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Digital Signage Expo Preview

Is digital signage an exclusive specialisation or is it something that every sign-maker can be involved in? Mark Godden looks to the Digital Signage Expo in Las Vegas for the answer

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Digital Signage Expo 2017 takes place at the Las Vegas Convention Centre from March 29th to 30th

Opportunity or Threat

It has been said, and said many times, that, ‘if it can go digital, it will go digital’. You have only got to look at music, films, and books for a steer if you want to validate the advance of all things digital.

It has been said, and said many times, that, ‘if it can go digital, it will go digital’

While the ‘going’ is not yet absolute, and you can still walk to a shop and buy a physical disc with music or a movie on it, how many actually do? The same thinking applies to books. Even those of us who, by their own admission, ‘like the feel of a book’ have given in to the march of the Kindle and now have shelves at home covered with ornaments and much less physical reading matter.

Nicholas Negroponte, the founder and chairman emeritus of MIT’s Media Lab, wrote and published a book in the 90s, Being Digital. It talked in terms of bits and atoms—bits being what we today understand as digital information and atoms as defining the substance of the physical objects around us, including devices for creating and consuming bits.

Negroponte’s work was prescient to say the very least. Today, what would have once been atoms by the ton which were schlepped around the world, have been reduced to bits. All that was needed was the means to create the content the bits comprise, and the hardware formed from the arrangement of Negroponte’s atoms. Your iPad is your newspaper. Your Kindle, your book. But, to borrow an Americanism of Being Digital’s era, ‘what’s your sign?’

Big questions

Should you find yourself in Las Vegas with time on your hands from March 29th or 30th, and you happen to be passing the Las Vegas Convention Centre, you may find answers to the really big questions about where the sign industry is headed at the Digital Signage Expo. The Expo is not billing itself per-se as the authority on the future of all things signing. As it is polarised around matters digital though, it may well embody some pointers.

Digital signage is not anything new. Digital anything is capable of compressing time frames, and the pace of its development is dazzling, so ‘new’ needs to be seen in that context. Maybe the future is not what it used to be either.

Digital signage came to be some years ago. Scrolling LEDs in 90mm high anonymous black enclosure were, at one time, objects of total wonder. They turned heads. They stopped people in their tracks. They demanded attention and they got it, often for minutes at a time. Imagine a more conventionally configured sign that could accomplish that.

Humans being humans though, we soon tired of scrolling red LED letters and the budding digital signage industry obliged with eye-candy adding green to the limited digital signage vocabulary and cleverly found a way of mixing up orange for us too. Special effects arrived about then and soon italicised characters and elementary logos were competing for our attention along with chomping PacMan-like symbols devouring text and the messages they communicated. We could not get enough of it—and neither could the manufacturers attempting to outgun each other.

With CRTs (think of older style non-flat-panel monitors), small-scale monitors were built into console-like fabrications and some served as a proxy for bits of directory signs installations. A really committed audience of one could interact with these wonders of the age and find their way around buildings or to offices in large complexes.

If this species of digital signage suffered anything, it was a fundamental problem with informing larger audiences. Later embodiments of the same idea fell at the first hurdle with user interfaces that were indulgent of the medium to a ridiculous extent. It was not digital signage’s finest hour and should you tread the floor of the Digital Signage Expo, you are not likely to see the mistake repeated in a contemporary setting.

Out of the blue

Moving quickly through the strata of digital signage and its evolution, we were given red LEDs and something that is a bit of an apology for green appeared a little later, but it was green nonetheless. Prayers, threats, and entreaties and sheer technical brilliance eventually gave the world and the digital signage industry what everyone had been waiting for—the blue LED arrived. The whole industry spoke with a roar at that point and the industry had what is probably not overstated as a renaissance.

The arrival of blue LEDs gave the digital signage industry the means to deliver full colour animated content to scalable screens that could be seen in daylight

The advent of the blue LED gave those with the smarts to get their heads around its potential, the means to mix up the emitted light and get to white, and just about any other colour RGB delivers. For the very first time, full colour displays’ dimensions were not limited by the extent to which a CRT tube could be manufactured. LEDs in full colour gave the digital signage industry the means to scale its displays to proportions unthinkable at the time.

