The Medium is the Message
May 24, 2010 12:00 PM, By Cynthia Wisehart
Content and technology drive digital signage.
For the past 10 years, one of the iconic benchmarks of digital signage has been the ABC SuperSign in Times Square. New York-based Show+Tell has been a key player in the technical specification, evolution, and content creation for the sign since inception. Last month, for Earth Day, the company brought worldwide interactivity to the venerable sign on behalf of Siemens, posting tweets from around the world on how to go green (see image at the beginning of this story), and then relaying back the image from the big screen to the source. Talk about your 15 seconds.
When Phil Lenger founded Show+Tell in 1989, he was an NBC broadcast veteranone of the pioneers of PC-based computer graphics for election coverage (as well as a Nashville, Tenn.-trained audio engineer and a graduate of New York University’s film and television department). While he was pioneering nontraditional graphics for the broadcast screen, he also had a hand in AV for NBC’s annual upfront week shows at Radio City Music Hall, and later for ABC and the NBC studio tour.
These types of experiences served him well in a career he describes as a “science experiment.” Show+Tell’s early work was in what used to be called “multimedia”CD-ROMs, kiosk design, and the like. Then as signage, inter¬activity, high definition, and metrics came into the mix, Show+Tell followed the flow. “We are often inventing the screen, in a shape or aspect ratio that didn’t exist,” he says. Likewise, the need for an underlying infrastructure with its network elements of scheduling, content management, and measurement was a familiar challenge.
“But we’re not a systems integrator and we’re not interested in being that. Our core is coming up with the ideas and concepts,” he says. “We’re technically literate; we love gear; we understand systems. We can do high-level system design; sometimes we’ll do the CAD drawings; we know what processors or switchers can support the resolution or application we need; and we can program software to adapt something when we have to. But we don’t want to source and install the system components unless the system is very simple, like a single-source display. We don’t build racks, wire, or test.”
Lenger says Show+Tell’s partners (including Scharff Weisberg and XL Video) also help the company walk the line between envisioning something that has never done before and knowing that it can realistically be done with the time and money available.
For Show+Tell, every job is differentthough the company broadly identifies two market segments. The first is digital out of home, which is essentially nonbroadcast networks, something it has done for more than 10 years for clients including Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Bloomberg, and Christie Digital. The other segment is dynamic environments, which encompass not only AV but aspects of design and live events for clients including the Museum of Modern Art, Louis Vuitton, and NASDAQ/Reuters. For example, for Toys “R” Us, Show+Tell did not only the DOOH network but also what Lenger calls the “theatrical layer” of the store’s interior with moving robotics and theatrical elements. Not such a stretch, considering Lenger also designs illusions for “some magicians you’ve heard of.”
In broadcast, Lenger says he had seen the way the PC liberated broadcast from “refrigerator-sized computers and six-figure budgets to do a pie chart. We were writing simple programs for scan converters and computers and giving SGI a run for the money.”
Lenger brings that same sensibility to the digital out of home space. “We’re pushing video to large, closed systems in retail stores and signshigh-quality video through various kinds of networks. So it’s a broadcast kind of world, only it’s IP. We operate worldwide broadcast networks from a small office in New York,” he says.
Lenger points out that his presentation networks also coexist with systems that may also be highly local. “So there will be data that’s collected locally or content that’s generated locally. Each of the local screens may have to do their own little thing, in addition to being part of the network,” he says.
And it looks like those tasks may increasingly be bi¬directional and interactive, in terms of both content creation and data gathering. Measuring DOOH effectiveness is a new science. “And of course, the metrics are not yet something a Proctor and Gamble is going to get excited about,” Lenger says. “But if you have a large-budget advertiser who is willing to be a little on the edge and spend 10 percent of their budget on something guerilla and unusual, then we might get that work. We’re fighting for nontraditional dollars right now. There is a small group of advertisers who are adventurous to work in this unproven space.”
Show+Tell’s own relationships are with a variety of stakeholderssign owners, advertisers, marketersand sometimes with the brands themselves, as was the case with M&Ms. “Every day in Mediaweek, people are reading how a Twitter mention gets all kinds of buzz. They feel the pressure to use these kinds of technologies. A lot of creatives are challenged to ‘Wow ‘em with something different.’ That’s when they might call us, to understand their nontraditional out-of-home options,” he says.
Lenger says that responding to those requests means consulting about “things we may not have a direct business stake in delivering: like road shows, trucks, half-time events. Our solutions will be part of the mix, but a customer wants you to care about their business, not just about selling your own widgets.”
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