BECALMED UPON A DIGITAL SEA
It’s July, it’s hot and humid (here in the Northern Hemisphere), and this month’s topic is at first glance a real summer snooze-fest. Not to say that digital signage is unimportant! In fact, given the visual nature of our modern-day world, the need for displays—with higher resolution, millions of colors, blacker blacks and whiter whites, faster rendering, and with features like touch screens, daylight-bright backlights, and low power consumption—has increased exponentially. But the commoditization of digital displays, not to mention their ubiquity, has brought with it the death knell of familiarity. Everyone knows the benefits and the general features that make up the landscape of this type of tech. And, from the perspective of the tech writer, a lonely soul hunched behind a keyboard, staring at one of the aforementioned screens and wondering what he or she could write that has not already been written a thousand times before, it’s a barren rut-tracked wilderness.
As I started to write this article, still coming down off the scary heights of last month’s AI-themed missive, like Melville’s Ishmael I found myself becalmed as upon a digital sea, the winds of my inspiration stilled by the vast featureless plain of the topic. There I sat in my shabby synthetic leather rolling chair, gazing out across the limitless Neo-QLED-lit expanse, eyes searching the horizon for one glimpse—there!—a stray flash of polychromatic 4320p color above a spray of hyper-realistically rendered foam as the elusive digital display subject whale breaches the glassy surface. But it’s far away, far out of the reach of even the Herculean arm and spear of my tattooed AI deck-mate GPTQueg, its rolling eye mocking us both as it slides back towards the Stygian depths, vanishing without a trace.
I could feel a rising level of despair, along with a serious case of writer’s block, when, with the sudden swiftness of an equatorial sunrise, it came to me. The heavy air in my home office was stirred by invisible fingers as a cool zephyr curled across the deck of my imagination, lifting my non-existent hair as it filled my metaphorical sails. “Aha!” I cried, causing the overfed cat sleeping on my desk to blink and yawn, “The topic is digital signage, a unique subcategory among the enormous hyper-set of digital displays.” This niche industry, with its particular needs, dedicated equipment, applications, and customer base, gave me a focus—a star to steer by, so to speak. Without further ado, I leapt to the forecastle, heart pounding as I placed my fingers upon the well-worn plastic of my wireless keyboard. I half-imagined I could hear the cry of “Thar she blows!” from the lookout, as the mate urged the deckhands to rig the sheets for speed, the wheel beneath his hand spinning to catch the freshening breeze. Waves of foam rose from both sides as my idea-ship turned, heading straight for the spot where the monster lay.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE FISH
Digital signage, as I came to be aware, is much more of an application than a particular technology. From the Wikipedia article on the topic , you can see that it’s considered a form of electronic signage, like a billboard that can be easily updated or modified. The overall application for signage itself is obvious: it provides a form of information storage and retrieval, and can be found in human cultures going back to at least Egyptian times with hieroglyphs carved into the obelisks that served as literal signposts. Of course, this would be expensive, time-consuming to create, and difficult to update. Consequently, stone is a suitable medium for information that doesn’t change often and has high importance to the public at large.
Similar static displays existed for the next few millennia, in various forms. Signs were carved in wood or formed from clay. Sign painting, a much easier way of renewing and modifying an information display, still required a skilled artisan to create the finished product. With the advent of mechanical printing, handbills nailed to a signpost became the norm, and soon after so did large-scale printed messages displayed on physical billboards. Consisting of wood boards coated with paper messaging, billboards require less skill to post and maintain, as they can be updated relatively easily with a bucket of paste and a brush.
All these advances were fine for information distribution. But they still had the drawbacks of slow manual updating and maintenance. With a growing need for real-time information, electronic signage was conceived.
The first electronic signs were based on configurable arrays of incandescent bulbs. Characters were rendered by turning on the proper bulbs while leaving others blank. Adding simple mechanics and, later, computers to this technology allowed the signs to be animated, resulting in the glowing cacophony of the Las Vegas strip in the 1960s. You can also see similar types of signage in early stock market tickers, the lights on Broadway marquees, and Times Square of the 1970s and ‘80s. These types of electronic signage fulfilled the need for displaying advertising or fast-updating information. As computers and display technology advanced, the signs became more sophisticated—LEDs replaced incandescent bulbs, addressing schemes were expanded to accommodate higher and higher resolution arrays, and full-color displays were added to render animation, text, and graphics.
