The Bar Rises for Digital Signage

Keith Kelsen, author of "Unleashing the Power of Digital Signage," says that the market reached Malcolm Gladwell’s tipping point in 2010, the level at which momentum for change becomes unstoppable.

By Cheryl Coupé, Senior Editor

Keith Kelsen, author of "Unleashing the Power of Digital Signage," says that the market reached Malcolm Gladwell’s tipping point in 2010, the level at which momentum for change becomes unstoppable. According to Kelsen, “In a 2010 Arbitron study, more consumers see DOOH [digital out-of-home content] in a month than have ever texted a message or have a Facebook profile or have seen an online video. This is 71 million viewers per month.” And the industry is full of big names. We talked to a few key players to get their views on this fast-growing market. Following are comments from Mark Whiteside, vice president of professional services at BSQUARE, Sharon Yen, embedded client segment marketing manager at AMD, and Jeff Ittel, senior vice president for embedded marketing and asset management at Avnet Embedded.

EE Catalog: There seems to be a widening gap between signs that use off-the-shelf displays/computers and custom digital signage systems. How do you see the trends evolving?

SharonYenSharon Yen, AMD: There are many contributing factors as to why the gap is widening. On the one hand, there are changes in consumer expectations and the use cases of digital signage (DS), while on the other there is the drive from businesses to get more ROI from DS deployment as part of their business strategy. Although off-the-shelf DS systems still hold the majority of the market share, they are giving ground to custom-designed DS solutions.

Consumers have raised the bar for how they are being informed while also being entertained via DS – the expectation is a better visual experience using a combination of high-resolution graphics and video content. This places a heavier demand on the system’s graphics and video features. Higher performance usually requires more add-on hardware attached to off-the-shelf DS solutions. This hardware add-on approach is not desirable because it makes the DS player physically bigger and consumes more electrical power compared to a custom-designed DS player that is optimized for performance, physical size and thermal efficiency. Many customized DS systems are also fanless, which takes less electrical power to run, saving energy costs and lowering the total cost of ownership over time for business owners.

Retailers will continue to look for ways to enhance the consumer experience in ways that assist potential buyers to reach the “point of decision” without raising the cost of doing business. Interactive DS systems that act as virtual store assistance at retail stores enhance customer services without hiring more store clerks. Advanced capabilities such as motion detection, face detection and even gender detection embedded in the DS system are becoming vehicles for retailers to reach the end user more effectively.

The rise of consumer expectations and the demand for higher ROI from business owners will continue to change the landscape of the digital signage solutions. The key objective of DS deployment is all about reaching the end-customer: to inform, to promote, to sell and to increase the level of services. All of these potentially translate to higher customer satisfaction, more pleasant shopping experiences and more repeat business.

Whiteside - small headshotMark Whiteside, BSQUARE: The way in which retailers are interacting with consumers has changed dramatically as have the strategies for point-of-service solutions in general. Very few old business models continue to apply to this industry. Retailers are now seeking ways to simplify the path to purchase while at the same time wanting to measure the impacts and the success levels of any efforts. Off-the-shelf systems generally do not offer integrated, end-to-end solutions or what’s needed to truly take control of the sales experience.

Digital signage solutions will generally require deployment of software to multiple form factors and, in most cases, multiple platforms. Full integration of these systems both within the devices as well as with back-end systems can provide a full view of trends, expedite processes and also enable faster reporting and response.

ittel_jeff (533x800)Jeff Ittel, Avnet Embedded: ‘Off-the-shelf’ used to mean a product package with standard hardware that could not be used for specific digital signage applications. But now, off-the-shelf (or pre-qualified) solutions can enable smaller companies who lack IT expertise, or experience in digital signage, to quickly and cost-effectively implement a digital signage system. Today’s off-the-shelf solutions provide smaller networks with complete digital signage packages and can also enable value-added resellers (VARs) that have not sold digital signage in the past to quickly get involved in supporting digital signage – because the solutions are already configured and tested, and therefore easy to sell and support. While off-the-shelf solutions have evolved, we are still seeing large networks continue to utilize custom solutions. As more large networks seek greater complexity in their designs, customized solutions will still remain the go-to for larger networks.

EE Catalog: Digital signs have typical embedded computing needs for ruggedness and security, but also demand the latest consumer interaction technologies. How are developers balancing these sometimes conflicting needs in their designs?

