A Look Behind the Digital Signage Mask
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A Look Behind the Digital Signage Mask

Digital signage is everywhere, and growing by leaps and bounds. According to marketsandmarkets.com, the global digital signage market was estimated to generate $3.95 billion in 2011 and $13.2 billion by 2016, at a compound annual growth rate of 27.29 percent from 2011 to 2016. The market opportunity is virtually limitless, and now may be the perfect time to make it an offering.

By George Borden, Black Box Network Services

Graphic and sign professionals have an edge over everyone else in the digital signage industry, mainly because they are creating content daily.

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  • This impressive technology can give your customers the power to deliver information like never before, all while maintaining a more predictable flow of revenue for your business. Digital signage is formally a subset of the AV/IT communications industry where displays of all types are used to replace and/or enhance traditional signs.

    Digital signage can serve dynamic content in various manners, such as in standalone exhibits, or the technology can serve as a network of interconnected digital displays that are centrally managed and addressable over the Internet for targeted information, entertainment, merchandising and advertising.

    There are many flavors of digital signage solutions on the market for just about any opportunity. For today's high-level overview, we will focus on some of the ingredients in the digital signage mix. Please note: This is not an exact step-by-step guide. The following is merely information meant to serve as reference for your consideration and journey into digital signage.

    The Display
    This is the most obvious part of a digital signage installation. Most of the applications you have seen utilize flat screen TVs or monitors, but you may not be aware that signage can also utilize other display devices, including projectors, smaller computer monitors, video walls and outdoor displays. The flat screen monitors we typically see encompass the majority of digital signage deployments. There are two types of screens on the market, retail and commercial. While selling and consulting on digital signage, a common question often arises, 'Which type of screen should I use?' You can elect to use whatever screen you wish, but you need to consider all of the variables when making that selection. Consider some the following factors when selecting a display device.

    Graphic and sign professionals have an edge over everyone else in the digital signage industry, mainly because they are creating content daily.

    Mounting a screen in an environment where there is little or no airflow can drastically shorten the life span of a screen - even more so if you use a screen not designed for a low airflow application. Commercial-grade monitors are typically constructed to allow for better airflow. They can also be mounted vertically while maintaining airflow. Retail-grade screens can be purchased at your local department store, and cool with fans and other hardware. These screens are not designed for industrial and commercial applications. Retail screens should also not be placed vertically due to the lack of vertical airflow.

    If you decide to use retail-grade displays in a 24/7 digital signage display, make sure that your screen warranty supports that environment. Depending on the manufacturer, you can potentially void your warranty by using a retail-grade screen in a commercial application. The manufacturer warranty is usually crystal clear regarding this.

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    Power Consumption
    Commercial grade displays can, depending on the manufacturer, have various power saving features and adjustments. Some have an eco-mode; others have functions where the screen adjusts automatically based on conditions. Other than a timer to power on/off the screen, retail models of the low-end variety typically do not have advanced power features.

    Picture Quality
    There is definitely something alluring about buying a $299, 42-inch flat screen with 720p resolution at your local appliance store. But will that screen deal support the quality of your content? When shopping for picture quality, make sure you know the maximum output resolution for that display. Screens are commonly advertised as '720p' and '1080i,' or '1360 x 768,' prompting another common question, 'What does that mean?' What do the 'i' and the 'p' mean in 720p, 720i, 1080p, 1080i? (i) stands for Interlaced Format, where the interlaced signal contains two fields of a video frame, captured at two different times. (p) stands for Progressive Format, where the lines are displayed progressively, or each line displayed immediately following another.

    What does 1360 by 768, or 1920 by 1080 mean? These are the pixel measurements for the width and height of the screen or display device. It can also refer to the maximum output video resolutions the digital signage devices can support. What do 720 and 1080 mean? This represents the number of lines across the screen. The more lines, the better the picture quality.

    The Player (or Software)
    There are many different options to choose from in the world of digital signage. The piece of the solution you typically do not see - unless you look behind the screen - is the player, or the brain of the system. Digital signage requires player devices to power the displays with content. These devices range from basic to very complex, in terms of media support and advanced scheduling features. Your selection could be based on many variables including, but not limited to, content supported, scalability, ease of use, scheduling and more.

    Here is a basic breakdown of the different offerings available in the market:

    • Software Only: When you purchase a digital signage software-only solution, you have to load to it on a computer or supported media player.
    • Appliance: The appliance model is typically an all-inclusive hardware device with the software preloaded and configured.
    • SaaS: This acronym means 'software as a service.' SaaS model solutions require a subscription fee.
    • Enterprise: When the user has the need to dispatch signage in various locations throughout a building, a region or the world, robust enterprise solutions are available. These products have very advanced features and media handling power that lower priced options usually do not.

    Connectivity refers to the method we use when connecting to the digital signage player or network. Connectivity is important for several reasons. Basically, we want to make sure there is player and network access to assign content, scheduling, and have overall control of the solution internally or remotely.

    The following are the four connectivity methods for accessing and controlling digital signage:

    • Wired: Connecting to the network or Internet via a network cable
    • Wireless: Utilizing Wi-Fi to connect to the network and Internet
    • Cellular and Satellite: Have you ever wondered where that digital billboard in the rural part of your area gets its content? When a wireless radio or wired connection is not available, these connectivity options become necessary. Both can serve content where others cannot.

    Depending on whom you ask, content may or may not be king. But the one thing we can all agree upon is that content is the lifeblood for any digital signage deployment. It is also the path to the predictable stream of recurring revenue you deserve. Graphic and sign professionals have an edge over everyone else in the digital signage industry, mainly because they are creating content daily. Content can range from pictures, video, text, flash, TV, HTML, RSS and much more!

    George Borden is a technology consultant, entrepreneur and sales executive with more than 25 years' experience in IT. In the mid-90s, George founded an IT consulting company and sold it 12 years later with more than 30 employees. George has been instrumental in introducing a wide variety of Internet and technology solutions for business, with a particular focus on healthcare, banking, legal, retail and professional services verticals.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, September/October 2012 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2012 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.

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