Pixel powered

There is no doubt that the digital signage market is maturing from its early days in retail and offices to a much wider user-base. As a consequence displays themselves have developed; both in appearance and functionality. Steve Montgomery reports. All of the large display manufacturers have commercial product ranges targeted at high-use, high quality applications as professional applications evolve with a consequent demand for higher specification, and higher value displays.

“We have seen recent expansion in schools & universities, transport terminals and public buildings such as libraries”, observes Daniel Quitzau of Mitsubishi Electric, “There has also been a big increase in corporate applications such as foyers and reception areas. Although there are fewer retail systems, the ones that are being rolled-out tend to be very large projects. Our experience with Play-Out, our digital signage platform, has shown that implementing successful systems requires the specialist skills of licensed resellers. Each project has its own requirements and has to be handled individually.”

A second effect of the maturity in the market is that specialised displays are being produced, as Daniel continues: “We are seeing the evolution now of dedicated digital signage displays which combine functionality with style. Our recently launched MDT521S is an example of this trend – a display that’s been designed to fit-in with the most prestigious surroundings, but which is also specially adapted to digital signage applications with dual light sensors and a Cat5 receiver.”

Technical developments within the flat panel display market mean that inherent functionality is expanding rapidly. However, the most important consideration is still reliability. Simon Jackson
Vice President, NEC Display Solutions presses the point: “The business environment demands professionalism. Particularly for those displays that are in daily, continuous use, displays have to function perfectly and reliably over long periods of time, since equipment failure can lead to enormous costs and problems.”

Of particular note is the trend to deploy screens in portrait orientation, but large LCD panels tend to suffer shorter lifespan when used this way for long periods. For this reason, manufacturers such as NEC, JVC, Mitsubishi and LG now produce screens that are capable of operating in both modes, or as variants in both landscape and portrait, each specially engineered for long-term reliability in their respective orientations.

Recent JVC product releases include the GM-F Series of professional large format LCD monitors, ideal for digital signage applications. Liz Cox, Marketing Communications Manager, JVC Professional, explains: “The screens have high brightness panels and are designed for 24/7 operation. Each can be mounted in both landscape and portrait mode, with ultra-thin front bezels for tiled mounting of up to 5 x 5 screens.

“The screens include a PIR sensor for great interactivity. When they detect a person, they can automatically change volume, content, input, backlight or power. There’s also a space at the back of the monitors to mount a Compact PC, which runs TV-TOOLS, JVC’s digital signage software.”

LED displays have been historically used only in very large prestige installations such as city centres and sports stadiums. This is due to two factors: the size of the individual pixels; and the cost of procurement and installation. As pixel pitches drop with the availability of the newest surface mount LED devices it is now becoming easier and more affordable to produce and install smaller displays with high resolution.

However these are still not at a level that can be economically justified in general digital signage applications. So alternative techniques have been developed to create new approaches and radical design to draw viewers’ attention to screens and enhance their attractiveness to advertisers. Kinoton’s new Litefast display is an LED based display within a cylindrical structure, which can be combined with traditional graphics and branding. Astrid Schroter of the company explains the operation: “It uses a narrow vertical LED array of coloured pixels that rotates at high speed within a Perspex tube to ‘paint’ images; much like the operation of a CRT TV.

“The effect is a live display that can be viewed from all angles with the added benefit of additional effects such as image rotation around the unit. And because the arm itself is quite small, unlit areas become transparent. So images can be made to appear to float within the structure.”

Amscreen, a new entrant to the digital signage screen, has rapidly risen within the sector and announced some large network contracts; notably with the Financial Times, BP, Great Ormond Street Hospital, HMV and other household names. Screens are targeted at the digital out of home market, which is claimed to be worth over £72m and growing at a rate of 45% per year, faster, it is claimed than the internet.

Content is handled by media agency Digicom, with the emphasis on scalability and key locations, including petrol forecourts and convenience stores to reach consumers. The company claims that the key to success is to provide a mixture of technology with good content to enable the right message to be delivered at the right time. “We overcome traditional barriers to market via low cost, easy to deploy, wireless GPRS technology, designed to be wholly automated and not reliant on human intervention. This gives our partners and advertisers increased resilience and surety.” explains Simon Sugar, CEO.

“This allows us to quickly establish networks based on unprecedented, sustainable business models which enable us to provide the platform for national advertisers to reach that all important critical mass audience. Also, attracting attention and exciting the eye is absolutely key.

“Amscreen digital signage is designed not to just fade into the background or look like an ordinary TV screen. Bright animated posters with short sharp messages work better with people on the go as opposed to long videos. So when content is kept simple, on small screens, at the point of purchase, less computing power is required which all adds up to making the solution more affordable and most importantly, more scalable.

“The combination of LED ticker to excite the eye and attract attention, quality LCD screen, good creative and positioning at customer eye level at the point of purchase is a winning formula. In a recent survey carried out in BP stores, the ticker helped 79% of respondents notice the screen.”

Organic light emitting diode (OLED) technology has been hailed as the next big technology in the display market, particularly for high brightness, (read outdoor and digital signage) applications, with claimed increases in brightness, contrast, thinness, durability, flexible lower power consumption and so on; in short, all the features we want.

It has been a long time coming, with Sony, LG and Samsung demonstrating prototypes at various shows throughout 2008 and 2009. Apart from some small displays of 4-6 inches in size used in handheld and professional devices, very few real affordable applications have been seen. Mitsubishi Electric however has taken a similar approach to that used in its Diamond Vision LED displays by tiling small OLED panels together to form a much larger display.

The company’s new large screen OLED display uses 5” OLED modules each with 1024 pixels on a 3mm pitch to form single screens. The new technique is explained by Daniel Quitzau: “In addition to the normal benefits of OLED, this tiling approach permits odd-shaped displays and installation on curved surfaces: something that regular displays cannot do. The key parameter is that each module is thin and light and can be butted seamlessly to its neighbours, meaning that joins are not evident. Displays can now be created in spaces and in applications previously considered impractical.”

The capability to download content to screens is important. One successful approach is to use web-enabled technology which allows providers to manage content live from anywhere in the world with internet access. The web is familiar territory to marketing departments and the agencies that would normally create advertising messages and manage web presence.

A web-based solution also creates less resistance from the IT department because users are not accessing critical areas of the PC’s operating system. Less resistance makes it much easier to manage campaigns and to react swiftly to changing requirements.

Simon Sugar: “Advertisers also see a key requirement of digital signage as being improved compliance and reporting. Unfortunately, this has not always been delivered by other suppliers in this market. Amscreen has accountability and compliance at its core and ensures this is maximised by having fully integrated systems, rather than four or five elements of a system pieced together. Our units are fully monitored on a 24/7 schedule ensuring maximum system uptime for advertisers and retailers.”

The evidence in these recession-hit times, is that digital signage industry is buoyant, and leading manufacturers to develop and deliver exciting new products, which in turn is generating sales and contributing to their own future.

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