DIGITAL SIGNAGE: THE NEXT GENERATION
Digital signage, as a distinct class of electronic signage, evolved as an outgrowth of these digital displays. I remember well the first time I hooked a VGA flat screen to my PC, replacing the bulky CRT with slim, quiet LED tech. Flat-screen displays rapidly gained popularity, and many companies jumped into the PC display market. There was a natural progression to televisions, and as home entertainment technology became integrated with the world wide web, the smart TV began to take the market by storm. Displays grew larger, with higher resolution graphics and support for many internet-based apps. In fact, the most common form of digital signage is the one or more televisions that you have in your home. Advertising embedded in streaming video services is a major means of distribution for digital signage. This targeted ad model, and the associated revenue, are one of the primary sources of income for video streaming service providers and content creators both.
The devices that drive digital signage have evolved as well. Initially connected to full-service PCs, digital signage media servers are now a subclass of Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices in their own right. They can receive over-the-air (OTA) updates, and some can drive multiple 8k resolution digital screens. These sophisticated media servers can download custom advertising and informational messages from the cloud, and store and render them as instructed by the settings of their controlling application. There are several companies whose business models are based on selling access to their digital signage billboards, allowing subscribers to set up and play their ads on multiple screens all over the country with just a few mouse clicks. We will go over those devices and the companies that use them later in this article.
LOOK BOTH WAYS—IT’S A TWO-WAY STREET
One of the persistent drawbacks of digital signage, even in its modern high-resolution form, is the lack of interactivity. Interactivity in this case typically takes three forms: proximal, targeted, and direct. The third generation of digital signage might more properly be called digital messaging, as it’s designed to allow passive display, information retrieval, and interactive or context-aware messaging. An example would be the Virtual Mirror app from DigitalDM . I’ve included a QR code in Figure 1 to allow you to see the video. The Virtual Mirror app allows you to scan your face and then see how a variety of garments would look on you, all without trying them on. Glasses.com uses Virtual Mirror to allow its customers to see how a particular set of frames and lenses would look on them before they plunk down $190.00 to buy them . Your author tested this app (Figure 2 and Figure 3) with, I would say, good-looking results, ahem.
The digital signage marketplace has a variety of subsectors, and the lines between them are sometimes blurred. There are companies like E Display, that provide both hardware and software solutions. The E Display Signage Droid (Figure 4) is all-in-one IoT-based hardware that is bundled with a proprietary software subscription package . As shown in Figure 5, the typical installation is a stand-alone device controlling one or more screens. The E Display software package is cloud-based, meaning that your custom media is stored and managed in the cloud, then served to the device of your choice. These devices support most HDMI-based 4K and 8K TV screens available on the market today. Pricing is a reasonable $199/year for the standard package, with a free 14-day trial. E Display also offers over 700 pre-designed templates to get you started in designing your information display. Custom templates are available with a premium bundle subscription for $399/year.
Another hybrid player is Rockbot , aimed at larger corporate customers. It has a highly scalable, cloud-based service that runs on its proprietary Rockbot Media Player device (Figure 6). This device has a large storage capacity, and can buffer content and continue serving the stored media even if internet service is interrupted or spotty. Rockbot’s hardware platform is more robust (and comes at a higher price) than the more consumer/sole proprietor-focused E Display. It also supports social-media integration with a wide selection of out-of-the-box widgets that can serve live news updates, music, announcements, weather, and even Twitter feeds. Monthly pricing is given for certain standalone packages, like Rockbot Music or Rockbot Digital Signage. Enterprise pricing, which is the company’s primary focus, is not given on its site. Rather, Rockbot will prepare a custom quote based on the individual needs of the end-user. Currently, numbered among its corporate customers, it claims relationships with several chains, including Planet Fitness and Jersey Mikes.
There is a universe of ways to hook up and play digital signage content, and almost as many options for the hardware needed to do so. Many smart TVs are sophisticated enough to download and install consumer-grade or enterprise-grade digital signage software, and therefore they serve as the media player and the screen in one. For other types of non-TV displays, large kiosks, and in-store display signage, there’s often a need for a media server. Many of these exist in the market today, and selecting the right one for your application can be a little daunting. I found a good white paper on this process on the ScreenCloud website . ScreenCloud bills itself as “hardware agnostic,” and therefore tries to support a wide range of popular platforms. According to the white paper, the company recommends the Amazon Fire TV Stick with 4K resolution capabilities for most consumer-grade applications. In this same category, it lists Google Chromecast (Figure 7) as well as the Xiaomi TV Stick.
