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Vital Signs: Trends in Digital Signage

Digital signage has become a must-have AV application. Today, added-value technologies, such as interactive software and wireless networking, are breathing fresh life into new digital signage projects.

As price points for LCD and plasma display technologies have come down in the last several years, digital signage has grown in prominence. Still, the channel remains young, its borders not entirely defined, and its potential vast.

With a broad swath of industries–retail, banking, health care, out-of-home advertising, you name it–just beginning to embrace digital signage, vendors, solution providers, and others have flooded the market with convergent technologies that encompass both IT and AV disciplines.

"There are more than 300 digital signage companies in North America alone right now, most of them pretty small," says Ryan Cahoy, vice president of Toronto-based digital signage software maker Rise Vision. "Everyone has started to smell the money. We're still in an emerging market where all these standards are being developed, and we're just trying to come up with common terminology. Everybody is trying to differentiate themselves."

While IT companies like Cisco have embraced the market with gusto, pro AV integrators have yet to completely commit to it, says Vince Faville, digital signage market development manager for West Chester, Pa.-based Advanced AV. He says his outfit is one of only about a half dozen AV integrators in the U.S. that are aggressively competing in the market.

"A lot of AV dealers out there sell digital signage in their bag of tricks, but they're not dedicated to it," says Faville. Advanced AV is one of the few companies that has a dedicated digital signage division. "We never run into competitors in the AV world. In fact, when we do, we help each other, because [our regions] don't overlap."

For their part, Advanced AV officials have labeled digital signage a "killer app," a market with unknowable growth potential at this point. But to properly exploit it, they say–and to keep IT integrators from completely dominating it down the road–AV pros have to dedicate more resources to it and become versed in the necessary skill sets.

"You can't just sell off a line card," says Faville, whose company has invested $100,000 to date to create a series of dedicated digital signage demonstration systems that potential clients can peruse at the company's headquarters.

Moreover, to stand out in a fledgling market full of emerging competition, AV dealers and integrators must be versed in the latest technology trends and business models–everything from wireless networking to interactive features to vendor-supplied content. Digital signage is ripe for creative new approaches to a similar end result. The integrator who can tailor a solution using all the technology at his disposal, stands to win new business in a variety of markets.

"If you don't, the IT guys will," Faville says.

The following are some of the diverse ways integrators and their customers are deploying signage today.

Signage That Dazzles When the Sun Shines In

What> Reflective Display
Where> Patriot Place, Foxborough, Mass.

Hall at Patriot Place

Hall at Patriot Place

The New England Patriots didn't make the NFL playoffs this past season, so fans will have to take solace in the new Hall at Patriot Place, a 36,000-square-foot homage to the team and permanent home to its Hall of Fame that opened last September.

The Hall is also a multimedia wonder, with advanced AV systems that include 19 high-definition touchscreen kiosks, 11 60-inch HDTV monitors, seven projection screens, and a 48-foot-wide panoramic movie screen. And it's home to the first indoor application of a unique, reflective signage technology from a company called Magink.

With offices in Israel and the United Kingdom, Magink makes what it has dubbed "digital ink" displays, composed of cholesteric liquid crystal technology. Because it's reflective, the technology is said to be ideal for outdoor digital signage.

Indoors, where lighting conditions can vary or a venue might not want display light to overpower a space, the Magink reflective technology gives the impression of video wallpaper.

"The Hall at Patriot Place is the ideal venue for our first indoor installation," says Ronen Zexer, CEO of Magink. "Our technology made it possible to show videos and still images on a large area display while not overpowering the indoor environment of the museum."

A Magink display uses three layers of liquid crystal (red, green, blue) between sheets of glass–there is no heavy, embedded light source. Similar to some LED displays, Magink signage is made up of tiles (6.7x 6.7 inches; 18x18, 9mm pixels) that come in 3x3 modules. Video refreshes at 25 frames per second over DVI on a Magink display, while images refresh every approximately 250 milliseconds, making for stable, responsive signage.

Moreover, Magink's technology reportedly uses less energy than LED, which was a significant requirement for the Kraft Group, which owns the New England Patriots and the Hall. By Magink's own estimates, its technology would consume one-fifth the energy of a comparable 9-square-foot LED display. And because it doesn't actually emit light, it doesn't give off as much heat as other display technologies.

Magink worked with architectural design firm Cambridge Seven Associates and AV integrator Electrosonic to introduce the reflective display. At the entrance to the Hall at Patriot Place, there are several 30-foot-high Magink pylons showing still images and video of Patriot Hall of Famers. The signage is such that fans both inside and outside the Hall can see clearly what's playing at all times.

