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Digital Signage: Retail Electronic Signage is the New Poster Boy of Advertising

The domain of electronic signage has been part of sign design for several years and is just beginning to emerge as its own market niche for retail advertising.

By Louis M. Brill

Sometimes referred to as digital signage, it is basically advertising content displayed on full color LCD or plasma video screen which tends to show a continuing series of 'advertising loops' as window placements or in-store advertising spots.

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  • As for sign makers becoming involved in electronic signage, it is a different ballgame than conventional print media. Sign designers are evolving from just being printers to becoming multimedia producers where the sign's creative content is conjured as much from pixels and video monitors as it is from printing ink. In this new media age, what used to be a poster display case with a backlit or front-lit poster is now a rather large LCD or plasma video screen. As sign design adapts to electronic signage, it's become a paradigm shift for sign makers.

    Sign designers are evolving from just being printers to becoming multimedia producers where the sign's creative content is conjured as much from pixels and video monitors as it is from printing ink.

    In this new era of electronic displays, digital sign makers have become 'full service' integrators combining audio visual skills (producing client advertising content via video or animated graphics) with the electronic distribution (via narrow casting) of the final messages through a single or a series of video screens strategically placed in varying locations (this part is not that much different from the old print medium) including internally within merchandise area, in the store front window or on a wall within the store.

    However, the introduction of video monitors as a replacement for print posters is only the beginning of what digital signage is all about. As a communications medium signage is evolving and this is more a transition from analog (print) where previously a sign did only one thing (make an announcement) to digital where a sign now does many things in succession (as a news report) as dictated by its customer requirements. Properly used, a digital sign is interactive and allows sign content to change on a continuing basis, its content can be transmitted electronically and functions in real-time when needed. It also provides full motion video or graphic animations.

    Digital signs are being strategically placed in varying locations including internally within merchandise area, point of purchase (as in this picture), in the store front window or on a wall within the store.

    Beyond using digital signage as a hardware solution, it is also useful for its implied messages. Here content is king! Sales promotion announcements, product info, MTV-retail spots and brand loyalty have all become messages for the retailer allowing them to more easily represent themselves in providing up-to-the minute contact with their customers on a day-to-day basis.

    To understand the potential of electronic signage and how the current sign design community is transforming itself into the next niche of sign design's evolution, two dramatically different hardware providers of digital signage discuss how their products and companies offer electronic signage in the new era of digital communications.

    ActiveLight, located outside of Seattle, Washington is a value-added distributor of electronic advanced display products primarily with plasma and LCD monitors for electronic signage situations. Company President, Brad Gleeson, discussed their involvement with these activities. "The implementation of these video monitors is mostly for digital dynamic signage. In our efforts of introducing digital signage, we began by partnering with trade show exhibitors, museum and traveling show exhibitors and eventually expanded our contacts into advertising and transportation companies", says

    "Five years ago (before 1998) digital signage didn't really exist. When we first started, we would hear from people on a regular basis who had project quotes for 300 - 500 unit video displays. These were usually for networked situations of multiple display sites controlled from a central source, and we sold and installed many of those projects." Now, five years later says Gleeson, "we're receiving requests for quotations in the 3000 to 5000 unit range." This obviously suggests that the major corporations making these bids have a greater understanding of digital signage and ways of using it to differentiate their businesses with video as a competitive sign medium.

    A Sign is a Sign is a Sign
    The introduction of electronic signage is a case of something old and something new. What's old is that signage's intent hasn't changed since the days they were hand painted on wood. "The core issues of digital signage are the same as always," says Gleeson. "What is it we're trying to do with the sign? Why is it there? And how do we keep making it effective and relevant to the people facing towards it at any time?" What's new is that instead of print on paper, it's pixels on a video monitor. Gleeson highlighted how far digital signage has evolved by noting that content delivery to the plasma or LCD monitors can now be transmitted in either a WiFi (wireless) format or via broadband and the Internet by using streaming video to present real time content as required in a sign application.

