Technologies to Watch

2009 will be a big year for digital signage, telepresence and just about anything wireless. Here’s why - by Tim Kridel.

Despite the uncertain worldwide economy, 2009 won’t necessarily be a bleak year for commercial and enterprise AV – at least not for technologies that leverage something that’s already widely available, cut costs for the end user or some combination of the two. Here are the ones to keep an eye on in 2009.

LEDs see the light

If projectors have an Achilles’ Heel, it’s their bulb: They have to be replaced periodically. They’re not inexpensive. They tend to burn out at the most inopportune times, such as right before the CEO’s presentation. And they generate heat, which means more work for the room’s HVAC system – a growing concern as more enterprises look to trim their energy expenditures wherever possible.

Those drawbacks help create a market for Light-Emitting Diode (LED) bulbs, which last longer, generate less heat and use less power than their incandescent predecessors. Less heat also means lower cooling requirements, so fans can be quieter.

“Lower power consumption and higher reliability make this technology a sure bet for integrators in the future,” says Matt Nelson, president and CEO of AvaLAN Wireless Systems, a U.S.-based maker of wireless Ethernet hardware.

Perhaps as early as this year, LEDs also could show in more enterprises’ ceiling light fixtures – and not just for illumination. Researchers at Boston University and other universities founded
the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center ( to develop LED technology that not only illuminates a room, but also blankets it with wireless broadband connectivity.

The technology should be able to support throughput in the 1 Gbps range, making it a potential fit for applications such as connecting HD displays in a conference room or retail setting. Although the researchers are still refining the technology, it uses off-the-shelf hardware, so it could be ready for commercialization in the next year or so.

Telepresence takes off

By most accounts, telepresence did a brisk business in 2008, particularly in Europe. European deployments also usually were on a larger scale. For example, BT told InAVate in September that EMEA enterprises tend to deploy six to 10 rooms when they first get into telepresence, while U.S. companies usually deploy four to six rooms.

Expect 2009 to be another solid year for telepresence, for at least two reasons. One is the steadily declining cost of hardware. For example, the HP Halo Collaboration Studio debuted in December 2005 for €326,000 per room. By fall 2008, it was €227,000. Meanwhile, LifeSize Communications’ Express system sells for about €3,259 sans HD display. All of that makes it easier for more enterprises to make a business case for telepresence.

Another market driver is budget-cutting: Sure, telepresence systems and the bandwidth they require are still relatively expensive. But those costs often are offset by savings in flights and hotels when executives – the major users of telepresence – don’t have to travel as often.

“I think telepresence will be big, in part because they’ve now come out with executive models, which are for individuals at a price point that’s a lot more attractive than $300,000 [€236,000] for a room,” says Stan Schatt, vice president and research director at ABI Research, which tracks the telecom and tech industries. “Telepresence is already a force in multinational [enterprises] and Europe and will continue to grow pretty significantly.”

Cutting the cord

Wireless has some obvious benefits for pro AV applications, including eliminating rat’s nests of cables and reducing the lead time and labor costs that come with stringing fiber or copper throughout a venue.

Yet wireless remains a niche play for some equally compelling reasons. A big one is the hassle of connecting a laptop to a conference room display or projector without special software to shepherd the process. Another turnoff is unreliability, particularly 802.11 Wi-Fi’s vulnerability to interference and physical obstructions such as walls.

Those drawbacks are becoming less of a deal-breaker thanks to new technologies. For example, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is expected to ratify the latest version of Wi-Fi – 802.11n – this March. Although pre-standard 802.11n-equipped devices, such as laptops, have been commercially available for years, some enterprises and AV vendors have been reluctant to adopt the technology for fear that the final, official version of the standard might not be 100 percent compatible with first-generation gear.

With that uncertainty finally out of the way, expect 802.11n to become more widely available in pro AV starting this year.

“802.11n will deliver higher quality video and audio to market in 2009,” says AvaLAN’s Nelson.

Some AV vendors are champing at the bit. One example is Avocent: In November 2008, the company announced the MPX1550 wireless extender, which it says is the first 802.11n product designed for digital signage applications.

The MPX1550 illustrates two major benefits of 802.11n for pro AV applications: bandwidth and reliability. The initial 802.11n standard will support maximum throughput of 300 Mbps, although as with other Wi-Fi technologies, only about half of that is available for the applications riding over that connection. (The other half is consumed by radio overhead.)

Even, so 150 Mbps is a fat pipe, enough to deliver lossless video and thus help level the playing
field against copper and fiber.

“There is a 500 percent increase in bandwidth that enables high-definition video content to be sent virtually lossless,” Nelson says.

