Digital Signage Roundtable
Jun 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By Dan Daley
As the concept matures and technology evolves, installers offer a wide industry view of a growing market segment.
Like cell phones, digital signage has taken a routine concept that's been around for ages and essentially put it on steroids. But digital signage is more than a neat technological parlor trick. With many conventional advertising venues — including billboards, print, and broadcast television — losing ground against the Internet, digital signage is quickly becoming a hybrid tool that has created a rapidly expanding niche of its own — a fixed signpost with a dynamically changeable and projectable message.
Although digital signage is found everywhere — from airports to houses of worship — the retail environment is by far the largest current application for the technology. Market research from the digital signage trade group POPAI indicates that 75 percent of all purchasing decisions are made in-store, and additional research by POPAI suggests that moving images at the point-of-purchase further increase sales.
Digital signage and retail sales are a match made in heaven. Therefore, to get a broader view of what's going on in that realm, we asked a few experienced minds what they think of the digital signs of the times. Keep in mind that, overall, the panelists offer a McLuhanesque caveat to the bright potential of digital signage: Technology choices are largely predicated on the kind of content involved.
The installation experts participating in the discussion are Mary Hood, CTS, CEO of Digital Roads in Wheat Ridge, Colo.; Mary Meeker, president of MEM Systems in Bonsall, Calif.; Mike White, CTS, president of Multi-Media Solutions in Alcoa, Tenn.; and Kris R. Vollrath, CTS, VNCE, director of convergence technologies for the Advanced Technologies Group of Advanced AV in West Chester, Pa.
S&VC: What are the major overall trends in digital signage today — more complexity in design? More use of multimedia elements?
Mary Hood: Trends we see include more of a focus on HD content, and an interactive component that allows for personalization of the experience [such as a] touchscreen overlay or kiosk type of interface. There is also a desire to see integration with life safety — if your high-rise building is on fire, and the building management system knows where the fire is located, why not divert public displays to maps showing the location of the fire and best route of egress?
Mary Meeker: The major change is that retailers are more willing to experiment with digital signage as hardware costs decrease, and retailers are more willing to buy and install the screens and then figure out what to do with them. While this may seem to be poor planning by the retailers, they believe it necessary to be one step ahead of, or to just keep pace with, other retailers. So, you have more use of multimedia elements, with the opportunity for more complexity in design.
Mike White: More and more businesses are open to the concept and seem to accept that digital signage is something that can and will impact their business, driven by flexible digital signage content management software that can deliver the right message to the right people at the right time.
Kris Vollrath: The real power of digital signage is targeted messaging, regardless of the venue. The tools are all over the place to accomplish this — from sneaker-net devices to IP-based solutions.
S&VC: What particular challenges exist for designing and installing such systems in retail environments?
Hood: Audio remains the biggest technical challenge — managing sound without driving the employees or listeners crazy.
Meeker: Cost and the store itself are the challenges. Retailers, like any other business, are very cost-conscious and must see a rate of return on their investment commensurate with their other investments in infrastructure. In addition, installations done in operating store environments present challenges to avoid interfering with the retailer's ongoing business.
White: Today's top digital signage content management packages offer so many options on how and when content is delivered, it takes a little while to get their arms around the tools they now have control over. But when they get it, the creative juices flow. However, the key has been — and will always be — content in context relative to the people viewing the screen and the time they have to experience the message. That is really the key: To have successful digital signage, you have to take into account the entire experience that the person viewing the display is having.
Vollrath: Retail poses a number of issues — security being a large one. Displays have to be hardened, players have to be protected, and IP-based solutions need extra security. Also, in retail, the ease of refitting the retail space is essential, and the solution has to be [able to be] easily moved/repurposed.
S&VC: How does the nature of the content affect your technology choices and how you design and position elements within retail spaces?
Hood: Everyone wants flatpanel technology, even though a 16:9 aspect ratio does not always fit the content they have and want to use. Costs associated with scaling standard video content are generally not budgeted for, and then people are unhappy with morphed video as people look fat and out of shape.
Meeker: You must first understand the content before you can design the installation. For example, if your content is specific to a type of merchandise, let's say lawn mowers, then you want the technology to be placed within the area containing lawn mowers. However, leaving the message next to the lawn mowers does not reach those customers in other areas of the store that may not know that the retailer sells lawnmowers or has a specific promotion related to lawn mowers. As such, the retailer will want to cross-brand lawn mowers in other areas to advise them. Second, because content is the key to a successful implementation of technology, retailers generally are better served to stay with technologies that are simple and need minimal maintenance. That allows the retailer to continue to focus on fresh and relevant content, rather than tending to complex technology issues.
Vollrath: One example is the way the digital signage software solution handles the scheduling of content. It is becoming very sophisticated, and is allowing content to be treated just like a media buy in other media, where they can decide to show a specific message a number of times in a given time frame, instead of just adding it to a playlist and showing it in round-robin fashion.
S&VC: How much interaction is there between the systems design/install team and the content development team?
Meeker: The technology must complement the content. So, to design effective installations, you must know the content, which means you must work closely with the content development team.
