Retailers, restaurants, transport hubs, sports stadia, hotels, visitor attractions, corporate companies and others are investing in the latest digital signage technology and its content. But what exactly are digital displays? asks Paul Bray.

What difference does a dynamic, electronic poster make compared with conventional marketing media? About 30 per cent in sales, according to upmarket tailor Hardy Amies. On Black Friday 2016 the retailer used a 70″ digital display in the window of its Savile Row store to run a promotion on outerwear.

“The campaign run on the screen resulted in a direct increase in outerwear sales of 30 per cent compared with a similar promotion a few weeks before where the screen wasn’t used,” says Kashmir Cooper, EMEA channel director at Elo, which supplied the screen.

No wonder retailers, restaurants, transport hubs, sports stadia, hotels, visitor attractions, corporate companies and a host of other organisations are falling over themselves to install the latest in digital signage technology. But what exactly is digital signage?


According to Lucy Meredith, product marketing specialist at Panasonic, it’s essentially a modern day poster or billboard. “It allows content to be displayed in a dynamic way on screens which are connected to a centralised content delivery system, and enables content to be easily and regularly changed to suit a variety of targets and applications.”

As the market matures, joined-up thinking is becoming vital. “It’s very much about a solution now, not just a display and other components, and vendors are positioning themselves as solution providers who can incorporate all the elements into a streamlined ecosystem,” says Graham Cooke, market analyst for professional displays at Futuresource Consulting.


Three main components

Digital signage solutions essentially divide into three main components, says Jason Shave, business development manager at integrator CDEC. “The content management system (CMS) is the main brain, responsible for the aggregation of schedules, visuals, data, triggers and connection to other third-party platforms or devices such as RFID readers, demographic analysis devices and SQL databases.

“The second component is a media playback device. Typically this pulls content from the CMS over a network connection and stores it locally. At a specified time the content is then pushed to the right screen location(s) and played until the expiry time. The CMS schedules content to media playback devices based on the business rules you define.

“The third main component is the screen, which can be any size from a smartphone to a large LED billboard, including interactive touch displays. The more interesting your screen design the more impact it will have.”

Mark Stanborough, sales manager at Cabletime, advocates a CMS solution that provides a single point of management for media networks with the ability to scale globally. “Functions such as capture, manage, store and dynamic display should come as standard, but it also needs to support pinpoint targeting of information on the basis of location, time and ensuring the right content hits the right audience. Given that digital signage is moving apace, the more creativity that comes with the CMS the better, such as the ability to add icons, branding and tickers.”

“It’s always difficult to plan ahead, so try to choose an established, feature-rich CMS that allows for data integration, has a good roadmap and supports different end devices,” advises Shave. “A good CMS will also have built-in tools for monitoring players and content playback. Alternatively this could be covered by a managed service contract and the whole network could be run for you by a third party.”

Media playback devices typically range from dedicated signage players supporting large, complex installations to simple, system-on-chip (SoC) solutions built into the display. PCs are also sometimes used.

“It’s important to seek out media players that are specifically designed to drive digital signage,” says Jeff Hastings, ceo of BrightSign. “Look for players that don’t contain moving parts, consume the least amount of energy, are small enough to fit the available space, and run a dedicated operating system made for secure, commercial-grade operation.”

“In the main, media players that use solid state drives have no moving parts and are more reliable than disk-based players,” says Shave. “Also consider how much content the player needs to store at a time. If sending large, 4K video files some SoC devices may struggle to hold all your content.”

Smart displays with built-in SoC players have changed the signage market, says Cooke. “This has been driven by Samsung and LG in particular, while other vendors such as Philips and Panasonic have opened the market further by launching Android based solutions, and NEC’s modular approach has created another smart option.

“Our data shows that up to 20 per cent of displays include SoC technology, which is ideal for simple or small installations where basic signage is required. However, our feedback from integrators is that as few as 10 per cent of SoC displays actually use the feature set, with integrators still preferring to sell a dedicated media player. The limited functionality isn’t good enough in many cases.”



Cyber attack prevention

One concern is security. “Security is absolutely critical because digital signage is ripe for cyber attack,” says Stanborough. “The increase in cyber attacks on businesses has had a big impact on the levels of security customers are seeking. An example is a rise in requirements for external media players that offer greater control over valuable content than built-in solutions.”

Large format displays (LFDs) are the bread and butter of digital signage, says Tom Lewis, project manager at integrator Anna Valley. “They’re the most cost-effective solution for a minimum of full HD quality, but they provide limited scalability. The screens max out at around 95in and even ultra-narrow bezels interrupt your image when you put multiple displays together to create a video wall.”

Although large screen sizes are becoming more popular as prices fall, 40-59in still accounts for more than half of sales, according to Futuresource – partly because many applications, such as retail and transport, lack the physical space for larger screens.

“A smaller screen can be more inviting when a customer needs to physically engage with the content,” adds Cooper. “And for transactions such as capturing customer details or completing payments an even smaller size can give confidence that the process is more secure.”

Many floor-level displays are moving to an interactive format, enabling businesses to offer a tailored or personalised experience for users, says Mark Childerhouse, senior account manager at Pioneer.