For more professional applications ScreenCloud recommends the Station P1 Pro, its own media player box. It also supports the Ugoos X4 Cube, the Azulle Access4, and the Ugoos AM6B Plus for high-end content display. Its software will also run on many consumer tablets like the Android-based Samsung Galaxy Tab line or the Amazon Fire HD 7 and 8.
Purpose-built digital signboards are listed on ScreenCloud’s site as well, including the Arrow Seneca Bluefin (Figure 8) made by Seneca Displays , the Glory Star Ultron series, and the Elo I-Series. These displays are designed with the enterprise user in mind, providing sharp imaging, tons of storage, and ready-to-go, setup-and-forget type design.
It also list TVs from Toshiba, Hisense, Amazon Fire, and Samsung, as well as professional displays by Sony, Elo, Samsung, and a host of others. The advantages of platform-agnostic operation are that it allows the company to concentrate on features rather than delivery systems, and it gives ScreenCloud a price advantage. The downside is the need to constantly keep its application up to date with the ever-changing hardware landscape.
CARVING THE DIGITAL WHALE
Lastly, we have pure digital signage service providers. These companies make their revenue by monetizing their installed network of screens, selling advertising space to the public in much the same way that traditional billboards did in the past. In fact, many of the traditional paper billboard spaces have been purchased by these new companies, converted to high-res signage, and resold to retail customers.
This business model works like a digital timeshare. Clients subscribe to the service and then set up their ad and campaign parameters. The overall digital signage is multiplexed in the same way that rooms in seaside resorts were carved up into week-long blocks and then resold to sub-owners. (This sort of shared ownership spreads out the cost of owning or renting these resort properties, allowing folks who did not want to spend a lot of money the ability to vacation in luxury.) Signage companies invest in the placement of their signage, gaining access to favorable venues. They also own and maintain the media server equipment. Their customers get access to this digital real estate, greatly increasing their reach even while reducing their capital outlay.
One of the players in this space is Mvix. Founded in 2005, Mvix boasts over 19,000 customers and spans a wide variety of industries. It’s published a comprehensive guide on its digital signage solutions, available for download from its website . As Mvix states, it focuses on providing scalable, low-cost, high-impact solutions for its subscribers. The company’s white paper claims that “digital displays get 400% more views, have a recall rate of over 80%, and also improve brand awareness by almost 50%,” and that “at least half of communication experts consider digital signage to be a must-have channel for any consumer-focused industry.”
Also in this space is Yodeck . Like Mvix, Yodeck is a subscription model service, but it also offers a free one-screen option to allow smaller corporations or individuals a way to test Yodeck’s service before subscribing. NoviSign is yet another digital signage service provider. It’s been in business since 2011, and its Signage Studio application offers users a full suite of ready-made templates to prepare their message for display as quickly and painlessly as possible.
DROWNING IN DIGITAL
If all this is starting to make you feel like you’d rather have remained on the ship with Ishmael, I totally understand. As I mentioned at the beginning of this journey, the deeper you dig into this market the more overwhelming it seems to become. It’s also easy to stand back and ask: what is the ROI here? The services can become a little pricey, and it may not be immediately clear that there is going to be a sufficient value return for the time and dollars invested. Not to mention that the task of creating and managing digital content can turn into a white-whale quest of its own.
Thankfully there are folks and firms who specialize in helping you define and right-size your need for digital signage. I found a few consulting services whose focus is on digital media. One of these is the aforementioned DigitalDM , an IT consultancy firm that specializes in what’s known as active digital signage. This more modern incarnation, also known as third-generation digital signage, allows the customer to touch, swipe and interact with in-store signage panels. These displays can take the form of active posters, shop window-size exterior displays, or applications like its Virtual Mirror that allow virtual modeling of clothing. Users of these apps can virtually try on shoes or other accessories that are mapped digitally onto your scanned image.
In its consultancy role, DigitalDM can advise its customers on digital e-publications, interactive retail, mobile apps, traditional digital displays, and many other aspects of information distribution. Their stated aim is “to assist our clients with their digital transition strategies to increase efficiency, competitiveness, and customer accessibility.” Some of the questions they specialize in addressing are:
- Do your IT strategies still match your current business?
- Has your IT strategy been independently reviewed in light of new innovations?
- Are you using the latest technologies to streamline operations and reduce costs?
- Who are the best industry partners to meet and exceed your goals and performance objectives?
