Behind the screens

Behind every digital signage installation is a host of supporting services and technologies designed to ensure the message gets across successfully. This month’s technology insight looks across the whole range of applications to uncover these unsung heroes of the world of digital signage as InAVate goes…

Digital signage is catch-all phrase that has grown in common usage within the AV industry over the last two to three years to the point now where it is a very familiar description of electronic screens placed in public locations running advertising and public information. Think of digital signage and the chances are you will think of a large flat screen suspended from the ceiling or fixed to the wall, perhaps even, mounted on a pole. But digital signage is more than that. It really covers a range of peripheral components as well, all intended to attract attention to the screen in the first place and to reinforce the messages carried by it. Devices that are solely functional, as in the case of the bracketry and supporting structure or that are designed to attract viewers, whatever the role of the screen.

Digital signage has been around for some time in its various guises and many companies have invested heavily in delivering revenue-generating and effective content, there is a common feeling within the industry that the business justification has yet not been fully identified. Chris Heap, Commercial Manager of the CAN Media Group has been involved with several large-scale commercial projects, many of them as in-store advertising networks. “Several large retailers have experimented and tested in-store signage networks to deliver a creative and meaningful retail experience that balance the needs and wants of the customer with the commercial objectives of retail business. Many of those retailers, including some very large groceries, have struggled to identify the true and justifiable business model resulting in constant tweaking of the system.”. It is important for viewers to understand why signs are where they are, and who they belong to, Chris continues: “Screens in a named stores are by and large immediately recognised by shoppers as informational and promotional devices operated by the store, but in more public locations such as shopping malls and transport hubs where ownership of the network or the source of the content is less clear, it is important that the brand that owns the message is clearly identified to help convey a message that consumers can trust and in trusting can act upon instantly". A common mechanism to achieve this is to provide instant branding on the screen, and rather than placing a permanent image on the screen a stylised screen surround will deliver instant brand recognition as well as attracting shoppers’ eyes. Bluewater shopping centre in Kent has invested heavily in the design and installation of digital signage in the main thoroughfares. Large purpose-built acrylic pods were designed carrying additional advertising and corporate branding. Robert Seward, Managing Director of Unicol was involved in the design and manufacture of the pods: “Digital signage is a big buzz at the moment but it is hard to find equivalent revenues, locations such as Bluewater use signage and the highly attractive surrounds as part of the overall aesthetics and styling of the centre rather than as a revenue-generating opportunity. However other stores and retail centres are looking for commercial viability and we are often involved in the provision of in-store units that combine digital screens and additional branding and advertising to appeal to the advertisers and shopper alike.”

Touch screens are also emerging as a significant add-on to digital signage, Protouch supplies touch screen monitors as well as complete kiosks for corporate, exhibition and point-of-sale applications. Tom Quarry Managing Director, comments: “Touchscreens are being deployed on a very wide scale to satisfy the individual requirements of users in a wide variety of applications including retail, medical, gaming and information environments. We have experienced rapid growth as installers look for added value to digital signage over and above their general use as display points, which allows greater interaction and stimulates deeper interest and attention to the content of the screens." Similarly, Artsystems a company with a long heritage in large format printing equipment and services has recently set up and operates a division servicing the digital market, including touch screen kiosks and remote digital signage network products. Steve Kilroy, UK Sales Manager comments: “Many of our traditional signage customers who have been using print technology for posters and large displays have started to become interested in digital displays, particularly in screens that are mounted in portrait format and supplied as fully-finished and stylised units ready for installation in high-spec retail locations.”

Within the retail environment, shelf-edge digital signage is becoming more common with the advent of cost reduction in small displays data networks. H Squared provides systems to several large chain stores and national supermarkets. Kevin Higgs, Managing Director explains the philosophy: “Shelf-edge and around-signage communication is crucial to the success of digital signage within stores. We work very closely with the marketing and store teams during the early stages of the project to establish the total message and concept. There’s no point installing an in-house signage system consisting of digital displays alone without considering and including the peripheral messaging elements: information explaining what the screens are there for and enticing customers to explore and investigate them.”

An extension to the direct touch screen is the through-glass touch panel that allows viewers to control a screen. Paradigm’s Touch247 system integrates a rear projection screen and projector or plasma screen with a through-glass touch panel and the networking and support services aimed at delivering a complete turn-key solution to estate agents. Paul Wood comments: "Estate agents operate in a highly competitive market that relies on communicating with potential purchasers to succeed. Touch247 delivers much more detailed information on demand to customers 24 hours a day as an alternative to window cards or rolling presentation, allowing them to focus on properties of interest. The success of the system has shown that this type of system is ideal for this type of purpose and we are already developing systems for other types of market. Estate agents focus heavily on attracting home owners “instructions” for sale of their house and the research we conducted shows that more potential sellers were more interested in giving their instructions to agents that offer Touch247 type solutions than were to those that had a more traditional window display.”