Hood: There needs to be more discussion in the design phase of the project specific to hardware/software/content formats to be used. Too often, the owner will dismiss these concerns stating, “We have a marketing company or department that will work that out, so don't worry about that.” The other issue we run into is that marketing materials for the various software products often overstate their capabilities, or at least minimize the amount of effort and skill it takes to actualize the final product at the level of the demo they were given during the sales presentation.
White: Content for digital signage is different than any other media — it is not a TV commercial, it is not PowerPoint. Timing is crucial, [so] one must determine the correct duration of the message by studying people-traffic patterns and the makeup of the audience by time of day, and then design specifically to the person that will be standing in front of the screen. It is not an exact science, so content is reviewed on a regular basis to determine effectiveness. There are several ways of doing this. The most effective is having more than one location and trying two different messages, measuring the results, and then going with the best of the content to get your return on investment.
S&VC: How is the mix between LCD, plasma, and projection display changing? What other factors are affecting your choice of display type?
Hood: Type of content and the required size, along with budget, will often drive us back toward plasma. The burn-in issues with plasma have been minimized through technology advances, and right now they offer a price advantage relative to size.
Meeker: LCD has been progressing over the last few years at a rapid pace, and will eventually be the technology of choice — both for size and price. I love a great projection system, but we all know that projection is a maintenance issue for retailers, and also looks great the first month until the lamp starts to show usage hours. If you consider projection, then you must make certain you have the correct screen and projector, with proper ANSI lumens and a maintenance plan.
White: While LCD pricing has come down, it is not always the best choice. When the majority of my content is HD or HD-quality video, I still prefer the color saturation of plasma, and with the great content management software systems now, there is no reason for screen burn to occur anyway. [But] within a couple of years or so, I am confident we will see LED and laser-light engines that will allow 24/7/365 usage.
Vollrath: LCD is still more expensive than plasma, but it's less expensive overall to use, being that they require less energy and generate less heat. And the new generations do well with video — a strength that plasma had held over LCD prior.
S&VC: How does audio interact with picture in digital signage? Does a display require point-source audio to maximize message effectiveness, or can the sound be more diffused throughout a zone?
Hood: Audio is the tricky part of most any application. We use specialized products — Hypersonic sound speakers, Brown Sound Dome — to isolate the audio as much as possible, and then we will always give a local employee control over the volume level, as well as mute function. People are annoyed by audio much more when [it's directed at no one in particular], so allowing viewers to activate the audio via a button or motion sensor also tends to reduce the disruptive factors associated.
Meeker: There are strong arguments for both sides of this question. In a current retail application, we have a content mix of audio and non-audio media. We use the audio content in the general store areas to draw attention to certain marketing campaigns on a 15-minute interval. The same marketing campaign might also play without audio during the 15-minute quiet time, along with other still images or media. We feel that when audio and video are aligned, you have a stronger presentation, but we realize this does not fit all situations. For example, playing audio with associated video in an entire store where the video cannot be seen will have no effect on the customer as they cannot relate the audio to the video message.
White: Audio done right can greatly add to the power of the digital sign, [but] audio done wrong will result in a system that employees will find a way to destroy or turn off. Today, the technology supports audio that can be responsive to a person being in front of the display, and simply not there when no one is in front of the display.
Vollrath: Traditionally, audio solutions for digital signage involved traditional speaker solutions and were highly intrusive. New technologies are changing that. With sound solutions from ATC [HSS speakers], Panphonics [Sound Shower], and Brown Innovations [Maestro directional speakers], we're designing solutions that target audio, as well as the video message.
S&VC: What are the main system-control challenges for digital signage in retail, and which technologies help you most in that regard?
Hood: We are an integration firm that specializes in control — AMX, Crestron, SP Controls, Extron, Kramer, and Calypso are all suitable options given the application, [meaning] who and how they want to interact with the technology. When control is required only locally, it is fairly inexpensive, and when the corporate headquarters wants to push content and control the display in multiple locations, it requires more advanced control like an AMX or Crestron system that offers web-based functionality.
Meeker: The IT departments understanding that we must be able to access the servers in-store on a regular basis [is an ongoing challenge]. This has been easier in the last few years, but [it] still is a big hurdle to gain buyoff and partnering with the IT department. The technology that we could not be without is broadband connectivity. In order to implement, manage, and update digital signage, broadband connections make it all possible.
White: A good content management system that allows control through embedded or integrated RS-232 commands, and displays or devices that can be controlled and monitored by RS-232.
S&VC: What's especially challenging about wiring in the retail environment? And to what extent is wireless coming into play for digital signage?
Hood: When cable path is not available, it can be worked around with wireless technology. It just costs more money to go that route. This is another key reason we need a collaborative process with all stakeholders early in the project because many of these issues can be managed most inexpensively with early planning on the design side.
Meeker: The most obvious challenge, and the one most difficult to overcome cost-effectively, is the time during which the installation can occur. When the store is operating, it cannot have installers running cable, so the work is done when the store is closed, which increases the cost of labor. Wireless technology does not solve the entire equation because the display devices still need power, which is still delivered by cable.