Another such firm is DGI Communications . Founded in 1994, and originally operating in the digital printing technology arena, DGI can employ its expertise to advise you on the proper use of technology for your market and goals. The company is laser-focused on marketing your brand and helping you develop a fully fleshed multimedia strategy. Toward that end, they have established partnerships with Zoom, Dreamscape, Extron, and other industry leaders. As seen in Figure 9, which shows a university auditorium designed by DGI’s consulting team, they are experts in designing and implementing AV solutions for a variety of industries. This kind of help can get you on the right track toward realizing a sustainable and scalable digital information solution in a timely manner.
The tsunami of information that flows out of, and for that matter back into, the digital signage that already exists boggles the mind. But the appetite for it seems even more limitless. Digital screens are everywhere, and our exposure to them fills nearly every waking moment. The jury is still out with regard to the long-term effects of this digital immersion. Already there are troubling signs of screen addiction among the younger members of our society, with many school-age children and young adults suffering what amounts to withdrawal symptoms if they are deprived of their phones for even a brief period of time.
Regardless, innovation in the digital signage area continues. meldCX and Signagelive have just announced a global partnership to enable “data-driven digital signage” . According to their press release, this entails using a blend of AI and IoT to power their new offering, intending to “produce digital signage analytics that were previously un-trackable.” The press release continues, “These include customer demographics, dwell times, glances, and content view-throughs. This is similar to information that can be gathered when consumers are viewing a YouTube video, but gathered now in real-time from consumers inside a physical store or kiosk.”
I don’t know about you, but after the research I did for last month’s feature, having an AI serving digital signage content and at the same time gathering all the above information gives me the willies. I’m already suspicious that my smartphone is listening to my casual conversation and serving me ads based on what it hears. This has the potential to be many times more invasive and insidious. As Elon Musk noted, AI may be one of the greatest innovations of the twenty-first century, and possibly the most dangerous. Only time will tell.
Well, that makes two months in a row that I’ve ended up scaring myself. Maybe I need a long vacation. That sun-blasted deck in the middle of a flat endless sea sounds pretty good right about now. Or, perhaps just a chair on a sandy beach will do. The way I feel right now, the farther away I get from technology, the better. My advice is to turn off your tech, throw on some shorts, get out of the lab, and get a tan. Until next month!
 Wikipedia: Digital Signage: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_signage
 Virtual Mirror app from DigitalDM: https://digitaldm.com/virtual-mirror/
 Glasses.com Virtual Mirror: https://www.glasses.com/gl-us/virtual-mirror
 Signage Droid by E Display: https://www.signagedroid.com/product/signage-droid-z5/
 Rockbot Digital Signage: https://Rockbot.com/digital-signage
 ScreenCloud: https://screencloud.com/learn/buyers-guide-digital-signage-hardware
 Seneca Displays: https://www.senecadata.com/industry-solutions/digital-signage/all-in-one-displays/
 Mvix “110 Content Ideas: What to Display on your Digital Signage”: https://mvix.com/blog/digital-signage-content-ideas/
 Yodeck “Unbeatable easy digital signage”: https://www.yodeck.com/digital-signage/unbeatably-easy/
 Interactive digital signage from DigitalDM – https://digitaldm.com/interactive-digital-signage/
 DGI Communications page on digital signage: https://www.dgicommunications.com/digital-signage/#:~:text=Digital%20signage%2C%20sometimes%20called%20electronic,marketing%20messages%20or%20digital%20images
 MeldCx and Signagelive Announce Global Partnernship—article: https://www.meldcx.com/press/meldcx-and-signagelive-announce-global-partnership-to-enable-next-generation-data-driven-digital-signage
PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE • JULY 2023 #396 – Get a PDF of the issueSponsor this Article
Michael Lynes is an entrepreneur who has founded several startup ventures. He was awarded a BSEE degree in Electrical Engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology and currently works as an embedded software engineer. When not occupied with arcane engineering projects, he spends his time playing with his three grandchildren, baking bread, working on ancient cars, backyard birdwatching, and taking amateur photographs. He’s also a prolific author with over thirty works in print. His latest series is the Cozy Crystal Mysteries. Book one, Moonstones and Murder, is already in print, and book two is on its way. His latest works include several collections of ghost stories, short works of general fiction, a collection called Angel Stories, and another collection called November Tales, inspired by the fiction of Ray Bradbury. He currently lives with his wife Margaret in the beautiful, secluded hills of Sussex County, New Jersey. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.