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The Many Advantages of Plasma Display Signage

When it comes to indoor displays, plasma is one of the most versatile media available today. The content for plasma displays is easy to create and manage, especially with a solid software program.

By Lori Andreozzi

Clarke Systems Architectural Signage Systems Wayfinding ADA

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  • When it comes to indoor displays, plasma is one of the most versatile media available today. The content for plasma displays is easy to create and manage, especially with a solid software program. The installation and maintenance are relatively simple. And digital signage is found everywhere -- in shopping malls, airports, restaurants, convention centers, trade shows, and now even the health care industry ­ making it a familiar medium to consumers.

    Retail environments showcase plasma displays to promote in-store sales of their products. To display enlarged images, multiple units are arranged in groups of four, six, or nine units. Creating a dramatic effect with multiple units is successful when displaying music videos, usually in shopping malls where the target audience is young and hip.

    Plasma signage is also used to reach larger audiences, usually representing multiple advertisers, when placed in venues such as airports, stadiums, trade shows, and theme parks. When displayed in professional settings such as banks, universities, hospitals, and offices, the messages cater directly to the particular needs of the clientele. As a case study from Scala Inc. will show, digital signage can play an important role in corporate communications, allowing employees to keep abreast of information relative to their benefits or other company announcements.

    Plasma is an electrically charged noble gas (usually argon, xenon, or neon) sandwiched in millions of compartments between two panes of transistor-covered glass. An electrical charge is applied to the gas to make it glow red, green, or blue. This is similar to the process of neon where an electrical charge is applied to a noble gas. The process also works much like a cathode ray tube where cells red, green, or blue are illuminated to create an image. Recent improvements in plasma screens include longer life spans and anti-burn-in features. In the past, plasma screens could not generate the color black; it was more of a gray. New systems have overcome this with new black drive systems and improved ratio contrasts.

    The business of plasma is certainly on the rise. According to online news source, by 2007, plasma displays will account for 41 percent of the large screen display market with expected revenues of $2.27 billion. The total large screen displays market (including LED and LCD) is projected to grow to more than $5.5 billion by 2007.

    Scala Inc. of Exton, Pennsylvania, provides software solutions for advertising displays, including digital signage. Two of their case studies offer some interesting examples of how plasma screens can be incorporated into the workplace. The software programs and updates the content, replacing the “old-fashioned” methods of using DVD and MPEG players. McKee Foods, makers of Little Debbie snacks, utilize a Scala product, InfoChannel visual communications suite, which works together with plasma screens to give their staff another way to keep up-to-date on company news, events, and the weather forecast. On Little Debbie TV (LDTV), employees can check their 401K statements as well. All three manufacturing plants in Tennessee, Virginia, and Arkansas are tied into the same InfoChannel. spoke with Jeff Porter, Executive Vice President at Scala. We asked Mr. Porter about the problems that arise when advertisers do not utilize software in creating content for their plasma displays, “The most common pitfall is that they think that a DVD player or a simple MPEG player is good enough. It just doesn't cut the mustard. Consider the example of Best Buy. They had been sending DVDs to their stores prior to using Scala. They could only afford to do this once a month and each store got exactly the same DVD. Weekly specials could not be advertised. Different stores could not highlight different products based on demographics or geographic differences. Setting up day parts was not possible. They had no confirmation that the ads were actually playing in the store. It was completely ineffective. Now Best Buy is doing updates twice a week, and as new movies or music is released, or as the weekly specials change, they have a completely coordinated marketing campaign in their stores. It's a very powerful message.”

    At the Oslo Stock Exchange, Scala software powers four 62” plasma screens that form a four-sided display hung from the ceiling, showing live data, news, graphs, and countdowns.

    “Software is THE KEY element to a digital signage network,” says Porter. “Having a poor software system in your network will result in a higher expense to produce, change, and transmit media assets to the remote sites. If it's not a proven 7x24 system, the reliability of the system becomes a serious issue.”

    ActiveLight Inc. of Poulsbo, Washington is a national distributor of plasma displays. We interviewed Brad Gleeson, President and Chief Operating Officer, to learn more about the advantages of plasma. What makes plasma display systems a popular choice for digital signage?

    Brad Gleeson: The form factor. Until plasma came along, there was no display technology that accurately represented the digital equivalent of a "poster" on the wall. TV monitors have been used for years, but people look at TVs at home all the time. TVs in stores were virtually invisible because people do not want to go out and watch TV while shopping. Plasmas provide a bright, flat, wide, or tall image that is clearly NOT a TV. People simply can't walk past it without looking at it. Doesn't this define what a sign should do?

