Wrangling Brainier (and Brawnier?) Digital Signage

As intelligent visual communications, or what has been called “digital signage” become even smarter, developers are having to manage a wider assortment of heterogeneous components.

EECatalog asked Mark Boidman, a managing director at Peter J. Solomon Company (PJSC), a private M&A and restructuring advisory and investment banking firm, Ben Freeberg, an Analyst in PJSC’s Media, Entertainment, Communications and Technology Advisory Group, Ken Goldberg, the CEO of Real Digital Media and 2015 chairman of the Digital Signage Federation, and Kathleen Maher, vice president, Jon Peddie Research, a technically oriented multimedia and graphics research and consulting firm, to share their insights. They responded by predicting what developments will be disruptive, describing the role of cloud architectures, explaining why SoCs are gaining traction and more.

EECatalog: Where and how are you seeing the impact that such developments as Heterogeneous System Architecture (HSA) and OpenCL are making on Digital Signage?

Goldberg Ken Goldberg, Digital Signage Federation: Efforts like HSA and OpenCL are less visible to the end user and more visible to the developers of media players and digital signage software. As processing is increasingly offloaded from CPU to GPU with goals to curb power usage, decrease component costs and increase efficiency, it has resulted in a wider variety of heterogeneous components for developers to deal with. End users want great performance at a low price. Developers want to “write once, run everywhere,” which has always been elusive. If HSA and OpenCL can deliver on their promises, both end users and developers will get what they want sooner.

MaherKathleen Maher, Jon Peddie Research: Digital signage is entering the Age of Things just like everything else and thus the opportunity for smart and smarter displays is just coming on line and growing. The term digital signage is becoming a misnomer. We should be talking about digital signage systems as technology evolves to support a wealth of semiconductor platforms. Technologies like HSA and OpenCL are just two tools in the growing universe of architectures, programming languages and operating systems that can be used to create and maintain smart display systems. HSA is a system architecture developed for optimizing the parallelism of GPUs with CPUs. OpenCL is a programming language enabling efficient use of GPUs and CPUs. Both are representative modern approaches that have evolved to work within increasingly heterogeneous systems incorporating different processor architectures.

BoidmanMark Boidman, Peter J. Solomon Company (PSJC): Everybody is looking for software to do more and for less money, and technologies such as HSA and OpenCL make it easier to design low-power devices and improve performance for the designer, the [designer’s OEM] customer and the user. Writing programs across platform solutions that allow people to connect seamlessly with digital signage is the future. Coders are having an easier time translating and communicating, and that is what is going to make digital signage more powerful. We actually use the term intelligent visual communications rather than digital signage because we think of digital signage as the billboard on the highway that you just drive by.

Pricing Variables

Freeberg_8July2015_019_headshot_sidebarBen Freeberg, an Analyst in PJSC’s Media, Entertainment, Communications and Technology Advisory Group, cautions that the number of variables involved in digital signage makes it “difficult to pinpoint exact prices and percent changes.”

Freeberg explains:

“A company has to decide how many signs it wants, how big the screens will be, whether the content is alternating and whether the company is developing the content itself. That being said, the biggest opportunity for cost cutting is the implementation of digital signage networks, which fell by 58 percent from 2004– 2011. Since then, costs have fallen roughly 5.6–10 percent each year. Installation accounts for roughly 25-35 percent of a given company’s budget for digital signage systems, so if this number continues to fall, it will have a profound impact on overall budget.

The other main budget item is the digital displays themselves. With more efficient technology due to the increased prevalence of HSA, these costs will also begin to see a decline. Some companies, who don’t realize the importance of the software/installation price components, will end up spending roughly 80% of their budget on these digital displays. Overall, continue to look for implementation costs declining with increased, more efficient technology. New, smaller niche companies will continue to offer unique solutions that will drive companies in the sector to be innovative.”

However, whether you are in-store or standing at a bus stop, it’s intelligent visual communications that are allowing you to engage with the “signage” at the pedestrian level.

