Published February 2009

Striking Visions
By Shonan Noronha, EdD

Digital signage deployments capitalize on creativity.

The dramatic 178-foot LED at Temple University’s Fox School of Business and Management receives real-time data feeds.
Photo Credit: Joeseph Labolito

Editor’s Note: This month, Digital Signage Expo will be featuring a lot of applications and technology related to this fast-growing market segment. See Dan Ferrisi’s show preview, “Sin City Signage: DSE rolls into Vegas with big expectations,” beginning on page 54, and our Digital Signage Expo New Product Spotlight, beginning on page 58. Here, the author offers some real-life examples of how to apply what’s available today. Because digital signage is such an important growth area within the systems integration market, we’ll be covering it every issue: Be sure to read Shonan Noronha’s monthly “Sign Age,” debuting in this issue.

Innovation and creativity are fueling growth in all sectors of the digital signage industry, even in the midst of an economic recession. Hardware manufacturers, software companies and turnkey signage providers are developing new technologies and creating services to meet emerging applications and trimmed budgets. Many of the latest offerings make it easier and more profitable for AV/IT commercial systems integrators to deploy digital signage (DS).

Enterprises with digital out-of-home (DOOH) networks are inventing applications with convergent signage and mobile technologies to attract eyeballs and enhance the value of their advertising channels. Universities, healthcare facilities and other institutions that were in pilot stages are now ready to roll out DS campus-wide. Some are even selling onscreen advertising to defray capital expenditures and provide new revenue streams for their organizations.

We’ve talked with DS providers and end users involved in current projects, and their insights point to new ways of developing your signage business, from easing entry into DS for existing AV clients, to forging partnerships with other vendors in order to provide a broader range of turnkey solutions.

Mobile Interactivity

For decades, New York’s Times Square has provided a window into the future of high-tech signage. As we welcomed 2009, the crossroads of the world was serving as a showcase for the latest DS trend: the combination of mobile interactivity with digital billboard content.

Pepsi, Kellogg, MTV and JVC were among the brands with advertising campaigns designed around the mobile and web-based interactive technologies deployed at Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Kellogg’s Special K campaign enabled people to text message their New Year’s resolutions to a digital sign. Pepsi’s “Optimism” campaign posted photos from people who used their cell phones to take their picture and email it to a billboard.

JVC’s campaign made consumers feel like celebrities when their emailed photo was featured on the company’s new 19'x34' high-definition LED billboard. Photos from cellphone users at Times Square, as well as others who got early word of the project through viral marketing, were reviewed and approved, and then displayed for three seconds as part of an animated New Year’s greeting on the HD display. An image of one’s photo as it appeared on the billboard was also available for download. Such souvenirs of memorable interactive experiences go a long way in developing brand loyalty.

Combining Screen Content, Interaction

“JVC wanted to combine content on the screen with audience interaction,” said Steve Bumstead, president of PIXELFire Productions, a motion graphics company that developed the application behind the JVC campaign. “JVC wanted to engage the live audience in a virtual advertising medium, allowing cellphone photos to appear on the huge billboard in real time.” The enabler was PIXELFire’s PIX-iT, an application that combines software and web-based apps to enable simultaneous local play and internet-based communication.

Solution-driven projects call for collaboration among technology manufacturers, programmers and content producers. Bumstead said that PIXELFire worked in conjunction with D3 LED, manufacturer of JVC’s display. “With screen prices coming down and static ads losing their relevance, we’re looking at a sea of opportunities in new media advertising,” noted Bumstead.

Zoofari Café’s signage entertains visitors with factoids about animals.
Photo Credit: Mignon Byler

Real-Time Needs

Building strong positive experiences for consumers by providing useful services goes a long way in establishing brand loyalty. The Hyatt Regency O’Hare’s high-tech, high-touch signage enables guests to access essential information quickly, while it reinforces the hotel’s brand. Placed strategically, 13 LCDs provide information on scheduled events, facilities, concierge services, amenities and airline arrivals/departures.

To help business guests move between workshops, conferences and other areas of the facility more efficiently, X2O Media’s Creative Services produced a 3D interactive way-finding map. The content was authored in X2O Media’s Xpresenter for signage deployment. The Hyatt’s trusted event technology supplier, PSAV Presentation Services, in conjunction with X2O Media, received the Digital Signage Expo East 2008 Content Award for this application.

Digital Signage is also helping clear up information clutter, delivering timely campus information and strengthening school spirit. At the world-famous Juilliard School in New York City, a real-time information display system serves the internal community of students, faculty and administration. Two stacked Samsung 57-inch LCDs are used as an electronic bulletin board. “The signage system was intended to eliminate traditional paper flyers/sheets on cork bulletin boards, as well as provide a sophisticated, contemporary solution that fits in with the surrounding environment and our current visual brand,” said Donald Giordano, Director of Creative Services. “It is particularly useful to highlight events and notifications.”

Onscreen content includes performance schedules, general announcements, and Reuters live news feeds using Rise Display Network. “We also use recent performance photos from the dance, drama and music divisions, about 24 pictures per screen, with images rotating every few seconds,” explained Giordano.