The blue LED arrived. The whole industry spoke with a roar at that point

It is worth pausing at this point in the development of digital signing hardware, the atoms, to consider the bits or the information digital signs of the era displayed and how all this buzz was received by the sign industry of the time.

Most small scale digital signs relied for the content they displayed on a small and very adjacent input device, typically a basic keyboard. The idea was, you would type in the text you wanted to display and then hit the go button. Some signs had scheduling capability but, the downside was, you would have to be there with the sign to programme or update it in the early days. The information was in the form of bits, but ironically, it required the attendance of a pretty large cluster of atoms to get it punched in. Developments, however, were happening.

Meanwhile, in a sign shop near you at the time, the advent of the sign-making computer had happened and was hitting its stride. That was commanding much more attention from sign-makers than anything going on around the rise of digital signing devices.

Back to digital signing hardware. Scrolling LED signs, CRT-based directories, and scalable billboard hardware were, to a very great extent incremental. That is to say, they created a market for themselves and did not actually displace much in the way of traditional display means. Then flat-panels came along.

With what amounted in most cases to some very light customisation work, a flat-panel display, looking very like a modern TV, became a remarkably capable small-format digital sign. Applications for such displays very quickly became apparent and companies who, at the time, cast themselves in the role of sign-maker, found themselves facing digital competition albeit on a very narrow front that many chose not to contest.

Menu displays in fast-food outlets quickly digitised. Posters in shop windows moved over. Signs annunciating all sorts of variable information gravitated irresistibly toward a better outlet for the application. Digital signage became part of the establishment.

Today, digital signage is more compelling for more reasons than it has ever been. It is a specialisation and it is a big one. It has its own major show in Las Vegas which we will be discussing. Digital signage is an alternative interpretation or direction that a lot of signage needs can turn to. Where then do those with the need look? Is this medium specialised to the extent mainstream sign-makers are excluded from the opportunity or can they participate?

Visit the Digital Signage Expo in Las Vegas and the answer as to whether there is an opportunity for digital signing in mainstream sign-making should be evident. The answer is yes. The bits and pieces, and the bits and atoms, needed to make a future in digital signing are to be found at the show. To make the most of them as a sign-maker, you will need to turn inward to signing specialists again—the mainstream signage industry has much to offer digital signing—some of it even now in the early stages of its development and the subject of future news.

Projection redefined

One exhibitor at the Digital Signage Expo that is well worth a visit with your sign-maker’s glasses on is Casio. Casio is there with, among other offerings, projectors. Projectors have much to offer the sign-maker-cum-budding-provider of digital signage for these reasons:

1: The ‘output’ is easily scalable. If you need a display to cover a particular space, it is almost as simple as tweaking a zoom knob or moving the hardware forward and backwards a bit.

2: Lots of surfaces are potential display spaces. Digital projectors can deliver images upon anything that qualifies as a screen. That could be a wall, a floor, or a ceiling. It could be a window. It could be a hanging banner or a curtain. The list goes on and on and, surprisingly, it would include things that are neither flat nor white.

3: Lots of projectors have good basic media-players built in. That means there is a very easy way in, for the images and data you need to get out. They are easy to work with.

4: Projectors, like anything, have a price ticket attached to them. The good news is, that it is not a particularly big one and, in many cases, it represents staggeringly good value.

A visit to the Casio stand at the Digital Signage Expo will probably re-calibrate your understanding of what projectors are capable of doing if you have not seen one since the classroom Aldis held your attention. If your notion is of a piece of hardware that needs total darkness and has to be positioned central to and some distance off a screen, Casio will surprise you.

Ultra Short-Throw projectors are powerful, compact, and can be positioned very close to screen. This means they can be located in discrete spaces and project content on windows and other surfaces

On the Casio stand, you will be shown the latest in a line of short and ultra-short-throw projectors. This class of hardware is capable of generating large images with the projector less than a foot away from the screen and located above or below where the image is projected. That does not just mean that nothing can get between the projector and the image, it means that the projector can be deployed in areas where access may be tight.