    Sign Elements Vehicle Templates Typically, plasma is used more frequently indoor rather than in outdoor applications. What is the reason for this?

    Because Plasma monitors are sensitive electronic instruments and very valuable. Also because high ambient light and glare can wash out the plasma’s image. We have successfully deployed plasmas as outdoor signage, but this must be done with the use of an enclosure that protects the display from both weather and vandalism and deployed in a way to avoid direct sunlight. It’s not difficult if you know what you are trying to achieve. How has plasma developed over the last several years? Is it continually improving?

    Like most electronics, plasmas have continued to get both better and cheaper rapidly and dramatically. When Activelight started, we had one product to choose from, it offered 60:1 contrast ratio, poor brightness, low resolution, and was very expensive. I apologize to all of our customers who bought is because now, our best selling product is 4000:1 contrast, extremely bright, available in a variety of sizes and resolutions - AND at a price that's 50% lower than when we started six years ago. Based upon conversations with our vendors, this improvement is likely to continue for some time. What are some of the most common applications of plasma digital signage?

    The exhibit industry was our first target market and the have embraced the concept of plasma display for tradeshow booth and museum exhibit use very actively. The retail industry was also adopted early on and continues to be a great market as well as a market that promises tremendous growth. Vertical markets such as auto dealers and movie theaters are also looking very promising. And of course transportation hubs such as airports are a "no-brainer." Almost no areas where static signage or building directories or way-finding is used now are off-limits for the digital dynamic alternative. We are looking for major installations this year in quick-service restaurants, mini-marts, and themed entertainment venues. Please describe some of the clients you have and the plasma signage projects you're currently working on.

    Since we are a wholesale distributor, 100 percent of our digital signage business is realized through a partnership with our systems integrator customers. Some of their successes include all AT&T Wireless stores (Mercury Online Solutions), movie theaters, shopping mall and casino networks (Adspace Networks), trading floors and business schools (Rise Softools), and many, many others too numerous to mention. In every case, the successful network installations are the result of collaboration between Activelight, the integrator, and the customer to deliver meaningful content to the signage locations resulting in true positive return-on-investment for the end-user client. We're proud to be able to play a role in that success. How should sign companies market plasma displays to their advertisers?

    There are several approaches that seem to end in a positive result for the client. First and foremost is a clear communication and understanding of the goals and objectives the client is going for. Sometimes it is sales lift for items being promoted, other times it is improvement of the client's customers’ experience such as improving wait times; other times it is primarily a brand statement the client is trying to achieve. Whatever the client goal is, it is imperative the system is designed with this goal in mind. There are no cookie-cutter approaches in this business right now. One size does NOT fit all. This is why the capability and experience of the sign company is so important. It also allows these integrators to focus on selling the end-solution rather than the network and hardware. This makes it a very good business opportunity for service-minded companies. What is the range of costs in purchasing a plasma display system?

    There are many vendors and models to choose from now, priced from $3000 retail to $20,000, but there can be pitfalls to watch for. It's no secret that plasma has come about primarily as a consumer product. Manufacturers invented this technology not to fill a need in signage but to revolutionize the home TV. As a result, it is not uncommon for us to hear about resellers and clients including a consumer version or consumer manufacturer's products in a commercial project bid. We're concerned about this because these products have not been designed and built to hold up to the kind of handling and use that a commercial installation requires. When the product ultimately fails or degrades, the client may blame the installer or the technology. What are the advantages of choosing plasma over LED?

    BG: I am one of the believers that the new display technologies all have a place in the market and that they overlap in some areas, but in general each has a particular "sweet spot" for which they are the best option. Plasma is ideal for indoor displays from 42" to 63" where video information will be part of the content used. Plasmas are still the best flat screen technology for the display of video content, particularly for HDTV resolutions. LED is designed for larger displays and is ideal for very large outdoor use --- but it is far more expensive that plasma. It can be used indoors but typically still for larger sizes because the resolutions supported are still relatively low. The new LCD and even micro-display-based, rear-projection products will also have a place in the digital signage "toolbox" and also have particular strengths and benefits.

    I honestly believe that the concept of using modern flat screen technology to display content to inform, entertain or influence viewers in a public setting is a concept that is here to stay. I believe that representations in feature films like "Minority Report" overstate the concept but reinforce the potential at the same time. I am proud to be a part of a new industry that 5-10 years from now will be seen as a mainstream approach to information display in public spaces. I can't wait for the future to get here!

    For more information on the companies mentioned in this article, visit and

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