G2 Electronic Signage: Lasers, Fiber Optics and LCDs Form New Second Generation Sign Technologies
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G2 Electronic Signage: Lasers, Fiber Optics and LCDs Form New Second Generation Sign Technologies

Two new sign technologies highlighted are a laser rear-projection display system and a modified LCD screen system that can be tiled together to make large format LCD screens 'as big as you want them.' See what you can do now.

By Louis M Brill

Electronic signage has settled into the sign community with three major electronic sign processes, one for outdoor advertising (LEDs for video and message center displays) and two for indoors with LCD and plasma screens.

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  • As quickly as the sign community is getting used to the above mentioned sign technologies there are yet other new kinds of electronic and optical-based sign technologies soon to be released each with their own particular sign format and display "look."

    In presenting these new sign systems, it's a clear case of form and function, where the function of these new electronic sign technologies remains the same, but its form is different enough to distinguish each electronic sign system as unique for specific advertising uses. The two new sign technologies highlighted are a laser rear-projection display system and a modified LCD screen system that can be tiled together to make large format LCD screens "as big as you want them."

    Laser beams up sign
    It was just a matter of time before laser projection evolved as a fully developed sign package, which is now being introduced by LFI International of Bellevue, Washington. The company describes its product as a Dynamic Laser Signage (DLS) system composed of very small diode lasers in the classic red, green and blue color modes. The complete sign package includes the lasers, a computer, a WiFi connection and a USB port, essential optics and scanning mechanisms which projects the final laser beam message onto a translucent sign face. As for safety concerns, the laser package is totally enclosed within the sign cabinet and the sign observer has no direct viewing contact with the laser beam. The sign content is dynamic and advertising messages are constantly being updated with a continuing flow of text and graphics to suit each message theme.

    Laser beams are super bright beams of light that rapidly and continuously display a stylized very bright line drawing of artwork and text whose screen face is viewable at any angle. The display can be thought of as a high-tech full motion animated neon sign.
    photo credit: LFI International
    LFI's laser display system is very versatile and can be developed into a number of sign packages depending on how and where the system will be installed. To date LFI envisions its sign package in many applications including point of purchase stand-alone displays and overhead aisle displays in supermarkets and big box merchandise stores. Other possibilities also include kiosk screens, slot toppers in gaming casinos and even taxi toppers for cabs. Furthermore DLS can be integrated into a sign network where multiple displays would be installed in a retail setting, a transit terminal or sport stadium setting.

    The company's heritage goes back to its former incarnation as Laser Fantasy International when it provided laser lighting effects for rock & roll shows and stand alone light show music concerts. In those helicon days Laser Fantasy demonstrated its illuminated presence everywhere from the front of the Grand Coulee Dam (Coulee, WA) to Glitter Gulch in Las Vegas for varying nightclub and music acts. With 28 years of being a market leader in presenting entertainment laser light shows and designing unique highly sophisticated laser projection systems, the company has leveraged these resources to create the Digital Laser Signage as a new process for laser-based indoor/outdoor sign presentation systems.

    Thus enters the laser beam as the next stage viewing format for sign displays and advertising applications. Laser beams are super bright beams of light that just about every one has seen from laser pointers to the gleaming insides of supermarket check out scanners. Within the DLS system, its laser beams rapidly and continuously display a stylized very bright line drawing of artwork and text whose screen face is viewable at any angle. Visually, the display can be thought of as a high-tech full motion animated neon sign. The LFI DLS system has been packaged into four stand alone sign cabinets including a standard sign face (two feet by three feet by six inches depth), a min-marquee (ten inches high by three feet long), an end-cap grocery display and a ten inch by eighteen inch diameter dome display.

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    Why use lasers? Executive vice-president John Jerome commented with a perceptive understanding of the current display marketplace, "Because it's not video. We've all seen video and we've all been conditioned to see video through television which has its own model of how images are viewed and digested. Television is something you watch from a living room sensibility. Signage is something you watch while you're 'on the go.' Content has to be easy to read and quick to see, which our system does. Because laser-based text and graphics are always in focus, the displays can be curved and custom-built. Because of their intense beams, their line forms present very vivid and vibrant colors as a distinct viewable display in any location that it has been installed in."

