Published Fall IT/AV 2007

This is a typical welcome screen that guests would see from the Siemens Media4Suite. The software, however, can be totally customized so it looks entirely different. It controls both the guest in-room experience and signage in public places, and ties into hospitality information systems.

Trends in Integrated Signage Software
Innovation continues, filling industry niches.
By Neal Weinstock

Nothing against the currently dominant software used wherever digital signage is deployed. Scala, Harris InfoCaster, 3M Digital Signage, Helius, VertigoXmedia, Wireless Ronin, StrandVision and all the rest are very good at what they do. But, as digital signage evolves, the software used to push content to displays inevitably must perform other industry-specific functions or integrate more and more with other software that’s specific to the industry in which it is deployed.

In fact, not only is this starting to happen, it’s starting to happen for some of the mentioned software. Yet the trend also may allow new entrants to be able to steal a march on the industry’s generalist software pioneers by supplying solutions for specific industries.
Examples abound, enough so the crop of digital signage software providers is expanding rapidly. Let’s look at a few industries…

Movie Theater Advertising

As mentioned in the accompanying story (“3D Comes to Commercial,” page 9), a number of the providers of content management systems for digital cinema see their mission as also including content management for signage in the public areas of theaters. This may mostly, or even entirely, be simply because it’s there, and somebody ought to do it. The file formats and file sizes of signage, the scheduling, the levels of security, the issues in quality assurance and other parameters all differ radically from all these requirements in movie content.

Even when movie preview content is shown on monitors in the lobby of a theater, that content is conveyed in different file types, network systems, etc., from the content on the big screens. So why do Eastman Kodak, National Cinemedia and Screenvision take the job on?

It’s about providing what the customer needs, and also forestalling other signage software vendors from establishing footholds in the multiplex. Footholds in public-area digital signage later may become bases from which competitors might attack the business of the provision of ads and/or Hollywood content to theater screens and, thus, compete for the whole ball of wax with these companies.

Kodak claims network distribution of digital signage in theater lobbies to more than 200 sites in six countries. Screenvision is in more than 1900 theaters in the US, plus more in other countries. A sister company (also owned by Thomson) to Premiere Retail Networks, the largest re-tail digital signage ad network, Screen vision considers in-lobby signage as much a part of its business as are the 14,000 movie screens it reaches with pre-show advertising.

Screenvision also has signage and pre-show ads in almost 400 universities in the US. Meanwhile, competitor National Cinemedia, a public company controlled by some of the biggest movie-theater chains, reaches 15,000 screens with pre-show advertising in 1100 US theaters. In many of those theaters, it also has networked digital signage in lobbies. But, in far more, it sells advertising on paper cups and popcorn containers, and virtually any salable surface.

All of these leaders in the space may still think of themselves as systems integrators and software providers, but they essentially now function as ad-sales networks. It’s the same evolution that broadcasting underwent from being a technology business to the one we know today, in which, sure, there’s some technology required to make it happen, but the technologists take a back seat to the marketers.

Advertising rates in movie theaters are high, because advertisers know they reach qualified audiences in specific numbers and well-understood demographics. The business of signage directed at theatergoers may thus be seen as a cutting-edge indicator of the shape that digital signage businesses will take in other fields, as those other fields come more and more to duplicate the things that make signage in theaters a success story.

So, what’s special about the signage software offered by these companies? All, in fact, offer special features that are difficult for other software providers to duplicate: They make use of the databases they have built up, of places they play ads, of audience totals and demographics, of advertisers who have bought ads and of responses to those ads (see “Insights into Digital Signage Advertising,” page 21). Once incumbent software suppliers can build these sets of information into their offerings, they become increasingly difficult to displace.

SMS Jukeboxes

Aerva, of Cambridge MA, and YCD, an Israeli company that recently opened a New York headquarters, are two players that have focused on integrating mobile-phone communication with digital signage networks. YCD president Noam Levavi explained that mobile-phone users might send an SMS over the phone network to a server in a restaurant or nightclub, and pay a small fee. “This could be a way to choose music videos to play on the system,” he said. “Or maybe to say hello on the sign to a friend.”

Aerva, meanwhile, emphasizes using similar technology for mobile gaming.

Although both companies have seen some interest in these applications, most of their business so far has come elsewhere. Yet both say they strongly believe that the general-purposes signage systems they’ve been selling into (in schools, retail, restaurants, outdoor information, etc.) potentially may all come to make use of such interaction.

Audience Measurement

VideoMining, of State College PA, and TruMedia, another Israeli firm, are two leaders in providing software to measure audience responses to signage. Neither software system specifically relies on digital signage as what’s being measured; both fall under the general category of “vision systems,” or software that interprets objects recognized in a video stream. Both, essentially, use video cameras to feed images into a computer for interpretation.

VideoMining came to this application with its AMPnet system out of a history of using its technology as the core of a consulting business. The company would be—and continues to be—employed by retailers, typically, to come into a store, view the actions and movements of customers, and then analyze traffic patterns, linger time and any other relevant consumer behavior as compared to purchasing data. The results allow merchants to display products and organize their stores more effectively.

The VideoMining Process.

AMPnet does much the same thing for screens being looked at, but produces real-time reports instead of consultative analysis. Metrics such as traffic, dwell times, actual eyes on screen, duration of viewing, and subsequent interaction with fixtures, shelves and products allow AMPnet to quantify the true reach and impact of a network. The software also provides demographic segmentation of the audience according to age group, gender and ethnicity.

TruMedia came to the application out of the business of security monitoring; it is a recent spin-off of a small company specializing in these applications. TruMedia builds its software into hardware systems including cameras and application servers. It and VideoMining’s AMPnet both claim to measure much the same information, though TruMedia does not measure viewer ethnicity. The company has found most of its success in Europe.

VideoMining CEO Dr. Rajeev Sharma explained the need for this kind of software: “Large advertisers continue to categorize digital signage networks as unmeasured media. Network owners want to prove that people actually watch their displays and that their networks provide a great value. With AMPnet, network owners will now be able to tap into the big advertising budgets earmarked for traditional measured media.”

Hotel And Hospitality

In-room TV is a video application seeing lots of innovation lately. Not so much a signage app as a variety of IPTV (internet protocol television), a new generation of “middleware,” as the software is called, is running the distribution of digital channels to hotels. Many companies provide this software; Siemens is one that offers an integrated software set (Media4Suite) for public signage throughout hospitality properties, as well as in-room TV. The software uniquely serves both applications because it is also the only IPTV middleware capable of displaying video at beyond HD resolution on TV screens; hi-res is pretty standard for many signage applications.

As with other in-room TV software, Media4Suite interfaces and integrates with hotel management information systems. But this makes it unique among digital signage software. The Siemens system is, therefore, capable of being programmed easily to direct groups of guests to events specifically for them, and to include special video that might also show on their TV sets in-room. Advertising can also be aimed both in a convention hall and in-room at attendees of certain areas.

And Yet More

Besides everything already discussed here, there are yet more new entrants into digital signage with special attributes, if not specific markets they address. Chyron’s ChyTV, for one, uniquely creates signage out of analog video streams using the same core technology as in the company’s broadcast graphics.

Four Winds Interactive, a relatively new company out of the Denver CO area, has mostly found sales in education, but is targeting itself at many applications that may require easy interface to OLE database and other data that can simply be put into news crawls and other info-feeds. New York-based Magnet Media Holdings specializes in autostereoscopic 3D signage. The British firm Dynamax has created a beautifully designed “digital signage in a box” system that allows signs to be slapped up anywhere.

Innovation continues in digital signage software!



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