An observation I’d like to add is that people have been interacting with signs and taking advantage of things like discounts, but not [as much] as we thought they would. There has been too much friction with understanding how to use your phone and connect—whether it is QR code or [near field communication] NFC.

[However], Google’s Eddystone open beacon format technology is a game changer. You walk up to an area that is within 50 to 75 meters of the sign, and you can connect with that sign. The retailer can push you a notification, or you can interact with the sign without any friction. It all happens automatically—whether or not you have a supporting app installed on your device, which is perhaps the most significant thing about it.

And this is now happening in out of home media as well as retail. For example, when you walk up to the bus stop, you might receive a push notification telling you the bus is 15 minutes away, and asking if you want to walk into the store across the street and grab one of the store’s new spiced lattes. Something like that is pretty powerful, and people will want that information.

EECatalog: What’s going on with the entry-level digital signage market, and what are the factors that are going to help hold the line on costs?

Maher: The digital signage industry is a reflection of the computer industry as a whole and it is benefitting from Moore’s Law just like every other segment: as prices come down, capabilities go up. Mini-computer systems are a prime example. Intel has introduced its NUC, and it’s pushing price and size down. VIA has long been in this market with mini motherboards. In addition, companies like VIA, Jupiter, Matrox and Samsung are taking a systems approach with end-to-end solutions, and they’re bringing costs down.

And, as we’re seeing in other areas of the computer industry, cloud architectures are coming to the rescue to offer easy to create, use and roll out digital signage systems that can be managed through the cloud allowing companies to offload much of the system infrastructure to cloud providers.

Boidman: The market is growing nicely, with research indicating that the digital signage market is going to hit about $20 billion globally by 2020.

We are certainly seeing retail signage costs coming down [see sidebar], as retail stores try to create an experience that replicates the experience the consumers are seeing online. Through digital signage or intelligent visual communication you have the ability to shop in a way that you would online—sharing and comparing prices—in the store, or even out on the street, where you might encounter video or media content and can then walk into the store displaying it. As a consumer, you want the ability to enjoy that online experience in a physical environment.

Technological improvements are holding down costs, and low-cost digital signage is making it easier to reach consumers on a larger scale, and so that is certainly attracting consumers to digital signage, but also consumers [are drawn] to the content and advertising embedded within the digital signage.

With print advertising, retailers had to update the cost contents manually. Today, you can change out the digital contents instantaneously in real time to influence purchase decisions, and these screens are no longer just screens that are advertising a blue sweater. If the retailer uses cameras when you walk into a retail store, they can detect if you are a man or woman, if you have a larger or smaller build, and based on that information, they can advertise the right sweater to you. So digital signage in this case is actually going a step farther; not only is it advertising the blue sweater but it’s also providing useful, targeted information to the consumer about the item.

One thing that we are certainly seeing is more custom low-cost solutions. That is really what is driving the market. Although custom solutions are typically more expensive, we haven’t seen costs go up, and that, again, is attributable to advances in technology.

Goldberg: At the entry level, meaning small scale and simple networks, there is literally a war on to drive cost out. Several display manufacturers have introduced system on chip (SoC) displays in which a processor and disk are built into the player. Due to the limitations of such architecture, it has not caught on in large-scale, mission-critical or complex applications. However, SoC appears to have some traction at the entry level. At the same time, traditional media player manufacturers have driven cost out, largely owing to the introduction of ARM-based players paired with Android. Manufacturers of traditional x86-based boards have responded with lower power boards to enable them to compete while supporting Linux and Windows OS. Along with moderating prices on HD displays, these factors have made the cost of entry to digital signage lower than ever.

EECatalog: What are the three most disruptive developments you’ve witnessed in the Digital Signage and POS markets and what are your predictions for the most likely outcome of those disruptions?

