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The Paper Chase

Electronic paper vendors see color as one way to grab a bigger share of the booming digital signage market.

THE PERCEPTION that digital signage is everywhere isn't just a hypersensitivity that comes with working in AV. It really is that pervasive. At the end of 2004, the display portion of the worldwide retail signage market was worth about $664 million, according to estimates by iSuppli, an El Segundo, CA-based analyst firm that tracks the AV industry. That amount should double by late 2006, and by 2009, digital signage should be worth about $2.3 billion.

One big driver behind that market is fairly obvious: Signs that are colorful, dynamic, or both attract more attention than black ink on eggshell cardboard. In advertising applications, another driver is the ability to wring more revenue from each sign.

“From retailers' and other users' point of view, a move to digital media is inevitable,” says Sanju Khatri, a senior analyst at iSuppli. “Retailers/users who already have static signs installed in various retail locations have a vested interest in switching to digital signage because they can now offer multiple advertising slots and different ad rates. The question is how fast and what will determine the migration to digital signage.”

LED, LCD, and . . . paper

“Digital signage” is a catchall term that focuses on how the display is used rather than the underlying technology. “I define digital or retail signage as the display and management of information and advertisements in retail and various other commercial environments,” Khatri says.

LED and plasma currently hold the biggest shares of the signage market in terms of revenue, according to iSuppli's estimates, with LCD outpacing LED around 2006. Those market positions overshadow another player: electrophoretic technologies, also sometimes called “electronic paper.”

One example is Gyricon, an Ann Arbor, MI-based company spun off from Xerox PARC in 2000. Gyricon's SmartPaper displays are used in applications such as convention centers and hotel lobbies. A SmartPaper display looks like a monochrome cross between a whiteboard and the screen of a late 1970s computer, with blocky characters of a fixed size. “In the not-too-distant future, these signs will be fully pixilated, so you can put in graphics and change text size,” says Robert Sprague, vice president and CTO of Gyricon.

The design is highly scalable. Gyricon can tile together multiple four-character sections to scale the technology in sizes ranging from an index card to a 4-foot by 8-foot sheet of plywood, and potentially up to a billboard. “Compared to things like LEDs, it's very cheap and very sunlight-readable,” Sprague says. The current products are for indoor applications, but later this year, Gyricon expects to offer an outdoor version that works in temperatures from -70 to 90 degrees Celsius.

The company touts a wide variety of potential applications, including shelf labels, road signs, electronic books, and roll-up displays for hand-held devices such as cell phones. If those markets took off, SmartPaper would start building the volumes necessary to drive down the cost. That would make the technology even more competitive with old-fashioned paper and help stave off conventional display technologies — including LEDs — that begin to encroach on some of SmartPaper's markets as their costs drop.

What SmartPaper lacks in color and resolution it makes up for in cost, flexibility, and readability. For instance, by using batteries or solar power, the displays can be installed in places where electricity isn't available or wouldn't be cost-effective to add. “The batteries will run for a couple of years in most applications,” Sprague says.

That claim is impressive, considering that SmartPaper uses 802.11b WiFi wireless technology to receive updates, such as a new message to display. (Ethernet also is an option.) WiFi is notorious as a battery hog — so much so that vendors such as Intel have spent years figuring out ways to make 802.11b viable for portable devices such as laptops. Gyricon tackles that problem by waking up the WiFi radio only when it's time to refresh the display, rather than having it constantly turned on. Solving the WiFi power riddle is key to adoption because 802.11b is widely used in enterprises and public spaces, so SmartPaper leverages the customer's existing infrastructure rather than forcing them to deploy WiFi just to use SmartPaper.

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