreens enabling users to find information or access additional layers of content. Interactivity now often means no physical contact between user and screen, with retailers adopting automated responses via NFC to present purchasing options. Integrating social media into the displays is another way of engaging users.

It's common to see DOOH displays in airports, railway stations, museums and medical centres. Each sector has different ways of using them. The transportation sector, for instance, requires them for real-time arrival and departure information, while the retail sector uses them to enhance informed purchasing for the customer.

User expectation has been a driving factor in this respect. Travellers on public transport now want numerous displays - positioned almost anywhere - to provide more information about alterations, cancellations and delays, and they want to know about alternative travel options in the event of cancellations - information that non-digital displays can only provide to a limited extent.

Although many of its platform indicator boards may still use last-century technology, state-of-the-art display screens showing advertisements are appearing on London Underground's walls and other station locations. CSB Outdoor provides the HD LCD screens and digital escalator panels along with interactive technology with Wi-Fi and NFC, for example, embedded in them.

London Underground was something of a pioneer in this space: Tottenham Court Road tube station was the first to embed 66 electronically linked digital screens on either side of the escalators in 2005, enabling advertisers to create animated content which moves from screen to screen as commuters travel up and down the escalator. The technology installed to create the digital escalator panels is Esprit Digital's ImageFlow, which runs on Microsoft Windows XP or Linux operating systems, with 16W power usage per screen.

Power consumption is a key return-on-investment (ROI) factor in the roll-out of display technology, particularly at a time when energy bills are high. Esprit's Digital escalator panels can now be seen throughout the London Underground. In 2011, Esprit Digital, digital agency Wunderman, and advertising firm JCDecaux, transformed London's Euston Tube station into a 'virtual showroom' showcasing Land Rover's Range Rover Evoque. Commuters on the escalators saw the Evoques printed on vinyl on the walls, along with 13 digital panel screens that showed video of the vehicle driving up and down the escalators alongside the commuters.

Smarter places

Another area in transport common to using DOOH displays is airports, particularly for flight summary boards, terminal displays, advertising, retail signage and in the operation control centre. Airports are one of the earlier adopters of digital signage technology, simply because the huge volume of passengers travelling at the same time mean it is a convenient way to relay information and maximise spend.

NEC Display Solutions specialises in providing airports with an array of screens which are designed to enhance the passenger experience. Richard Wilks, aviation business development manager at the company, explains that there are two reasons why airports are implementing digital signage into its strategies; one is to ensure passengers move through terminals efficiently with large digital flight information displays, as planes leaving on time plays a part on the airports revenue; while the other is maximising passenger spending by installing digital screens in departure lounges and duty free areas.

He says: "The technology itself is a given these days, it is scalable, from small to large screens or whether installed indoors or outdoors; the technology is not a limiting factor. In fact, what dictates whether a digital signage screen works for the passenger is the innovative technology within the screen and the tailored content."

Typically, two systems are installed; one for the flight operational side and the second for advertising, and each will run through separate networks and suppliers. The operational side is slightly prioritised, as display screens running advertisements is not unusual. NEC Displays provides the screen with an embedded computer, transforming them into flight information display Systems, which are located above check-in desks, gates and departure lounges.

The flight information displays are designed with slot-in controllers, such as the Open Pluggable Specification, enabling the airports to take control over what they display, whether just flight information, adverting content or video (see Zurich airport case study).

Meanwhile, NEC Display Solutions has joined IT companies Microsoft and Intel'to develop the Open Pluggable Specification (OPS) standard, which aims to benefit digital signage system manufacturers and users by simplifying the device installation, usage, maintenance and future upgrades. The pluggable computing module, which can be embedded into digital display screens, features an 80-pin connector as made by Japanese firm JAE, and a docking board to pass signals from the pluggable board to the control board, which then drives the display.

The OPS is inserted inside the display meaning only one power cable and Ethernet cable are required, whereas prior to the OPS, one power cable and one Ethernet cable was needed just for the display, as well as another separate cable for the computer.

Furthermore, the programmable logic controllers had to be connected to the display with a video cable. The OPS uses less power and generates less heat. It also is compatible with operating systems Microsoft Windows 7 and 8, and with Linux. This is presently being deployed at Zurich and Olso airports; plus, Wilks says, Heathrow Airport, London, which has over 1,500 display screens. The installation of the OPS has reduced the airports' power consumption by 60 per cent, claims Wilkes, resulting in savings of more than £500,000 in electricity bills over a five-year period.

Information at your fingertips

Though digital signage screens are heavily relied on by passengers, Wilks points out that airports should consider how to integrate display screens with other information sources.