With the right screen in front of it, a Casio short throw projector is the basis for a dazzlingly effective digital sign.

With the right screen in front of it, a Casio short throw projector is the basis for a dazzlingly effective digital sign

Getting content into it is easy. Mounting it is too. As a building block for entry into digital signing, Casio has a great deal to offer the sign-maker. Another attraction of projectors is that you can lace them together and achieve even bigger output.

Digital signage is designed to attract attention and that is exactly what Dynascan will do should you venture past its stand at the Digital Signage Expo. They are in booth 607 unless the floor plan changes. Dynascan will be fielding among other technologies its cylindrical format LED display and, because of its unorthodox shape, it will be turning heads. The display effectively paints a trace of LED light onto a virtual cylindrical surface which beams out the resulting message to a 360-degree audience.

Dynascan outguns many flat panels with large displays that can meet daylight on its own terms and win

Dynascan may be guilty of stealing its own thunder though. The same stand will be home to the company’s range of flat panel displays. With attractive narrow bezels and the whole story to tell in terms of configuration possibilities, these products are not warmed over TV panels. Unlike many flat displays, the Dynascan product is powerful enough to compete with natural light and win. That means a shop window display in sunlight is going to look like a printed poster—only animated, and much more colourful. It is a technological trick few can compete with. Dynascan has been around since the 1990s so has had a while to get things right.

Digital signage offers the alluring prospect of scale. So, a flat panel put to work in an alliance with others of its species becomes a matrix of panels that is perceived as a whole. You will hear the expression ‘video wall’ a lot.

It actually takes a lot more that the mechanical means to arrange a few panels to deliver a functioning video wall and you will find the knowledge available at the Digital Signage Expo. A visit to the Adaptive Technologies Group on stand 251 at the show would be time well spent. The company gets ‘scale’ and, if the real promise of digital in the context of signs is ever to come down to manageable proportions, it will be led by the technology that underpins video walls.

Eyes on the future

If you are intent on finding pointers as to whether digital signage is but a whim or whether it is built on foundations that are going to support its weight and importance, just ask yourself why Google and Intel would take the time to exhibit at Digital Signage Expo. And why they are interested in something that represents such an apparently odd tangent to their business as usual.

Intel and Google have a developing interest in digital signage and are developing hardware and applications. Will things soon search for you, the way you now search for things?

Google is there with Chrome. Chrome is the Google browser that the search giant wants everyone to use. It is also a platform that Google wants the world to adopt and mesh with content management systems that feed digital signs and the like. Whuh? Hold that thought for a moment. Let us think about Intel.

Intel makes the brainy part of lots of the computers that are in use today. The company’s processors are what helps a Mac be a Mac, and a PC be a PC. In enabling two utterly differing embodiments of substantially the same idea, it is obvious that Intel and its thinking horsepower can get lots of jobs done. Intel wants to be inside anything new and clever that the digital signage industry happens to think up. It will have a few technology showcase ideas at the event to get people thinking.

Intel and lots of others at the show are going to be dealing in the currencies of user interaction. That means the digital sign does not just get your attention, it gets you to interact with it somehow. Today that means walking up to a device with your phone and engaging in some sort of geeky ritual to get a little bit of content or voucher as a reward. Meh. Not long from now though, Intel-powered digital signs will be dealing with much more personalised content, which means something to you in context, time, and the raw ability to strike while the iron is hot and you are at your weakest—sorry, most receptive.

Digital signage can distribute a message anywhere there is an audience to consume them

This in turn means that digital signage is likely to be wiping out large parts of the point-of-sale industry as it delivers a compelling and immediate opportunity to interact right there at the sharp end while doing the broader job PoS always has.

Will the extremities of signing driving the same demand have a role to play? Probably. Signs that know who is looking at them could be one consequence. Price tickets that show your price, not everyone’s, are another. Then there is the whole subject of payment gateways and supply paradigms. We are all used to getting online and buying things these days. Giving sales prospects more opportunities to interact and buy, it is as powerful as footfall in the olden days.