According to Tunde Giwa, Julliard’s Chief Technology Officer, the sheer amount of content made it necessary to use two display screens. “The source information changes daily,” Giwa explained. “Content is template-driven and we have distributed the task of creating content to various members of the community. The Office of Student Affairs is the ultimate content approver.” All event-related content is stored in an SQL database.

The template-driven Rise Display system makes it easy for a wide range of users to input timely information. “The system works well, especially when a quick correction/change or last minute announcement has to be made,” said Director of Student Affairs Sabrina Tanbara, ”Once you are trained on the system, creating bulletins is quite easy.”

The IT Factor

Effective integration of advanced digital signage systems usually requires expertise beyond the realm of display installation and video distribution.

“Most DS projects call for substantial IT and network experience,” said John Melillo, president of Diversified Media Group (DMG), an offshoot of AV integrator Diversified Systems that is solely focused on the DS and networked multimedia market. Among other high-visibility projects, DMG was contracted by JCDecaux North America to engineer, integrate and manage a state-of-the-art DS showcase at American Airlines’ Terminal 9 at JFK International Airport in New York a couple of years ago.

“Digital signage is like a rocket ready for takeoff and there is no stopping it,” noted Melillo, recommending that, “AV integrators who want to take advantage of the growth in this area should consider bringing IT expertise in-house.” Nearly 60% of DMG’s employees are IT/AV engineers or technicians.

“It’s also important to have a thorough understanding of the technologies involved, and how these can meet a client’s needs,” Melillo suggested.

Times Square billboard sponsors have used real-time convergence of mobile, web and DS technologies.
Photo Credit: Courtesy JVC

Contented Customers

A client’s needs might go well beyond the installation of displays, and even further than the integration of a network and delivery platform. Content creation can be a critical issue for both small and large organizations, and this provides a real opportunity for solutions providers willing to accept some additional responsibility.

“Content was a major concern for us,” said Terry Kenney, director of graphics, Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. “During the renovation of Zoofari Café, we replaced static menu boards with four LCD screens.” The two center screens are used for the café’s menu, and the two screens flanking the menus are used for factoids and multimedia content on animals.

“We wanted digital displays to enhance the beauty of our redesigned café and give it an upscale look. We wanted the text to be presented clearly and the multimedia to be fun and entertaining,” Kenney explained. “We also wanted the software to be easy enough for the staff to use to make quick changes on the menu.”

The Audubon Zoo’s RFP included content creation and staff training on the creation and delivery software in addition to typical AV procurement and installation. The zoo contracted with its local AV vendor, Crescent Communications, for the installation, but selected IDS Menus in Holbrook NY for the rest of the deployment.

Focused On Food Service Industry

IDS Menus had focused solely on the food service industry since it was established in 1995. The company designed, manufactured and installed static boards at quick-serve restaurants in malls, movie theaters and military bases. “Even in that environment, our clients’ need for content was acute,” said Rick Kranz, IDS Menus CEO. “They didn’t have visuals for the menus and their advertising agencies would have charged a lot for creative. So we built up an impressive library of graphics, and made a strategic decision to use it as a marketing tool.”

Kranz noted that the drop in LCD display prices about three years ago led to the company’s entry into digital signage. “It was welcomed by our clients who were looking to give their restaurants a modern look, and the software allowed for easy menu and pricing changes,” he explained.

Last Summer, the Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans retained IDS Menus to work on its signage project, and today, the digital department at IDS Menus provides content development and hosted or enterprise DS solutions for clients in a variety of industries.

Even though customer requirements for content vary widely, integrators can profit by expanding into this area. Some savvy integrators have developed subcontracting relationships with production companies and then include content creation in their proposals.

Zero-Cost Initiative

In a strategic business move, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) issued a bid for a “zero dollar,” turnkey digital signage swap-out of its printed advertising infrastructure, which encompasses advertising locations at hundreds of train stations and bus stops, and in thousands of rail cars and buses operating across three states. The WMATA currently is reviewing responses to its RFP and expects to announce the award this Spring. The DS system is officially dubbed The Metro Channel.

“We’re building The Metro Channel to enhance customer experience, increase information access, improve our incident and emergency communication, generate more advertising revenue, and enhance the value of our advertising franchise,” explained Jamey Harvey, chief enterprise architect, department of IT, WMATA. “Our franchise is already quite significant, and we’d like to grow it as an asset.”

The three main components of the bid incorporated financing, including demonstration of the ability to finance $30 million up front; design/build; and operations, maintenance, content creation and advertising sales.

Discussing the “zero-cost” DS initiative, Harvey said, “This was an innovative way to leverage the value of our advertising franchise into significant capital improvement during a time when there’s not much money available to implement new amenities and to solve a lot of problems at once.”

At Your Service

Innovation and creativity are also driving developments in software solutions for content creation, delivery and management. Rise Vision, for instance, designed its Rise Display Network as a web-based, Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) content management solution. A subscription (to a single computer or media player) brings live data, such as headline news and stock quotes, in addition to custom messages and other desired content, to the display screens to which it is connected. A company or institution can have any number of users contributing content via computers with internet access, and authorized users can change content via the web.

