Digital Signage in Your Venue or "number 42.. your barramundi and lasagne are ready"
It's not that long ago when digital signage in a venue was a either a panel of red LEDs that showed the docket numbers of the next meals to be collected, or a bulky video monitor slung from the ceiling showing those same numbers in a very crude typeface. The more sophisticated systems could also display a list of upcoming events and sometimes also the rego number of a car with its headlights left on. Things have advanced quite a bit since those systems were at the forefront of signage technology.
Digital signage is a term used today by a broad range of advertising, marketing, electronics, content production, multimedia and project companies to mean whatever they like. Generally it has to do with displaying the sort of information that would once have appeared on printed signs, posters or billboards. The content may vary from simple directional information that changes throughout the day to reflect the use of various spaces within a venue, all the way up to fully produced entertainment or information channels, complete with up-to-the-moment information on weather, parking, special offers, traffic conditions, cocktail of the day and the current value of a jackpot pool. It almost always involves large screens and some form of scheduled replay system. Let's have a look at what sort of things are on offer and see what each of the components do and how they might be useful for your application.
The most obvious element of a digital signage system is the "sign" itself. For decades now we've been promised the possibility of large format, daylight viewable, roll-up video displays, - true digital posters. Sooner or later we will see them, indeed many of the elements of such a system are already in existence; but in the meantime, the main visual display technologies are plasma and LCD panels, LED modules, and of course video projection systems in their wide variety of forms.
Each of these devices has peculiarities that make it more or less suitable for the task of displaying information to your customers/visitors/punters.
The plasma display continues to be widely used for its size and brightness, despite its short life, burn-in problems, high energy consumption and very heavy weight.
LCD screens, have essentially overcome their earlier problems of limited viewing angle and slow response. Now their longer working life, lighter weight and lower level of burn in problems make LCDs prime contenders for digital signage, particularly as improved volume manufacturing processes are reducing the incidence of dead or stuck pixels. Unlike every competitive technology, LCD panels can also be manufactured to be very readable in areas with high ambient light, such as entry foyers, shopping centres, and exterior locations.
LED modular systems provide rugged, weatherproof, responsive, high brightness, scalable screen systems for use in high ambient light situations such as daylight viewing or in competition with such bright sources as commercial, street lighting and stage systems. Their complexity, cost, weight, high power and cooling requirements and limited resolution, confine their current application to large scale billboard type signage.
Organic LED display panels are just starting to become available in sizes suitable for digital signage applications. The very high contrast ratios possible from this technology produce very attractive high resolution images with deep blacks and richly-saturated colours from very thin light-weight panels with low energy consumption. This technology will be ideal for many digital signage applications as panels become larger and the issue of longevity is finally solved.
Video projection is ideal for billboard-sized digital signage, provided that you can firstly, find a way to place the projector far enough away from the screen (either in front or behind) to get a clear image, and secondly you can keep the viewing conditions (light levels and spill light) within the tolerances of your projection system. In places such as underground railway stations, digital billboards have been wowing audiences for quite a few years now.
Having a place to display your digital signage and having a clean, clearly readable image for your information is merely the front of house end of a complex system. Back of house you need a media distribution system, which in turn is fed by the right material at the right time.
Media distribution systems were once racks of quite expensive and specialised video and audio distribution amplifiers that pumped audio and video signals out over expensive low-loss audio and video cables to each point in the venue. Moving a video screen or its accompanying loudspeakers was frequently a job for a specialist audiovisual technician.
The nearly universal presence of Ethernet computer networks running over category 5+ data cable (blue string), has provided the impetus for today's media distribution to be handled either as part of an Ethernet network, or directly using the cheap Cat5e cable that can be installed by most electricians or telecoms technicians. There is usually a small interface box to connect each video display into the distribution network.
As the media server that controls a signage system is essentially an-in house television station, the output usually includes the ability to make picture transitions and apply various kinds of digital video effects and captioning to the video stream. The material to be displayed on the signage can be pretty much anything that you can display on a TV or a computer monitor. Sources include JPEG images taken with the family digital camera, your mobile phone, or concocted in PhotoShop, movie files, YouTube downloads, streaming Internet video or extracts from DVDs. The range extends all the way through to HTML web pages, PowerPoint slides, Illustrator images, or CAD drawings. The possibilities are pretty much unlimited, which is a recipe for a visual disaster, for those of us not trained in graphic design and/or television production.
Fortunately most media server packages come with a set of templates for you to use to keep your presentations from looking too disastrous. Unfortunately, like the templates available in PowerPoint, Publisher and FrontPage, everyone's pages look the same and nobody's pages look really sharp and thoughtfully designed. You shouldn't worry too much, because there are dozens of media designers, advertising agencies, digital signage bureaus and media consultants out there who are waiting for your enquiry as to how to implement digital signage in your venue.
Media servers are also the program schedulers for your in-house media empire. Many systems offer the ability to not only select a changing cycle of material for display, but also to select which screens are showing which "channels" of material at what time of the day. The foyer channel could be promoting upcoming events in a particular room, whilst the gaming room channel could be showing when the next entertainment will be running, and the bars channel could be promoting the forthcoming happy hour specials or the commencement of service in a food outlet. The Tesco supermarket chain in the UK runs eight separate in-house channels of digital signage displays which are linked to each of its stores.
In addition to the "canned" material that is already prepared on the media server, some sophisticated media servers allow for the scheduled inclusion of "live" material such as news, weather and sports bulletins, streaming media, road traffic reports, and even live crosses to cameras in your own system that may be showing an arrival, or an event in another room. Like the composition of the material for display, taking advantage of professional scheduling and management of the signage content, can help you to extract the best value from of the opportunities to communicate with the people in your venue. There are service companies that can offer off-site production of the content for your screens, coupled with the delivery of updates and content rescheduling, all via your broadband internet link or satellite.
Everybody, and their best mate, seem to have a digital signage system for sale. Some come from audiovisual/multimedia companies with expertise in production and installation, some come from software companies that specialise in content authoring and server software, others come from the world of electronics manufacturing and want to sell you a particular type of display and the computers to run the signage system, there are the broadcast media companies who are used to making television material and distributing the product, and finally there are the broadcast engineering companies who know all about delivery and display systems.
The interesting part of getting involved in digital signage is choosing which type of package will best serve your needs.
by Andy Ciddor, © Copyright The Kilowatt Company