Yen, AMD: The security concerns span from the security of the physical equipment to the security of the digital content, especially as the degree of interactivity increases between the consumer and the DS system. Certainly the media player and even the display device of the DS system can be physically secured to prevent equipment theft. Data theft is a more serious matter to address.

As consumers are becoming better informed and more sophisticated, retailers are faced with the challenge of providing fresh and relevant information closer to the physical location of where the “point of decision” is made. This is very similar to the cloud computing model in which the interaction takes place on the edge client device or mobile device while the content and the services are provided from the cloud. Consequently, a DS system connected to a LAN, via a cable or wirelessly, becomes an extension of corporate IT network infrastructure, even though it is a public-facing system. It is similar to a web portal for e-commerce applications or an edge device on the network. All of the security practices for cloud computing are applicable, such as network security, data encryption, session protection and virus protection. The most likely scenario is that either a network service provider who is contracted to handle the connectivity or a system integrator who is contracted to deploy the DS systems will make provisions to address the IT security requirements for the business owners.

As for keeping the DS content relevant and fresh with respect to the dynamic changes of goods and services sold, successful examples have shown it’s best to team up with software development consultation service providers who offer a software-as-a-service (SaaS) business option. SaaS providers are familiar with high degrees of customization and integration with other systems in their software development processes. The use of smart templates that allow external links to pull dynamic content from other sources via the network reduces DS content development costs.

Digital signage applications bring together a complex ecosystem partnership between the system provider, network operator, content creation and management solution, plus business owners – all driven to achieve a better ROI. So it is a balancing act for all.

Whiteside, BSQUARE: Interactive digital signage solutions have great potential with broad market appeal. Self-service content can provide engaging and valued experiences for customers while at the same time reducing costs.

However, easy access to enhanced services can also present concerns regarding security of the device and any data stored within. Solution security can be managed via software or hardware-based methods. Additional consideration should also be given to a solution design that creates the ability to update content quickly and easily without developer-level support, ensuring access to sensitive data and processes as well as remote monitoring capabilities that can be used to verify that solutions are functioning as expected.

Ittel, Avnet Embedded: Many new and existing suppliers are entering the market and supplying large format displays with built-in computers and integrated touch systems to give designers options for commercial-grade systems that can withstand the abuse of direct customer interaction. In the future, we expect to see more options for camera-based gesture recognition technology that will allow customers to interact with the display without direct contact. Advancements in processor technology have enabled increased content protection in terms of digital rights management and appropriate use of content (where it is displayed).

EE Catalog: We’ve been hearing a lot about multitouch and gesture interaction, as well as interactivity between mobile devices and digital signs. What are some of the challenges for developers in designing interactive digital signage systems?

Yen, AMD: Apple’s iPad and iPhone have made multitouch ubiquitous and raised the consumer expectations for such interactive experiences with DS. The use of multitouch with a good application interface keeps users engaged for a longer period of time. These user expectations put a larger demand on the creativity of the developers of DS applications and content. The challenge for developers is to design a DS application that strikes the right balance of informing, entertaining and selling to the end-user in order to effectively transform the interaction into revenue.

Simply pushing high quality multimedia digital content with sophisticated advertisements or product information to the DS large panel display does not automatically translate to sales increases. DS will continue to evolve to further streamline the sell and buy processes with tighter integration to point-of-sales (POS) systems and with electronic payment via mobile devices. Imagine a shopper who walks into a big national retail chain store (i.e., WalMart or Costco) and is greeted by a DS system equipped with motion detection and near-field communication (NFC) capabilities that detect the shopper and prompt the shopper to use his or her mobile phone to accept location-specific content about the store’s special promotions. A store coupon could then be downloaded on the premises to the customer’s mobile device in quick-response (QR) code ready to be scanned at checkout, while directing the shopper to the product shelf location in the store. At the checkout counter, the shopper’s consumer profile is updated automatically in the customer database for future personalized selling. At the same time, he or she is prompted to join the social networking online channels that the store has as part of its online community. This scenario is really not that far away, but many technological pieces have yet to be integrated to form the infrastructure that enables this business process.