Clearly digital signage, PoS, call it what you want, needs a really effective stream of intelligence feeding into it. Where will that come from? It cannot be Google surely? All they are interested in is using Chrome as a platform for content. They would not somehow want to get this all wrapped up so that things search for you just like you search for things, would they?

While you ponder that, spare some time to have a look at Screenfeed over on stand 1618. It is Screenfeed and others like it that help ground the digital signage industry and give those without staggering content production budgets access to the means to make it look as though they have. How might that work?

Well, let us suppose you, the sign-maker, succeed in getting a customer hooked up with a Casio short throw projector and a means to display the content it projects onto a suspended in-store banner you have designed and installed. You could put together, using some very elementary tools, a programme of in-store promotions, punctuated with entertaining snippets that hold viewer attention, which you found thanks to Screenfeed and which you bought and re-sold at a profit. It is not quite stock images. It is a bit more than that and the outcome is potentially richer too.

With a name like Smarter Trash on the exhibitor guide, the point is made that print can still suck in interest. The eye gravitates to it, the pen ticks, and off you walk toward the Smarter Trash stand at FT8. What you see when you get there might send you ricocheting off somewhere else, or you may just take your casual interest further. Smarter Trash sells litter bins—difference is, they have screens or digital signs in them.

Tread carefully at this point. If you are a dyed in the wool sign-maker who has succeeded in convincing him or herself that you are really a serial-entrepreneur in waiting, and if the thought that leapt straight to the front of your mind when Smarter Trash grabbed your attention was, ‘I can sell advertising on that’, do bear in mind that advertising spaces are in over-supply, and there are some very well organised apex predators out there just waiting to consume you.

Like a lot of the display technology at the Digital Signage Expo, Smarter Trash does a brilliant job of getting a message delivered where there is an audience that is captive to an extent and a context for showing them something. That does not add up to a sign-making opportunity. If yours is a business that needs litter bins and thousands walk past and use them, what better way to promote your own events? It is a powerful medium indeed that potential customers actually have to touch. This one is begging for someone with the mass to become a media owner to pick it up. Are you listening, NEC?

Much of the further content at the Digital Signage Expo is concerned with the trappings of an industry under development. New applications for digital signing are what is going to fuel growth and the oxygen the fire needs comes in the shape of the audiences’ willingness to tolerate and be influenced by the medium.

Accordingly, you will find any number of display vendors, media player integrators, and those who bring the whole package together as a turnkey offering at the show. For the sign-maker who does not have the means to dive in at the deep end of this business and create a fully muscled extension to a sign business, there are applications with overlap on the fringes of digital signing where there is value to be added, customers to be found, and money to be made. You can build something digital into most signs and the means to do it are there in the hall at the Digital Signage Expo.

Recognise also though that full-fat digital signage is built on deep technical foundations. Anything even vaguely distributed involves the contracted provider in networking, technical support, and, potentially, compliance issues. Using the system when installed puts its broadcasting power in the hands of marketing people who send out the content. When the content does not show up or it goes ‘fhut’ when it is turned on, they call you.

The Digital Signage Expo will be a real eye opener. What you will see is seductive. What you hear is all about performance and staggering returns on investment. This industry speaks the language of out-of-home advertisers and appeals on those terms. Make no mistake though, Negroponte is right. There is flesh on this well-muscled animal and even the smallest sign-maker can provide something broadly answering to the description of digital sign, without risking customer, reputation, or future.

Digital signage is feeling its way. Why would a business owner with a space for a facia sign above his window not want to fill that space with something he could programme? Why would he not dedicate part of the window to a projected display, visible in daylight from outside, something you could install? It has not quite happened yet. Meanwhile, there is a solitary full-colour LED sign projecting out over the pavement at facia height above a business in Sparkbrook, Birmingham. It is the only one of its kind this writer has ever seen. It is digital signage. Inkjet print had to start somewhere.

A full listing of all the exhibitors attending the Digital Signage Expo is available at the show’s website—digitalsignageexpo.net—and it helps reflect the industry and its scale. Digital signage though is consumed with the eyes and, if you can find the time and have an appetite for the diversions in Las Vegas, it may be worth your while visiting. You could come back with an idea that makes your business the next big thing in signs.

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