    Audio Video Innovations
    North of the American border in Ontario, Canada is AVI (Audio Video Innovations), a private multimedia research and design company founded in 1997 that has developed an innovative digital video sign product with a seven-inch display screen that is casting a gigantic shadow with its potential as a point of purchase retail display device. The product is the Digital Associate, invented says AVI National Sales Manager, John Thompson, "because in listening to the retail industry marketplace, we became sensitive to their interests in using new video formats for point of purchase interactions with their customers. That is also combined with the fact there is a new generation of consumers that when forced with making a buying decision wants product information on demand now."

    AVI's Digital Associate is a unique for several reasons, the display system is essentially a small screen, MPEG 1or MPEG 2 audio-video playback device. The system has a seven-inch LCD display screen, a matched pair of miniature stereo speakers and is operated by a 32-bit microprocessor.
    From this interest, AVI dedicated its resources to create the Digital Associate as a new format of visual presentation and a new medium of electronic signage. The Digital Associate was created for retail and commercial use to better bring a merchant's message "to life" as a representation of their product mix to their customers. The Digital Associate made its debut at Chicago's Global Shop (2003), an international conference and trade show dedicated to visual merchandising for retail trade markets. Since then, at least two dozen national companies have acquired test units to evaluate its capabilities for their specific merchandising or sales training needs.

    AVI's Digital Associate is a unique for several reasons. In a world where bigger is better, this display system is essentially a small screen, MPEG 1or MPEG 2 audio-video playback device. The system has a seven-inch LCD display screen, a matched pair of miniature stereo speakers and is operated by a 32-bit microprocessor. "It was devised as a point of purchase presentation device and made small to create a more intimate relationship between the customer, the viewing device and the point of purchase area it's embedded in," says Thompson. Another reason it's small is to occupy less retail space in a way that it doesn't overshadow the merchandise it itself is trying to promote.

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    Thompson also pointed out another unique design feature of the Digital Associate, "it has no moving parts to break or wear out. It gets its audio-video data from a Compact Flash memory card. These Flash cards have a visual quality of at least MPEG 1, they are very versatile and range from 64 MB to 1GB storage capability."

    In bringing the Digital Associate to market as a small display device, Thompson says AVI was able to satisfy several important goals to leverage its success as a value-added digital sign system solution. "The first was affordability. By making the device reasonably small, but still visually functional it became more cost effective, both for us to manufacture and for the customer to purchase. Currently the Digital Associate ranges in price from $600.00 - $1000.00 USD per unit with pricing dependent on how much customization of the machine is done for any specific retail situation, and of course also depending on how many units are bought in volume. The next feature was to create a solid-state display device with no moving parts. To back up our confidence in the Digital Associate, we support it with a five year warranty (one year for LCD screen and five years for the player)." Another feature is the Digital Associate's adaptability to different sized electronic screens. When 'bigger' is more important, the Digital Associate is available as a stand-alone playback unit (less 7" screen) to view content on an external display device, such as a projector or plasma screen.

    Thompson believes that the Digital Associate applications are hardly tapped as a visual display product. No doubt within a year or two from its recent unveiling, merchant uses will be found for it far beyond what its inventors had thought of. That inevitably will be its best compliment - outperforming the expectations that birthed it.

    AVI has already started development on the Pro version of the Digital Associate. This new version will incorporate an Ethernet port, which will allow easy file management via an existing network infrastructure. Look for this version of the Digital Associate some time in the fourth quarter, 2003.

    Big or small, digital signage has the potential to change retail's relationship in how it communicates to customers, in educating them, motivating them and if persuasive enough, even closing a sale. Bold words, but consider digital signage as the first cousin of television, and we know that medium has a vice-like grip on its audience. So one could only imagine the potential of electronic signage as it increases its appearances within various retail shopping environments. Pixels vs. print, a new dawn for sign design has just emerged on the horizon.

    ActiveLight has gathered the wisdom and experience of being one of the largest providers of LCD and plasma screens for digital signage and transforming that knowledge into a digital signage resource directory for use by its customers and potential value-Added Resellers of digital signage hardware.

    As Brad Gleeson, founder of Activelight noted, it's not as much about selling hardware to customers as it is to sell them solutions to their business needs. One of the purposes of Activelight producing the Digital Signage Directory is to help digital signage providers find technical and content partners to filling the gaps to the total solution they will be offering to the various customers they might be approaching.

    The directory is available FREE with an on-line request to Activelight.
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