When it comes to resolution, 1080p Full HD remains dominant, says Cooke. 4K displays only accounted for four per cent of sales by the end of 2016, and many buyers feel there’s no compelling case to trade up yet. “The cost (not just the screen but associated costs of content, signal distribution and storage) is still prohibitively high,” he says.

However, by 2021 Futuresource expects 4K to account for almost two-thirds of sales, and some experts already recommend it as standard. “It makes total sense because even if you don’t need it immediately you undoubtedly will soon,” says Hastings. “We recommend customers invest in an HDMI 2.0 standard 4K screen that provides smooth playback quality of 60 frames-per-second (4Kp60) and HDR colour space.”

Niche display technologies such as mirrored displays with inbuilt augmented reality or the new OLED transparent displays are worth considering as ways of differentiating your signage from the shop or business next door, adds Cooke.

For large display areas projectors are a cost-effective solution, says Botao Lin, director for collaboration products at Vivitek. Traditionally their colour reproduction wasn’t as good as LCD panels or LED, but with laser technology projectors achieve excellent colour reproduction and a lifespan of 20,000 hours.

“There’s definitely been an upswing in projection due to the maturing of laser products, which mean less maintenance, less noise, and consistent projection quality,” agrees Lewis. “The downside of projection is brightness, as you need a controlled environment with minimal natural light for the best image quality.”

Solid state projectors are enabling complex elements such as warping, projection mapping and blending to be used in signage, adds Cooke. “These can be used on unorthodox, non-flat surfaces such as mannequins. It’s no longer just a high end application, as projection mapping solutions are becoming a lot cheaper and more accessible.”

For video walls Shave suggests buyers consider LED technology. “With modular LED tiles you can create a screen of any size that’s colour balanced and has no visible bezel lines.”

“LED provides unlimited scalability and excellent image quality at a premium price, and is probably the biggest grower in digital signage technology,” says Lewis. “As finer pixel pitch screens become available, costs for coarser pixel pitch screens are dropping, making them accessible to a bigger market.”

“Advances in LED and OLED screen technology have stimulated far more interesting curved display surfaces that literally wrap around physical objects, helping with immersion and wow factor,” adds Samuel Recine, director of sales, Americas and Asia Pacific, at Matrox Graphics.

LED also tends to dominate sales of outdoor display walls because its high brightness can compete with strong sunlight, says Lin.

Almost all digital signage platforms use some form of internet connectivity to acquire at least some of their content, says Graham Stewart, head of digital and emerging technologies at 20/20 Productions. “A reliable Wi-Fi/internet connection is therefore vital. It’s really important to understand how Wi-Fi access points work, because realistically you want different Wi-Fi access for your digital signage from what the audience is using.”




Content quality is key

While having the right hardware is important, another piece of the signage jigsaw is even more vital. “The key part of any digital signage solution is the content, which needs to be engaging, relevant to the audience and delivered to the right place at the right time,” says Shave. “Without a proper, clearly defined content strategy the digital signage solution will fail.”

Many of the better CMS platforms have an easy-to-use designer element for building simple screen layouts, although hackneyed, standard designs are best avoided, he adds.

Signage solutions are having to cope with increasingly sophisticated content.

“Traditionally, digital signage displayed simple, static text- and graphic-based information,” says Colin Farquhar, ceo of Exterity. “Now we’re seeing increasing requirements for engaging animation, live TV and video, scrolling news feeds and the integration of HTML pages and social media.”

Audience measurement tools can help assess the effectiveness of the content being shown. “An integrated camera can log useful data such as the gender and age of the user, how long they interacted with the signage or when they decided to stop using the screen,” says Cooper.

And, of course, you need to grab people’s attention. “Engaging viewers is the single most important element of a digital signage network, because if viewers aren’t engaged then the solution has failed,” says Shave. Audio, for example, may be triggered as a potential customer passes a shop window. Other triggers could include RFID tags, NFC readers, barcode scanners, BMS system, touch screens and demographic cameras.

Before long retailers will be able to align consumers’ online shopping preferences with their experience in-store. “If a customer has shown interest in a product online, it will be possible to project that product on to a display when they visit the store,” says Childerhouse.

“Electronic shelf labelling can also be extended to intelligent RFID tagging, connecting products on the shelf to digital displays so that when a product is lifted an electronic point of sale is triggered. This kind of innovation will transform the retail environment and shape the business model for digital signage so that customer engagement will become much more commonplace in future.”


Case study: Bank of Ireland

A recent revamp of Bank of Ireland’s branch at Dublin City University incorporates a digital signage system from BT Ireland and RMG Networks. It combines two video walls, comprising three and six 75in flat panel displays, with smaller touch screens that switch to displaying signage content when not being used interactively.

Content is delivered in real time direct from the bank’s data centre via RMG software, prioritised over the network to guarantee performance.

Central control enables, for example, a prime time TV advert to be aligned with next-day messaging in branch.

“Traditional posters only provide one message, but a digital screen delivers far bigger frequency of message from the same footprint, and can be targeted by location, time of day and audience profile,” says Bank of Ireland’s head of marketing, James Munnelly.


Credit: AV Magazine


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