"Digital signage screens are only one information medium, passengers now have the tools to check-in online, receive flight information straight to their mobile phone, or use an airline app," adds Wilks. "The challenge faced by airports is how to ensure all methods feed the same information. Wi-Fi in the transport sector is not widely used due to the high level of cyber-hacking. There is also a lack of Wi-Fi in buildings and where there is, it is not always reliable, but this will slowly change."

Another trend is a shift towards much larger LED screens to reduce power consumption and, of course, interactive screens, which are not just touchscreen-enabled but are embedded with sensors, NFC and cameras.

One further area where digital signage is making a breakthrough is in museums and galleries where visitors now seek up-to-date information not only about where they are but also on what they are viewing. Design company ICO is working with the Science Museum, London, to design and develop a digital signage system to be displayed on large LED screens throughout the museum, along with 'Who am I?' and 'Atmosphere' interactive installations.

Digital signage company ONELAN has also installed 54 millennium Net-Top-Boxes and Century NTBs throughout the Science Museum. The LED screens generate non-interactive information such as museum activities and highlights from the museum's content management system.

Conventional street-facing shop window displays aim to entice shoppers into the store. Designing digitally-enhanced stores with interactive kiosks, e-commerce, m-commerce, NFC payments and augmented-reality-enabled 'magic' mirrors is a growing trend.

Samsung last year unveiled the 'Smart Window', which looks identical to a conventional transparent window but is equipped with a touchscreen and includes apps and social media platforms. The interactive window enables shoppers to browse through products, read customer 'reviews, and even purchase items. Omni-channelling is evolving to the point that stores are drawing inspiration from movies such as the futuristic 'Minority Report' (made in 2002), where integrated technology in retail and advertising displays delivered personalised messages to the individual based on a scan of their eye.

This type of technology is now emerging into the retail space. Already this year, digital signage company Amscreen (headed by Alan Sugar of Amstrad fame) has announced a partnership with supermarket chain giant Tesco and customer science company Dunnhumby to provide customer messaging and digital advertising opportunities across 450 Tesco UK petrol stations using facial recognition technology.

Tesco will be using Amscreen's audience measurement technology OptimEyes, a system that uses Quividi's face-tracking technology to determine basic demographics such as gender, age, date, time and volume, all of which can help deliver measurable campaigns for advertisers and relevant onscreen content for Tesco customers when at the checkout.

The OptimEyes face detection software uses a built-in camera in each screen which detects the individual and identifies key traits by scanning their face up to seven metres away from the screen. The software correlates the findings and creates a probability of whether the individual is male or female and in which age category.

Amscreen director Mike Hemmings explains how and what types of advertisements are shown on screen to suit'the customer: "The sex and age is measured by the face detection software OptimEyes, as well as location and time of day. In real terms, this means that we know that there are more men in terms of volume and profile of the audience that come through between 8-10am, therefore we play male-targeted adverts, such as car-related, certain-sized cans of energy drinks, or breakfast meals."

He adds: "Also, through EPOS data, we can monitor buying habits. For instance, if we know that more milk is bought between the hours of 7-9pm we can promote a brand of milk on the screens." The company claims a success rate of 86 per cent.

Is Big Brother watching you?

While this technology provides customer intelligence to serve advertising, it can also be seen as intrusive. Nick Pickles, director of civil liberties pressure group Big Brother Watch, argues that such systems can only be 'ethically deployed' if customers agree to opt-in to being tracked.

"If people were told that every time they walked into a supermarket, or a doctor's surgery or a law firm, that a CCTV camera in the corner is trying to find out who they are, it will have a huge impact on what buildings people go into," opines Pickles. "People would never accept the police keeping a real-time log of which shops we go in - but this technology can do just that. It is a surveillance state by the shop door."

But Amscreen's Hemmings maintains that this is not the case: "Britain is known as a CCTV nation, but we are not CCTV, we do not record, film, identify or anything similar to a cookie on a webpage, this is as non-personal as is gets with [this type of] technology," he says. "We look at general trends and demographics and take an estimation of what to play, therefore the advertisements are not tailored to suit each individual who pays at the check-out. Instead OptimEyes gathers an approximation of, say, how many men aged in their late twenties will visit the petrol station at a certain time."

The hospitality sector is another area Amscreen provides DOOH for, as digital menu boards and signs in restaurants, food outlets and pub chains can influence purchasing decisions. Amscreen offers wireless digital menu boards, which enable restaurants to deliver branding and communication information to be tailored to customers, again by using the embedded OptimEyes camera.

DOOH is clearly evolving into various industries and along the way is transforming from static adverts to multi-purpose information outlets along with embedded cameras, sensors near-field communications and showing high-definition video and imagery content.

While the retail sector is the most common industry for digital signage, other areas including transport, hospitality, outdoor spaces, and education are also benefitting from the technology, as well as those behind the scenes such as manufacturers and developers. The progressive challenge now for deployers of this technology is to ensure that the medium does not get in the way of the messages.

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