One firm that has successfully supplied integrated digital signage systems in the US is Nexus Digital Signs, with solutions for retail, education, corporate and estate agencies. Paul Terry, Managing Director, explains the reasons for success: “Our installations are based around digital displays housed in bespoke cases designed to suit the local environment. More importantly they have the facilities to carry branding that realizes the full potential of signage to increase revenue, brand recognition and product awareness at the point-of-sale, or to draw attention in the case of public information or other locations.” The company is about to introduce a standard digital signage package in kit form, integrating back-to-back plasma screens, in a dedicated housing, with touch screens and control equipment. Paul Terry: ”This product is one for which we envisage a significant demand, providing a combination of light weight, ease and variety of installation, different screen sizes and ancillary equipment and the all-important branding and image overlays in a single unit.”

Providing video pictures is just one half of the story. Audio is the other, but in many cases flooding an area with sound can be highly obtrusive and unwelcome. Many digital signage installations are provided without audio as a consequence. This problem has been tackled by Panphonics, a Finnish design company holding several audio-related patents in their system that delivers highly focused sound that can be configured to operate over long distances of 20 metres or so, without spreading outside a narrow corridor. The system operates well at low volumes and uses ‘Plane Wave Technology’ from flat panel audio elements that are just 4 millimetres thick, allowing them to be installed unobtrusively alongside flat screen displays. Plane Wave Technology radiates an acoustic wave that is flat and travels in a straight direction, maintaining its amplitude, rather than being a point source emanating equally in all directions and losing volume as the square of the distance from the source. This allows audio commentary and music to be added to digital signage to complete the whole AV picture, John LeBeau, MD explains how the system operates: “We use directional audio to create sound corridors and audio footprints to deliver the audio message to the target audiences without disturbing the surrounding environment. Our plane wave technology also allows us to also send the audio over much long distances than conventional loudspeakers typically up to 25 metres in a normal environment.” A recent installation at Helsinki’s Kamppi shopping centre included a network of 42” plasma screens with Panphonics’ audio systems delivering a constant level localised sound directed exclusively in front of each screen and audible for around 10 meters.

Another company realising the benefits of audio in digital signage is Avocent, an American IT solutions provider that supplies AV distribution systems alongside a wide range of advanced IT products. The company’s latest product is the Emerge MPX 1000HD, which delivers high definition audio and PC graphic content over a wireless network. A recent partnership with Gas Station TV will see the installation of displays to deliver news, entertainment and advertising to drivers at petrol stations. Mitch Friend, senior vice president and general manager of Avocent comments: “Consumers spend, on average, four and a half minutes at the gas pump with nothing to do. Our technology offers high definition TV and CD-quality audio to deliver superior digital signage to fully engage consumers as they refuel using a single transmission source to multiple receivers spread around the forecourt.

An area that has gone largely unnoticed but has been steadily growing is the rear projection screen. Technology has advanced rapidly so that screens of ever increasing size are available to meet the requirements of ever expanding projectors, allowing them to be used in bright locations, even shop windows, where they would not have worked up to very recently. 3M’s Vikuiti screens are lightweight, can be cut to any size and shape and provide a wide viewing angle. More importantly, colour rendition of rear projection screens is excellent, allowing true to life images and colour across the viewing range. A recent installation at Spain’s Canal 4’ broadcast studios includes four screens, the largest covering 36 square meters. One of the screens is combined with a 2.2 x 1.2 meter touch panel to provide interactive on-screen weather forecasts that are controlled by the presenter. Showing its versatility, the screen has also been installed in Harrods in London, forming the centrepiece of the ‘Harrods Rocks’ promotion. Described by Sarah Southgate of Harrods as a “truly amazing effect” the 70 inch Vikuti screen was cut to the shape of an electric guitar and fixed directly to the window with no bulky support or mounting structure. Customised content was created to fit the screen and combined with 3M’s digital signage software to automatically control the projector, switching it off at night and coordinating the playback and timing of content. Simon Birkenhead, Sales & Marketing Manager, 3M Digital Signage and Optical Systems Division, added: “Vikuiti Rear Projection films are the ideal medium for in-window retail promotions and branding, with their ability to present compelling information in striking formats. This is allowing a new breed of creative thought to emerge that is not constrained by the standard square shapes of traditional digital signage screens.”

Display manufacturer NEC has extended its product strategy to incorporate close liaison with solution partners such as 2IQ, a supplier of mounting and support equipment, AMX-Endeleo who provide content delivery networks and U-Touch, offering interactive screen overlays for large format displays. The approach is to provide a single point of contact for complete digital signage solutions, Barrie Guy, Public Displays Sales Manager explains the philosophy: “NEC is differentiating itself in a complex market by offering a prime contact point for the full package. NEC maintains ‘ownership’ of the complete solution by maintaining strong links and relationships with selected partners so that clients can be confident that we, rather than they, will sort out all the problems arising in installation and commissioning of a system; whether it is a single store unit or a vast network of screens around the country.”

As digital signage evolves, it is becoming clearer that the complete solution is more than just the screen; other elements have to be included in all installations. To be successful in the digital signage business nowadays entails the integration of picture, sound, branding, marketing messages and overall styling and image throughout the conceptual design and development process through to professional installation and commissioning.

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