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Digital Signage: Opportunity Ahead

By 2011, the digital signage market will be worth $2.59 billion, according to InfoTrends, an analyst firm based in Weymouth, Mass. That's a lot of opportunity. But in order to feast on the opportunity and not just nibble at crumbs, AV integrators will have to think outside the box?which means selling more than just boxes.

INTERACTIVITY SELLS

Beyond just content, there are other emerging applications in digital signage that require creativity and technical expertise. Perhaps the most active market for such solutions is retail, where digital signage provides merchants with a way to serve up custom ads based on factors such as what's in stock and who's in the store.

Some of these applications are enabled by Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, thumbnail-sized chips that contain information similar to what's in a Universal Product Code (UPC). Retailers, such as Wal-Mart, use RFID for things like security and inventory tracking, but they also can be used with digital signage.

Digital signage software that delivers content to the same TV that's showing other programs can be relatively easy for integrators to master and begin offering to clients.

Digital signage software that delivers content to the same TV that's showing other programs can be relatively easy for integrators to master and begin offering to clients.

For instance, when a user picks up an RFID-tagged product, the RFID scanner embedded in a nearby display—such as the ADvantage system from Mississauga, Ontario-based BTV+—wirelessly reads that tag and serves up information about that product. Until the cost of RFID tags decreases, retailers typically affix them only to high-value products such as digital cameras and other electronic devices. Coincidentally those products also tend to be semi-complex and could often benefit from a 30-second video highlighting their features.

Other systems use motion-detection cameras and sensors to trigger ads.

When shoppers at Rogers Wireless kiosks pick up a cell phone, they find that it's tethered to the counter. That's for security, but it also creates opportunities for interactive digital signage. Adflow Networks created a system where picking up the phone triggers an adjacent display to present information about its features and any promos. The display has a touch screen, so shoppers can pull up additional information, such as available rate plans.

Some digital signage systems use cameras to identify some of the shopper's demographic information and then serve up a certain ad.

“When somebody comes within 30 to 40 feet of this sign, we can capture enough geometry from that face to know whether it's a man or woman, approximate age, and how long they spend looking at that sign,” says Planar's Gleeson. “From that, our software will allow us to trigger an ad specific to that particular audience.”

A common denominator among these examples is that with the interactive signage creating a self-serve environment, store staff is free to focus on closing sales rather than answering basic questions. The retailer also might be able to reduce staff levels—savings that can help make the business case for deploying interactive signage.

Or they could make the argument that a signage solution can serve additional purposes. At the Rogers Wireless kiosks, sales staff often wound up watching content during slow periods, thereby reinforcing what they learned during their initial training, says Steve Kartonchik, vice president of sales and marketing at Burlington, Ontario-based Adflow Networks, which worked on the project.

For now, interactive digital signage is the exception rather than the rule, but that's expected to change as hardware costs decline and as more end users see the value.

“They tend to be pricey, so sometimes they're not rolled into deployments where they could be very beneficial,” says Bill Collins, principal of Decision-Point Media Insights, a Cincinnati-based research firm. “Long term, I think the future for this kind of technology is very, very bright.”

OLD SKILLS, NEW SKILLS

The next type of interactivity could involve video-conferencing. For example, a retailer could reduce staff levels without compromising service if computer shoppers can go to a display and chat with an expert based at the retailer's head office or someone else related to a product or service.

“You'll have virtual sales associates, for instance,” Collins says. “There are all kinds of technologies that will make their way into the stores of the future.”

For integrators, those stores will require a mix of old and new skills: videoconferencing and information technology (IT), respectively. Even without next-gen apps, such as virtual sales associates, IT skills are increasingly valuable today for designing and installing systems where content is created at a central location and then disseminated over local- and wide-area networks (LANs and WANs) to signage around a building, campus, or country.

“They can't add value to that projector, but they sure can add value to how that projector gets integrated into the customer's business,” says Omnivex's Collard. “I think that's where their future lies. You're seeing so many of them become AV/IT specialists [rather than] a deliverer of boxes.”

IT skills come in handy particularly when a digital signage system needs to communicate with an existing, back-office platform. For instance, a signage network may need to work with a merchant's inventory or point-of-sale (POS) system to determine which ads to serve. If sales of a particular item are so brisk that inventory runs low, the signage system can stop running ads for that product until supplies are replenished.

“It comes back to measurement and return on investment (ROI): some method to prove that the investment is increasing sales or reducing cost,” Gleeson says.

Integrators that lack the in-house skills to link those systems and configure database queries could partner with IT companies. That way, they still can offer merchants a complete solution rather than, say, just the signage and installation.



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