Digital signage has been around for more than 40 years, but it really didn’t flourish until large, commercial grade TFT-LCDs hit the market in early 2000s. Before that, digital signage consisted of dot-matrix LED dis-plays, CRT monitors, or RGB projectors connected to a VHS/DVD players. None of these solutions were reliable nor simple to install, manage or maintain. LCDs simplified installation and allowed for wider adoption, but cost was prohibitive. Today, there are no shortage of beautiful visual options, including micro LED, SMD LED, OLED, QLED, Crystal LED, laser projection, e-ink, just to name a few. Commercial display technology has come a long way in the past 20 years, and has been driven largely by the requirements of the digital signage markets as it becomes more and more established.
Despite the dizzying pace of display development, there are still some shortfalls when it comes to deploying, managing and maintaining display hardware either remotely or onsite. This does make sense when you consider how feature advancements in commercial digital displays are introduced. It starts with the consumer market and as the technology stabilizes and is “tried, trusted and true,” it is then introduced into the commercial market, then is enhanced as commercial use cases are refined. The consumer market is the testing ground for cool new features. If it is well accepted, then it can be repackaged to become a mainstay feature in the commercial market.
Not every new feature is driven by a consumer advance though. As more and more communication networks transition to digital, more and more design challenges arise. Screens are now being placed in locations that were previous thought to be impractical or even impossible. This has led to manufacturers rethinking size, power, weight, brightness, connectivity, flexibility and more. Interactivity is an all-encompassing trend that has dramatically impacted the manufacture of displays. We have moved through touch and gesture to mobile connectivity and now sensors and triggers anticipating what the audience wants to see.
As the number of screens deployed continues to grow, networks are becoming more mission critical adding importance to stability and up time. Monitoring is no longer a nice to have, but is a must and is not getting the attention it needs yet. Network operation up to this point has typically been an afterthought. Today, you can log into your remote desktop app to see that the media player is playing as expected, but you have no idea if the display is even ON, or on the right source input for that matter. You may not even be able to connect to your media player at all because you are rely-ing on the local wi-fi and your access is limited and unreliable. In a perfect world, you would have full time access to all your end points, players, displays and peripherals ensuring that everything is operating as it should. Screens are being deployed outdoors in locations previous thought to be impractical leading to a requirement for an embedded data connection.
5G is an emerging technology that could simplify and solve these issues. Cellular has not been the most reliable for digital signage installations, especially in busy environments, because as traffic fluctuates, 4G LTE towers get congested, and the reliability of a persistent connection suffers. Mobile phone users are watching more and more videos of a higher quality content increasing the demand for faster, more reliable connections. New broadcast and multicast technologies are required to alleviate that demand. As cellular networks are slowly migrating from 4G to 5G networks the door is opening to new opportunities for digital signage.
5G uses a new radio millimeter band in the 30 GHz to 300 GHz band; current 4G networks operate on frequencies below 6GHz. Low latency is one of the most important features 5G will bring. Capable of latency rates under a millisecond. 4G LTE varies from tower to tower, and device to device and even though at times you experience fast speeds, we have all experienced rolling dead spots or lagging speeds. The best example of this would be at an arena or airport where there are many people. 5G will be faster, but that is not the reason why it will be a more viable solution for “mission-critical” applications such as digital signage.
In addition to increase speed, 5G offers three other major abilities:
• Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) for better multimedia experiences through higher capacity, enhanced connectivity and higher user mobility.
• Ultra-reliable, low-latency communication (URLLC) mission critical device control for latency sensitive devices.
• Massive machine-type communication (mMTC) for low latency and more reliable connections to IoT devices. Autonomously communicating machines that require little to no human intervention.
eMBB will simply provide a more reliable connection, especially in densely populated areas; where digital signage tends to be. eMBB will also support mobile broadband services on moving vehicles such as trains and buses, enabling digital signage implementations on public transit and temporary installations.
URLLC and mMTC will open the door for an array of IoT devices such as display control and watch dog tools, monitoring cameras, display calibrators, real-time audience tracking, etc. This is already being done well within the consumer market with technologies such as Zigbee (i.e., Philips Hue Lighting.) Anyone who uses devices in their home with the Zigbee technology knows how reliable it is; it just works.
5G networks alone won’t solve all our problems. However, the technology planets are aligning. Samsung with Tizen and LG with WebOS are enabling a standardization for operating system platforms and development environments for onboard systems on the display chip (SoC,) that will allow for easier integration of 5G SIM cards into displays for better connectivity and device management onsite. There would not be a need to install your own modem or use a local internet connection. You would simply pop in your SIM card and ship to site, ready to go. Furthermore, Samsung and LG are expanding their development in the LED market. Samsung has already integrated Tizen and MagicInfo in their LED displays. This will push other LED manufacturers to focus more on software, particularly monitor-ing and diagnosis tools. Huge mobile device companies, such as Foxconn and Huawei are already discussing developing large format displays, 75in. to 100in. 8K resolution with and integrated 5G modem. This is a good indicator that we will be seeing 5G connected displays in the consumer market in the near future. Huawei and Samsung are in serious competition these days. Recently, Huawei’s Mate X foldable smartphone clearly beat out Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, by price and functionality, in fact Samsung has pulled back the release and recalled devices and went back to the drawing board. It is exciting to see new competition in the display space, especially a mobile device and infrastructure company. This will push for new ideas and advancements in the digital signage space.
Andy McRae is general manager of Dot2Dot Communications based in Ontario, Canada. Digital signage expert Shawn O’Brien also contributed to this article.