    The company is facing several advertising challenges, according to Jerome, that his laser sign system addresses. He observes the advertising community's current dilemma of trying to communicate to a vast public that is no longer receptive to television advertising or other traditional indoor/outdoor advertising formats. Video displays are now becoming ubiquitous enough that viewers are beginning to have a tendency to block them out. At the end of the day, with all the "Niagara Falls" bombardment of signs, signs and more signs, the advertising messages that will get noticed have to be better, brighter and bolder than anything else around it. The big challenge: how do you present advertising media that people will pay attention to?

    A DLS sign in a bar environment demonstrating a typical sign message.
    photo credit: LFI International
    It's not only about building a new sign system as a better mousetrap, but making sure the advertising community understands it as an effective differentiator to generating product awareness and sales uplift, the two constants of what effective signage is all about. Although LFI's DLS sign products can be deployed in just about any advertising environment, the company is aggressively developing its market niche in the Bar/Beverage and Gaming/Casino communities.

    "Our DLS system is envisioned to be designed for specific sign applications where a media planner or a corporation with a highly visible brand sees laser projections as a unique differentiation in grabbing their customerís attention. Because a laser beam's unique presence is so different than print, video or other forms of electronic displays, we found in exit surveys where our signs had been installed that customers within those establishments had been noted with a 77 % awareness factor where passersby specifically remembered our DLS system. Even better, we were able to note a product sales lift which could be traced back to our DLS system and their influence on customer purchasing of those advertised products. At the end of the day, it's another sign tool for advertisers to reach their audiences. As a sign system, it's unlimited in what its potential is as a medium of indoor and outdoor advertising signage."

    Screen technology ITrans display
    The other forthcoming display technology is being introduced by Screen Technology, (Cambridge, UK) who has created a high resolution and scalable LCD display system comparable to video walls. This new display process offers a series of stackable modular sign cabinets that allows its final screen face to appear as a single "seamless" large format display. Currently very large scale seamless screens are represented through front or rear video projection that works best under controlled (indoor) ambient light conditions. An alternative to video projections is LED video screens which are very bright and also present a high definition image. However, when viewed closed up, LED screen images become distorted with a very pixilated look. Another determent of LED screens is over time some LEDs dim quicker than others causing uneven screen brightness which differentiates the various LED tiles making up the full sign face. The separations between the LED screen tiles are known as mullions, which in an ideal screen set-up would be invisible. These LED artifacts are the challenges that Screen Technology has designed against.

    Screen Technology, (Cambridge, UK) has created a high resolution and scalable LCD display system that can be assembled in various audio-visual display configurations identical to how LED video modules are used for music concerts or conference or trade show screens.
    photo credit: Screen Technology
    Screen Technology's display system known as ITrans fills in the viewing/advertising gaps that exist between the close-up viewing of LCD/plasma and the far distance viewing of LED video screens. Often, electronic displays are placed in malls, transit terminals, and hotel environments where pedestrians can see the screens at varying distances as they pass by them. The strategy is to create a high resolution electronic display that works both close up in a viewing mode (at two meters), and in a far away mode (from at least at 52 meters).

    Andy Holmes Commercial Director for Screen Technology discussed the design criteria of creating an optimal short-view, long view electronic display system by observing, "that the three Holy Grails of digital signage are 'scale' (making a sign as big or small as you like), resolution (as close to high definition as possible) and brightness (ideally, on one screen, readable both indoors and outdoors). Right now what you have is LED screens which have brightness and scale (large size), but not resolution when viewed close up. The other two display formats, LCD and plasma give you low brightness, but good resolution, but not on a very large size scale. As for LCD/plasma's physical growth, although they are getting bigger all the time, for practical reasons they'll probably never get much bigger than an 80 - 100 inch diagonal, because of the handling and manufacturing problems."

    Screen Technology achieved its ideal screen standard with a product known as an ITrans display system. "ITrans easily supports all three parameters of the screen display Holy Grail," says Holmes, "and fills the screen size gap and advertising presence between LCD and plasma (low end of size scale) and the much larger LED displays. The final product is an LCD display tile built as a modular component." The creation of an ITrans tile has come together in an interesting way because all its major internal subsections utilize off-the-shelf components. The core component is a Samsung or LG Electronics 15-inch LCD screen typically used in a standard LCD laptop system. The LCD screen (known as the source screen) is placed within a special sign cabinet and has the backlight replaced with standard florescent lamps.