“There are no upfront costs, no setup fees, and no additional infrastructure is necessary,” said Ryan Cahoy, Managing Partner, Rise Vision. Cahoy noted that the SaaS model makes it economical and easy for an AV integrator to deploy a large DS network. “We take care of the infrastructure: backend servers, terabytes of data, redundant power grids and redundant network connections.” He said that subscriptions are available through AV, IT and DS distributors, including Electrograph Systems and Stampede.

University’s DS

Temple University’s Fox School of Business and Management in Philadelphia PA is a recent addition to the 150 universities and colleges that have deployed a DS system using Rise Display Network, according to Cahoy. Villanova University, also in the Philadelphia area, has completed its pilot DS deployment using 15 LCD displays, and rollout plans call for another 30 screens for displaying information about emergency notifications, campus events, schedules and advertisements from local merchants that accept the school’s Wildcard debit card.

More recently, Rise Vision introduced a reseller’s edition of Rise Display Network, with a personalized login page that can be used by an AV integrator or VAR to promote branding, cross-selling and event messages directly to end users. “Integrators and VARs are being squeezed by decreasing hardware margins. By including our software in their offerings, they can be perceived as the DS network provider, partake of the ongoing revenue streams and make a really good margin at it,” explained Cahoy.

Software Flexibility

Customers striving to create and deliver effective content on smaller budgets and with limited staff resources increasingly are demanding ease of use, professional-looking results and cost-effective software solutions. Basic content delivery and management software are integrated into select models of players and displays. But standalone solutions offer robust features, such as high-end 2D/3D content authoring, delivery and management, and scalability for expanding a network after initial or pilot deployment.

“Software flexibility and easy content management are key requirements for many digital signage users,” said X2O Media president and CEO David Wilkins. The company’s Xpresenter software provides an end-to-end platform for the creation and management of high-quality DS content. The application enables assembly of broadcast-quality video and 3D graphics in a variety of formats and screen resolutions.

Because Xpresenter’s authoring module runs alongside PowerPoint, non-technical users familiar with the PowerPoint interface easily can edit or repurpose presentations and other content for DS networks. “By using our ‘smart templates’ that contain built-in production logic and real-time data feeds, users can cut the time required to create fresh content dramatically,” Wilkins explained.

Software flexibility can also facilitate deployment of digital signage projects by providing business-essential functions, such as metrics. Recognizing the increasing demand for more sophisticated content management tools with robust feedback from DS viewers/consumers, the latest version of Scala 5 integrates its Content Manager application with Ad Manager (formerly Charting Pro). Scala’s product upgrade also provides web services and a host of other enhanced features.

Scalable software, such as that offered by BroadSign, CoolSign, C-nario and Omnivex, enables distribution of dynamic digital content across an enterprise, at various stages of expansion.

Tech Inspirations

As the digital signage market matures, component and display manufacturers are providing equipment with features designed to enable new services and generate sales opportunities. By proposing the use of DS systems with emergency alert devices or software to enhance security, for example, you might make it easier for a client to gain approval for widespread signage deployment.

Chyron’s ChyTV signage system offers emergency and security alert capability that allows pre-determined alert pages to be triggered automatically by an alarm, or activated manually by authorized personnel who may also compose or revise emergency messages in real time.
Integrating this capability with a certified emergency alert system (EAS), such as the DASDEC EAS encoder/decoder from Digital Alert System, enables automatic distribution of weather and other critical emergency information.

Display Manufacturers

Display manufacturers are also expanding their signage offerings to fill specialized requirements. This can provide more value-added opportunities for integrators in an increasingly commoditized market. LG Commercial, for instance, offers unique displays, such as the Stretch and the Mirror, for a variety of signage applications. LG has plans to ship its 42-inch 3D monitor for use in theater lobbies to display 3D movie trailers and at mall kiosks for 3D video game promos later this year.

Two installations of the 132-inch 3D WOWzone HD LCD multi-screen display wall from Philips 3D Solutions are reportedly creating spellbinding experiences at the LA Bridge Theater and at Karu & Y in Miami. Philips also offers a full suite of 3D content creation applications.
Samsung has made it easier to install a videowall with its new Interlocking Display 2. This pre-configured system consists of 46-inch professional LCD networked screens with built-in Windows XP PCs, Samsung’s MagicInfo Pro content delivery software and easy-assembly interlocking stand hardware.

Just beyond the horizon are flexible screens that can be wrapped around pillars, scent-emitting LCD displays to lure customers into restaurants and retail stores, and kiosks with HD touchscreens and RFID for creating more immersive consumer engagement and usage reporting.

Digital signage is a burgeoning marketplace and, although the current economic downturn may impact its growth, the need for even more cost-effective signage solutions provides exciting opportunities for those with real vision and expertise.

Shonan Noronha, EdD, is an award-winning writer/producer who has designed and produced networked multimedia content for a broad spectrum of clients from Wall Street to Fleet Street. She consults on the applications of new media technologies for training, marketing and corporate communications. Send comments, questions and suggestions to her at
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