Vollrath: For digital signage solutions requiring powerful players to drive the displays, we are deploying a wireless PC solution. Where wireless doesn't already exist, we're adding the infrastructure. Then, the only requirement is power, and that's much easier. This also makes it much easier to reformat the space — we can just relocate the display and it's back up.
S&VC: Is there one particular project you can cite that illustrates how digital signage installations are evolving?
Meeker: My favorite project was very simple, using systems we had previously installed to define traffic and payback. The displays were located at the cashwrap [point of purchase], and it was holiday time. The commercial played with audio that showed the current gift card promotion. At the end of the commercial, the text read, “Buy $100 and receive a free gift card.” Gift cards ran out of the store, and sales jumped significantly during that promotion. Customers were watching at the point of purchase and made sure they had $100 worth of merchandise to receive the gift card. This model proved that customers were not only watching, but also taking advantage of the promotion.
White: Recently, we were tasked to bring the University of Tennessee Football Hall of Fame into current technology. When the original equipment was put into place, looped DVD and VCR were the only choices. We redesigned the system with digital signage players and flatpanels — some with touchscreens — and transformed the installation into a powerful recruitment tool, and that was the ROI for this project.
S&VC: Kiosks are proliferating. What particular challenges do they present in terms of installation?
Meeker: I do not feel the challenge is in the installation, but in the long-term operation and maintenance of the kiosk. It seems like every kiosk I see is not operational at some point.
Hood: Often, people want to place kiosks out [of] the path of foot traffic because they can impede egress and cause unnecessary congestion. I also find that many kiosks will use basic template software that is not fully configured, so it is frustrating to the user to find empty buckets behind prominent buttons. Content again — we need to make sure that the content is fully baked.
White: Kiosks are almost all interactive, while digital signage is most often display only. The kiosk industry really operates independently of digital signage, meaning that most kiosk companies prefer direct sales to end users, and do not often embrace AV systems integrators. Ironically, they use the same tools and have the same challenges.
Vollrath: Kiosks are much easier when deployed wirelessly — power on and you're done. Aside from the physical security, application security is key.
S&VC: How do the different kinds of technologies being used for content replacement/update, such as physical media (DVD/CD), Flash media, Internet downloads, etc., affect the design and installation of a digital signage project?
Meeker: Six years ago when digital signage lines and other broadband solutions were too expensive, CD/DVD updates were the least expensive alternatives, and thus, the choice for system designs. Today, digital signage must be designed with broadband connectivity. If you are trying to deliver a corporate brand message, how can that be done when someone at the store level will not load the disc? Compliance is the issue, and you can only gain 10 percent compliance if the systems are automated.
Vollrath: Speaker-net solutions are easy to deploy and fine if content will rarely change, but they don't work for solutions requiring access to external data and back-end systems. That's where intelligent, IP-based solutions are required. Obviously, these solutions then require infrastructure.
S&VC: More equipment manufacturers are recognizing digital signage as its own entity. Which companies seem to “get it” best? Which manufacturers are tailoring their technologies — displays, speakers, etc., for digital signage applications?
Hood: My personal opinion is that there is way too much hype in the marketplace relative to specific products supposedly designed for digital signage. Understanding the global issues and challenges for signage applications, the environment and personnel components should be the driving forces that are core to product selection decisions. Clearly, companies like Brown Innovation and American Technology have developed specialized audio products that fit well into this vertical market given their ability to isolate the sound component, but overall system design really determines whether these products are practical or not. Dealers who want to focus on this marketplace will find it difficult to dabble. They will need to keep pace with this market continually through publications and tradeshows as it changes quickly.
Meeker: For years we have partnered with NEC, and they have provided solid products for the market of digital signage. Everyone is getting into the game today, and more are coming on line each day. I look to the manufacturers that provide networkable solutions with options to customize certain elements for the needs of our customers. Also, I look at manufacturer warranties that offer our customers peace of mind and partner with manufacturers that understand retail operational issues.
White: The truth is, the consumer electronics world is driving the industry. Some manufacturers are adding some [signage] features, but this must increase to meet the specific needs of digital signage.
Vollrath: A number of LCD manufacturers are now targeting this market space. Clarity — now Planar — was an early one with product targeted to digital signage. Sanyo is now offering a fully weatherproof LCD display, and other manufacturers have talked to us about near-future plans for hardened, environmentally protected LCD solutions.
S&VC: What new technologies for digital signage are coming online in the near future?
Hood: RFID technology is introducing some new opportunities on the hardware side that many dealers are reticent to adopt given the IT component. Consumers of digital signage need to beware of anyone who tells them they have the perfect solution before they have done the due diligence of a thorough needs analysis with all the stakeholders.
Meeker: There are new technologies coming online everyday that will change how digital signage is used and deployed. The customer-invasive technologies such as ID tagging are great, but are they going to fly with customers? I feel the technologies most important to digital signage relate to management of the infrastructure.
White: Larger, less-expensive flatpanels, more directional speakers, more cost-effective LED displays. But the big advances are in software and the ability to integrate with POS and backroom systems.
Dan Daley is a veteran freelance journalist and author specializing in media and entertainment technology and business sectors. He lives in New York, Miami, and Nashville, Tenn., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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