Promising Signs

Retailers are faced with the challenge of punctuating TV, magazine, and internet messages once the customer is on the premises. Over the last several years, digital signage has become an increasingly common point of purchase element among retailers who want to drive their advertising message toward a demographic that's on the verge of making a buy.

"They need to be able to deliver a specific, focused message to the viewer at the time he is making a purchasing decision-at that last few hundred feet of the aisle. That is where the message needs to be delivered so that the decision can be made more easily," declared Richard Trask, marketing director at Scala, Inc. in Exton, PA.

Trask points out that one of the main benefits of digital signage is the user's ability to change their message throughout the day-especially in places where the demographic changes at different points throughout. He uses Starbucks as an example: in the morning, the café may be frequented by professionals on their way to work; during the afternoon, by stay-at-home parents taking a quick break before shuttling their children from lesson to lesson, and; later on by high school kids. Each period can be marked by a different message that is directly targeted at that specific clientele.

"If you try and deliver the same message throughout the day to all three different constituencies, the advertising dollar is wasted, because the message doesn't apply to everyone," Trask said. "Relevancy is a key factor in delivering the message to the person who is going to purchase the product."

While retail remains a strong niche for digital signage, other vertical markets are jumping on the bandwagon, such as education and government facilities, and corporate buildings. Trask notes that large corporate organizations are using these systems as a medium to communicate with their employees in an effort to maintain morale and productivity. "Digital signage technology in a corporate communications network allows an organization to create a community, whereby the company can communicate to its employees what is going on, on a relevant, daily basis, and also provide feedback to its employees, through that same media," he outlined. "That community is created, morale goes up, people understand what is going on, on a daily basis."

Neal Goldsmith, market development manager in the professional display group at Sony Electronics, noted that fully integrated signage players with high definition capabilities are moving to the forefront. "By integrating players into the display itself, there are fewer problems and costs involved with installation," he pointed out. "Less cabling is needed and the overall installation is much cleaner and easier." Sony's BKM-FW50 plug-in card functions without a network. "Movies and images can be put on a CompactFlash and will automatically play when the display is scheduled to turn on. The newest players will be HD, which currently is not very important for point of information, but for entertainment and 'wow' factor, it is critical." Sony's new card-based HD player, the ICS-FW40D, is in HD format and is capable of streaming or storing content.

Some organizations are installing digital signage in such a way that it can be used in multiple applications. Peter Taylor, eastern regional manager for strategic partners at Barco, cites houses of worship as an example. "A church that has the budget for three plasmas may want to use them as a prompting screen on Sunday, but during the week, they might want to wheel it outside for announcements," he illustrated. In order for this to happen, all of the necessary wiring must be in place. "Wireless is coming to the forefront to allow for this flexibility. To reduce costs, they also might run Cat-5 cable instead of more expensive cable. There are some cost reductions that make it more economical for this technology to be installed in smaller locations with smaller budgets."

Taylor observed that there has been a shift from plasma to LCD. "Many people moved away from plasma and into LCD because it's much more durable," he said, adding that while there is no burn-in, there exists a degree of image retention. "They really are more durable, but it's not a technology that you can have for more than two or three years. Brightness does fall over time with those. You may have 50,000 hours, but you will be at half brightness at that point."

While digital signage offers added flexibility, it requires a certain level of ongoing maintenance-something systems contractors should make clients aware of before they purchase the technology, Taylor cautioned. "It behooves an end user to look at what maintenance costs will be, because there will still be maintenance issues," he said. "It's not something that you can install, turn on, and come back in two years. The product needs to be maintained: everything must stay cool and clean."

As such, contractors stand to benefit from ongoing maintenance services. "The contractor needs to sit down with them to work this out, as well as a maintenance plan," Taylor said. Under its lamp lease program, Barco will ship new lamps out based on the projector's specifications: if it should run for 1,000, the manufacturer will send out a new lamp after 900. There are still costs involved, however. "The customer needs to understand what the costs will be, so they don't have any surprises. We can say, 'We say this projector is going to last 1,000 hours, so we will give you a lease based on 1,000 hours. Every 900 hours, we will ship you a new lamp, and if it fails earlier, we will ship you one, too, but you will still be paying based on the fact that it's a 1,000-hour lamp," Taylor explained.

Carolyn Heinze has covered everything from AV/IT and business to cowboys and cowgirls ... and the horses they love. She was the Paris contributing editor for the pan-European site Running in Heels, providing news and views on fashion, culture, and the arts for her column, “France in Your Pants.” She has also contributed critiques of foreign cinema and French politics for the politico-literary site, The New Vulgate.