    To achieve the mullion-free viewing effect, a second translucent display, about 70mm thick (known as the front screen) is placed over the original LCD screen, in effect becoming the ITrans tile module. The trick, of course is retransmitting the high resolution LCD image to its new "primary" exterior sign face in a way that perfectly maps the original high resolution LCD image. Image transmission from the original LCD source screen to the secondary screen (expanded to 17 inches) is done by an intermediate polycarbonate fiber optic inserted between the two screens. The fiber optic device looks like a delicate comb where each tooth is a specially designed fiber optic element (over 30,000 fiber optic elements per module). In transmitting the original LCD source image to its secondary screen known also as the 'front plate,' the comb's fiber optic lenslets pass along up to 90% of the light from the original LCD screen. Including the lamp house, the LCD and the ITrans face, the entire screen is 225mm thick.

    ITrans LCD modules when stacked side by side they appear seamless when illuminated. Butted together, it is possible to create three, four, five, ten or 50 meter ITrans screens as needed.
    photo credit: Screen Technology

    "The use of the fiber optics comb with its highly fragmented lenslets gives each ITrans module a resolution of a respectable 1.7 mm pixel pitch (which is about the same resolution as a large plasma screen) with, crucially a 95% pixel fill. This gives far smother images than LED displays, which have about a 20% pixel fill which causes a pixilation problem when LED signs are viewed close up. Our ITrans LCD screens are rated at least four times the pixel density of the highest resolution LED screen, but are considerably cheaper per square meter than your typical three millimeter LED screen," said Holmes.

    The combs transmits the light from the original LCD screen to the front screen and in the opposite direction blocks the surrounding ambient light around the front screen to improve its projecting brightness and contrast ratios, thus making it completely viewable in direct sunlight. The illumination from the source screen emanates from a series of standard florescent lamps (six lamps per module) which lasts approximately 20,000 hours (2 years at 24/7 operation) and cost $3.00 per lamp.

    The front screen at its 17-inch diagonal is 10% larger than its source LCD screen, which is the secret of the ITrans seamless display face. Because the fiber optic front screen is larger than its base sign cabinet, it means that modules when stacked side by side appear seamless when illuminated. ITrans LCD modules can be assembled in various audio-visual display configurations identical to how LED video modules are used for music concerts or conference or trade show screens. Butted together, it is possible to create three, four, five, ten or 50 meter ITrans screens as needed.

    ITrans tiles can easily function as information display systems combining text, graphics and hi-rez imagery into a single seamless sign system.
    photo credit: Screen Technology

    Screen Technology is setting up a world-wide distribution network of product dealers offering ITrans systems in various display configurations. Already ITrans screens have been installed in the plate glass window facade of Bloomberg TV and financial services headquarters in Paris. Other ITrans systems have been supplied to rental specialists in London, Dubai and Singapore. Projects in major international airports, shopping malls and world famous retail stores are in the pipeline across the globe. The current market strategy for release of ITrans viewing modules includes:

    • Self-contained "monolithic" plug and play units from 34" to 108" diagonal screens in any aspect ratio.

    • A 34-inch self-contained module which is made up of four 17-inch diagonal tiles which has no gaps between screens (mullion-free) and becomes the basic unit in allowing these modules to be stacked into varying types of signs or display screens to just about any practical size that the modules can be stacked into.

    • A 34" portable video module derived from the installation module above that will be dedicated to the audio-video rental market. Units will be able to be stacked in both the standard television mode (4:3 ratio) and the HD wide screen mode (16:9 ratio) and any other column or banner shape as desired.

    • An OEM program of supplying ITrans tiles direct to end-users for their own specific monolithic or modular applications.

    As electronic signs become a more established part of signage, so will it begin to increase the number of technological processes that represent the different formats and styles of high resolution electronic signage. For sign integrators, more sign formats are better in solving specific client needs in an ever crowded advertising marketplace. More interesting is the anticipation of other more exotic display technologies such as OLEDS and flexible displays as they begin to appear as available sign systems. One can only imagine...

    Louis M. Brill is a journalist and consultant for high-tech entertainment and media communications. He can be reached at (415) 664-0694 or louisbrill@sbcglobal.net. Companies involved in developing other 2nd generation sign technologies are welcome to alert us to additional new displays for introduction to the sign community.

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