Boidman: After HSA, I would say rapid innovation is a second major disruptive development. So many new start-ups are being developed based on the disintermediation of companies that are not establishing these new technologies. If you are just going to try to operate without innovation you are certainly going to risk losing market share to your competitors.

The third interesting development is LED. We are seeing LED continuing to be adopted as video display technology, and we are not going to see static billboards going away. For a very long time you’re going to see static signs, and that is a factor of many things—for outdoor you need permits, you need approval from cities to have digital everywhere. There are big outdoor advertising companies that have access to capital and have very clean balance sheets that could all be rolling out a lot more digital signage, but they don’t. And the reason for that is that there is not enough demand for it yet by advertisers, which in addition to having to satisfy permit requirements, makes conversion to digital less of a priority.

In retail, however, the rules are very different. There isn’t a permit requirement, so you could roll out digital screens everywhere, and we’re seeing that retailers are deploying them. Also, transit contracts in municipalities are expiring, and as they’re renewed, these contracts are transitioning from static analog billboards to pedestrian-level digital signage, or intelligent visual communications, so that too will be disruptive.

Goldberg: The revolution driven by the commercialization of ARM-based CPUs has driven media player costs much lower, and as mentioned above, forced a market response from x86 manufacturers. This has lowered the cost of entry and allowed large-scale users to match architecture to use cases across a network.

Two predictions here. First, Linux will be successfully ported to ARM CPUs in a manner that will support digital signage (video playback). Second, the response from x86 board makers will continue, closing the price gap between the two architectures. When both of those occur, things will get very interesting!

The exponential growth of mobile technologies has diverted advertising and development dollars away from digital signage in a dramatic way. Finding the right integration points between digital signage and mobile has become critical to network operators and platform providers alike. There will be many different approaches, but I believe that proximity-based technologies that bring mobile and digital signage together but do not require mobile apps will be the long-term winners.

In POS, certainly cloud-based and mobile (as in tablet-based) systems increase flexibility in terms of pricing, capacity and “line busting.” Cloud-based systems also make it easier to accurately integrate local pricing with digital signage displays, whether they be digital menu boards, promotional displays or even kiosks. POS will continue to leverage the cloud and mobility to make the in-store experience as easy and adaptive as the at home shopping experience.

Maher: Only three? The decreasing price and variety of displays; a new way of thinking ushered in by the Internet of Things; the opportunity of big data.

Displays: On the high end, decreasing prices for 4K displays mean fantastic video walls and also the ability to display readable text. In addition, decreasing display costs are bringing us closer to an era when screens replace all signs and paper. Signs on meeting rooms can communicate what meeting is happening, who is in it, and when the room will be free next. No more peeking in to find your annoyed boss and other company execs looking up from their meeting to stare back at you, which brings us to the next possibility: easily changeable employee names on cubicles and office doors. The availability of low-cost screens means that any sign anywhere can communicate more useful information. For another example, flexible OLED displays can even function in packaging or the house’s front door. The boundaries for digital signage are expanding.

IoT and Big Data: The arrival of IoT devices has helped to open people’s eyes to the potential of digital signage large and small. We are starting to think about what things can we make smarter, and once they are smarter, what can they tell us?

I can think of no better example than the N&W vending machine Intel CEO Brian Krzanich showed off at its developers conference this year (IDF15). Equipped with a 3D sensor (Intel’s RealSense in this case), the machine was able to classify a person walking up to the machine according to broad demographics and present a targeted display. In that way, the machine is gathering information about people’s preferences as well as informing them about products. Another benefit of a 3D sensor is that people can make their choice through gesture and not actually touch the machine’s surface. The machine stays cleaner, and germs keep to themselves.

anne_fisherAnne Fisher is managing editor of EECatalog.com. Her experience has included opportunities to cover a wide range of embedded solutions in the PICMG ecosystem as well as other technologies. Anne enjoys bringing embedded designers and developers solutions to technology challenges as described by their peers as well as insight and analysis from industry leaders. She can be reached at afisher@extensionmedia.com

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