There are all sorts of fancy names for the digital signage category, but once you move above text-only "light bulb" or LED displays, it all boils down to creative applications of flat-panel displays and projection systems for use in locations where older CRT direct view displays or CRT-based video cubes simply could not be accommodated from a physical dimension perspective.
On the plasma side of the fence, by the end of the first half of 2005 you will be able to choose between a 71-inch-wide PDP from LG or an 80-inch-wide PDP from Samsung. The price won't be cheap, coming in just under $40K for Samsung's HPR8072, but imagine the impact either of these units, or any other large-size, consumer plasmas will make in the right commercial venue. The 1920 x 1080 picture quality and high contrast of either display will put to rest any concerns about using "home" products. (As long as you make certain that there are no issues with safety or regulatory requirements.)
The same goes for last year's LCD large-screen prototypes that are this year's "real products." An example of that is the 57-inch-wide LCD scheduled for shipping in June by Samsung. Where burn-in issues are a concern, the smaller size of LCD as opposed to 60-inch-wide and above PDPs is more than compensated for by their immunity to phosphor burn.
Sharp previewed a 65-inch-wide, 1920 x 1080 LCD last October at the CEATEC show in Japan. No immediate plans for commercialization were announced, but it would be a big surprise if Sharp and others don't expand their product offerings above the 50-inch mark this year.
On the new display technology front, 2005 may possibly be the year that the SED technology jointly developed by Toshiba and Canon makes it to the consumer market. If it does, the lightweight, high brightness and hopefully very competitive cost might make SED a product to adopt over from the consumer world to the commercial systems world. It is a bit too early to suggest that you being to spec SED products into jobs.
Even as flat-panel technology continues its inevitable march to run the venerable CRT direct view display into the trash bin and museums, some interesting news is taking place. Facing the need to utilize the significant investment in CRT manufacturing, some manufacturers are trying to pump some more years of life into the original display.
The change will come from ultra-thin tubes that make it possible to manufacture 30- or 32-inch-wide HDTV-resolution displays that are less than 16 inches deep. While this still sounds large, remember that while an LCD display may be only a few inches deep for the screen, when placed on a stand or wall mount it grows considerably in "actual placement depth." Thus, when you need a high-resolution, high-brightness display in the mid-size range where plasma may be too expensive in HD resolution, and where LCD might not have the display characteristics, the notion of a CRT once again becomes viable. What seals the deal is the price, with the first two slim CRTs both initially priced in the $1,200 to $1,300 range. Compare that to an LCD or PDP for size/resolution/brightness, and you may well find that CRT's days are not as numbered as you might think.
Another crossover area where consumer products might fit into the world of digital signage is RPTV. Beyond the brightness, the widescreen, HD native images and the very reasonable cost to screen-size ratio for these displays, there are two other things that commend these new units. Most important is the shallow depth of microdisplay units, ranging from about 14 inches deep to not more than 18 inches deep almost regardless of screen size up to the 70-inch-wide range. This allows tremendous freedom for placement, even in cases where the sets are mounted in-wall so that only the screen is visible.
Along with the installation flexibility, microdisplay sets are more reliable than CRT projectors, with no complex convergence procedure required every time you move the cabinet. This is particularly valuable for situations where the signage is temporary, at something such as a trade show or training seminar. The small size, shallow profile, relatively light weight and mechanical reliability of DLP, LCD and LCoS rear screens makes them easy to basically roll out to their location and light up. Add to that the high brightness and freedom from burn-in, and you have a feature set that is very well-oriented towards the requirements of digital signage.
Taking things to the max, Thomson's RCA brand and InFocus are now shipping ultra-thin DLP-based RPTV units that deliver images up to 60 inches in cabinets that are less than 7 inches deep, with a 70-inch-wide unit promised for this year. Here, too, you need to look past the initial bias of "it's not as thin as a flat-panel display product" by considering the total, "as installed" distance from the wall surface to the front of an FPD's screen, rather than focusing (no pun intended) on the thickness of the screen itself. These units, and similar products we expect to see during the course of the year, truly begin to rival an FPD in total depth, and they have even been demonstrated in a wall-mount situation. (Though you had best work closely with the contractor when attempting to put one of these pups on a wall!) Taking into account their brightness, freedom from image burn and wide viewing angle, they present an interesting alternative for digital signage.
Rounding out the video display quintet, don't ignore front projection as a digital signage possibility. Normally not considered along with direct view, rear-projection, flat-panel and "bulb" type displays as a digital signage technology, there are numerous applications in retail, trade shows and transportation terminals where the use of a front-projection system may be combined with a floating screen for dramatic impact and information delivery.
Though perhaps rather atypical, using products such as Draper's HoloView or screen material from TRaC Associates' TransVuE, you can hang a seemingly transparent screen and light it up with information when needed. As a rigid material, HoloView is often hung down into a venue, while the sheet-roll technology of TransVuE lets you get even more creative by doing things such as using a window as a large projection screen, but again, only when needed.
Michael Heiss (CaptnVid@aol.com) is a technology and marketing consultant based in Los Angeles, CA.