A second benefit of 802.11n is multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) antenna technology. As its name implies, the technology uses multiple antennas to improve the chances that at least one of them can send or receive a usable signal. That design helps products such as laptops and the MPX1550 work around interference and weak signals, thereby improving reliability and bandwidth.

Laptops with built-in, pre-standard 802.11n are already common in enterprises. That adoption is noteworthy because projectors and displays often are monitors for laptops, so AV vendors tend to follow the lead of PC vendors when it comes to picking technologies. Translation: The more prevalent 802.11n becomes in the enterprise market, the more likely AV pros will have to accommodate it.

“802.11n will be everywhere simply because next-generation [PC] products will have n built in at the motherboard level,” says ABI’s Schatt. “Already, with some vendors, n is already up to 40 percent of their shipments.”

Short messages, long reach

Short Message Service (SMS) technology was standardized in 1985 as part of the Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) cellular standard. Since then, rival cellular technologies such as Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) have added support for SMS.

The upshot is that most cell phones sold this decade support SMS. That enormous installed base affects digital signage by creating a way for advertisers to assess the effectiveness and reach of their campaigns.

Here’s how: Digital signage ads can include “short codes,” which are five- or six-digit numbers that consumers can send a text message to. In return, they receive – often via SMS – more information about the advertised product and, in some cases, an electronic coupon.

One benefit of short codes is that they make it easy for consumers to get information about the advertised product on the spot, instead of the next time they’re at a PC – if they still remember the ad at that point. Another benefit is that the advertiser can look at the volume of incoming text messages to assess whether its ads are getting noticed.

The latter benefit couldn’t come at a better time: Digital signage’s biggest challenge arguably is the lack of an industry-standard framework that lets advertisers and media buyers measure the effectiveness of ads. Until there’s a framework on par with what’s been available for decades in print, radio and TV, the digital signage market won’t be as lucrative as it could be. For example, although digital signage deployments are growing, by 2012, they’ll still represent only about 10 percent of the total out-of-home advertising market, according to an August 2008 report by Screen Digest, a London-based research firm.

Industry groups such as the Out-of-Home Video Advertising Bureau (OVAB) are working to develop standards for measuring ad campaigns that use digital signage. In late November 2005, the U.S.-based OVAB created a European chapter, whose founding members include
IBM Deutschland, Philips and NEC Display Solutions. A European chapter should be a plus for attracting international advertisers to digital signage, the group says.

In the meantime, research highlights the value of SMS for providing at least some of the insights that advertisers want from digital signage. By 2012, 40 percent of networked displays will use SMS, up from about 5 percent in 2007, according to MultiMedia Intelligence.

“Advertisers are looking to enable a higher level of engagement with digital signage audiences by enabling a backchannel,” the firm wrote in a November 2008 report.

SMS isn’t the only way that advertisers are looking to leverage mobile phones. Another is technology that lets consumer use cell phone cameras to get more information about an advertised product. For example, with SnapTell’s technology, consumers can take a picture of an ad – such as in a magazine, on a billboard or on digital signage – and then send it via Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) to the advertisers to get more information.

“There are so many technologies out there now that can be integrated into one of these platforms,” says Rick Sizemore, co-founder of and chief strategy and development officer at MultiMedia Intelligence. “It all depends on the advertiser or the owner of the network is trying to accomplish.”

Yet another example of how wireless complements digital signage is Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology, which a growing number of retailers – such as Tesco and Wal-Mart – use for tracking inventory and thwarting shoplifters. Depending on the design, an RFID chipset – embedded in a tag that’s then affixed to product packaging – has a range of about 10 meters. A nearby scanner detects when a shopper picks up an RFID-tagged product and then triggers the adjacent digital signage to display an ad for that product.

Such systems have been available for a few years, but they’re becoming more common as more retailers expand their use of RFID. Although that use is primarily for inventory and security, it still translates into a large and ever-growing installed base of RFID-tagged products – a base that RFID-ready digital signage can leverage.

One recent example is the EPCmagic Mirror, co-developed by NEC Australia and GS1 Australia. Announced in October 20008, the system reads RFID tags in clothing and then, on a nearby display, provides information such as the colors available, pricing and promotions, accessory suggestions and sizes available.

RFID and SMS are just two examples of how wireless is becoming more common in digital signage applications. In 2008, 169,000 new digital display installations had either Bluetooth, RFID, Wi-Fi, SMS or some combination of the four, MultiMedia Intelligence says.

The wild card – one that affects not only digital signage, but also any other pro AV system that targets consumers – is the economy.

“2009 could have been a huge year for a lot of this stuff,” Sizemore says. “It will be a huge year for advertisement dollars to migrate to lower cost and better return-on-investment (ROI) platforms. But because the entire world is in total confusion right now, a lot of this stuff is going to get pushed out until we know better. But there are a lot of ad dollars out there looking for a home.”

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