In general, motion detection in the DS system invokes the next level of content to draw the attention of the shopper. This content is the key to influencing the shopper to reach the tipping point of wanting to engage in an interaction that can lead down a path to sales. An example for retail store DS applications might be the use of gesture or gender detection-equipped DS systems to present a digital “virtual” model to the shopper for trying on different clothes via a multitouch screen. This integration brings the Internet shopping experience of using a virtual model into the store location to assist the shopper in narrowing the choice of garments before he or she really tries them on in the store.

You can have the most advanced multitouch and motion detection technology integrated in the DS system, but without the right content and application design, the customer may not go down the path of sales with you. In a DS solution, the content is absolutely key and an integral part of the business strategy.

Whiteside, BSQUARE: Interactive digital signage systems especially those that extend functionality to consumer devices require deployments to multiple form factors and on multiple platforms including large screens, as well as tablets and mobile devices.

While full integration of these systems both within the devices as well as with back-end systems can provide a fully featured consumer experience that is personalized and engaging, this type of system design also requires considerations that are not necessarily part of a less feature-rich deployment such as cross-platform development and porting capabilities. Initial selection of platform is always an important part of a project design, but will be even more critical in this type of environment.

Ittel, Avnet Embedded: As smartphones become more and more ubiquitous, the expectation for the same look and feel for interactive signage is going to increase. The addition of multi-touch and gesturing capabilities in large format displays will drive and attract more users to the screens and ultimately generate the ROI needed to justify large-scale rollouts. One of the most important considerations interactive digital designers must make is ensuring that their signage system offers touch or mobile device interaction, along with making sure that the system is durable and easy to use.

With the rise of mobile device interaction, customers are hoping to build customer loyalty while linking to point-of-sale (POS) activities. Designers must make sure that the systems they are creating can meet the needs of marketing, as well as IT.

EE Catalog: As advertisers look for new ways to attract consumers’ attention, what new technologies will be incorporated into digital signs in future?

Yen, AMD: In some specific market segments, such as a fast food franchise restaurant, a tighter integration of DS system to point-of-sales (POS) system can reduce food order process times and improve operational efficiency. A DS system can also be tied to business analytic tools to provide relevant real time information to the customers. Imagine a self-serve, multitouch DS system that displays the digital menu with a promotion of today’s special that is also ready to take an order and accept payment. It also informs the customer of estimated food preparation time based on the existing orders ahead of this particular customer’s entry. Such information may influence the fast food patron to change his or her order before making a final decision.

The trend of integrating DS NFC with mobile devices (Bluetooth, RFID or cell phone) to enhance the on-premises shopping experience for customers is also on the rise. Mobile interactivity with digital signage, especially via the mobile phone, opens up other sales channels for the advertisers to incorporate into their existing multi-channel ad campaigns. Therefore the content of a marketing campaign for the promotion of any goods and services truly needs to be well planned out in the multi-channel dimension of DS solutions.

Whiteside, BSQUARE: Specialized media can help to increase the duration of customer engagements, helping to drive sales and other point-of-service results. As consumers become more technology savvy, their expectations for experiences continue to evolve.

For environments that are currently serviced by static communications, digital sign solutions will provide interactive options for information services such as wayfinding and alternatives to printed materials for delivery of detailed exhibit information and other enhanced experiences.

Successfully interactive experiences will continue to provide consumers with a mix of entertainment, information such as promotions and special offers and, when appropriate, event details.

Ittel, Avnet Embedded: One of the technologies that Avnet is starting to deploy is transparent display technology. This technology allows the user to look through the display and see the product behind it while still seeing video and graphics. This allows for signage to be directly paired with the product and to draw customers to the product. When touch is added to transparent displays, a consumer can receive product and promotion information within an arm’s reach of the product being offered.

Intel’s Audience Impression Metric (AIM) technology is also being touted to become the “Nielson Ratings” of digital signage. This camera-based system measures audience size, demographics and dwell time (the amount of time a customer spends with the digital sign). AIM technology allows the system operator to pull important data about his customers to better target marketing campaigns. One of the really exciting aspects of the AIM system is that it allows for advertisers to verify the number of visitors that were present when their advertisement was displayed. Over time, this will cause advertising rates in digital signage networks to rival the prices that advertisers are paying for traditional vehicles such as television. One last thing to keep an eye on is the improvement of 3-D technology and the potential for interactive touch 3-D as for a way to attract new customers.

Intel Corporation