The Magink display content can be triggered via touchscreen kiosks installed by Electrosonic. In fact, Electrosonic built interactive kiosks throughout the Hall. Video is served to a variety of locations from three Electrosonic MS9200P HD SDI MPEG-2 digital players; seven Electrosonic MS9500 HD MPEG-2 players; and 10 Electrosonic MS9500GL HD MPEG-2 players with genlock. Interactive content, which blends with the video, comes off Dell media servers.

"[We] customized the technical systems to meet the creative needs of Cortina Productions, which produced and encoded all the interactive and projected-video content," says Electrosonic project manager Gary Barnes. "The results were incredible."

According to Electrosonic, the Hall uses its ESCAN software as the venue's master show control system. The ESCAN system talks to three Crestron CP2E systems with Ethernet capabilities for managing all projectors (including a slew of Christie Roadster DLP models), interactive kiosks, and every exhibit throughout the Hall.

And Electrosonic made sure the sound for all the interactive kiosks matched the visual experience. Each is equipped with local Innovox custom speakers.

When a Regular IT Backbone Won't Do

What> Wireless Signage
Where> Staples Center, Los Angeles

Staples Center

Staples Center

Equipped with old-fashioned roller-ads, the dasher boards lining the home ice rink for the NHL's Los Angeles Kings were perfect candidates for a digital signage upgrade last year. Simply put, digital signage would allow the team to service more advertisers in a more interesting and engaging way.

Late last year, the team agreed to a pilot program that replaced a few of their roller ads with digital signage.

For wireless infrastructure manufacturer* Internet Connectivity Group of Lake Forest, Calif., creating a networked digital signage solution in the Kings' arena, the Staples Center, presented some key challenges, namely the expense and IT politics associated with adding a new network infrastructure to a 10-year-old building.

"Like a lot of legacy facilities, getting new wiring approved isn't just cost-prohibitive, it requires significant network approvals," says Will Geoghegan, director of marketing for ICG. "Getting the kind of committee you need to approve digital signage is difficult."

The solution was to install a system that required no wires at all.

Technology-wise, the wireless transmission of video signals within digital signage applications still has a way to go. The Kings' dasher boards, however, required mostly the display of static images–advertiser logos, mainly–with a limited amount of animated Flash effects thrown in for good measure. Such signage was imminently attainable with current wireless technology.

The heart of the Kings' trial program is ICG's proprietary digital signage module, a portable unit that fits neatly into an arena breaker box that's 120 feet away from the digital sign mounted in the dasher boards.

The solution provider refers to this Windows-based module, which sells for $2,500, as its MobileMedia System. It is essentially a network appliance, designed to create its own Wi-Fi hot spot. It includes a PC, an 802.11 transmitter, and a 3G/4G wireless network module.

While ICG's MobileMedia System is designed to support full-motion, 1080i HD content, the initial install at the Staples Center only required transmitting still images. Compressed and encoded graphics files–usually ranging from 200 to 300 kilobytes in size–are sent from ICG's MobileMedia System directly to a 802.11 receiver called the ViFi adapter mounted within the dasher boards behind the display units.

The display units themselves include three tiled 40-inch LCD displays, mounted in a 3x1 alignment in a shock-rated chassis that's fully integrated within the internal frame of the dasher board.

Once received, the files are decoded by the ViFi adapter*. These simple graphics files arrive with a limited amount of coded instruction, which tells the player how to locally render the displayed image with effects files that have already been uploaded. For example, an ad for a beer company might move from left to right across the tiled display surface, as the logo of a bank moves over to take its place.

"You don't want to transfer huge files on a wireless network," Geoghegan says. "Instead of trying to send very large media files through the network, the software allows us to take very simplified images, create the effects we want without rendering them, then have those effects rendered at the local level."

Kings staff, meanwhile, has the luxury of controlling the system and adding content from virtually anywhere. The MobileMedia box connects to the Internet via a 3G network, the same as, for example, an iPhone. Using just such a mobile device, staffers can connect with the system via a Web-based interface, changing and uploading ads at their pleasure.

The entire integration occurred without having to involve anyone from Staples Center's IT staff. ICG is still waiting to hear back as to whether the Kings want to replace all the roller ads that surround their home ice with these next-generation signs, but Geoghegan is confident the client likes the results so far.

"It's a very clean, simple architecture and execution," he says.

* Editor's note This page has been modified to reflect ICG's business as a solution provider not an integrator, and to specify that the ViFi adapter is the component that handles decoding in the dasher boards.

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