Digital Signage Designers Push the Boundaries Outside the Box

Engaging customers via digital signage has come a long way, but the technology breakthroughs for this sector may just be getting started.

Digital signage has certainly come of age recently, but if new technologies are any indication, the best is yet to come. In particular, projection technologies have taken a great leap forward. No longer trapped behind a two-dimensional rectangular pane of glass, smart displays can be more engaging and offer more immersive experiences. And that’s just what advertisers, retailers, restaurateurs, and gaming and shopping mall operators want: to capture and captivate more consumers.

A New Kind of “Elevator Pitch” and More
What if pertinent messages were projected onto elevators while the doors were closed? Or an image communicating the thrill of driving a certain automobile appeared on the side or hood of a car parked in a showroom? And what if an interested car customer, now engaged, could interact with the image, calling up another image or a list of the car’s optional features? The possibilities for projection technologies are endless.

DLP® technology-based projectors from Texas Instruments, for example, can cast huge images on both sides of a banner suspended in large public places, like shopping mall atriums and food courts or trade show exhibits. The banners might even be a circular or odd shape to attract more attention. On a smaller scale, shoppers could pick up a shoe or point to an image of a watch in a display case to access additional information, helping them reach purchasing decisions more quickly without help from an employee.

Using another DLP Products application called projection mapping can project images onto curved surfaces or geometric shapes. A retailer might project the image of a new dress or a man’s suit onto a mannequin in a display window. A restaurateur might display their menu onto a curved geometric shape in the center of each table. In some of these exciting new applications, projection technology provides solutions where flat-panel displays cannot; in others, DLP technology enables a more engaging and impactful solution, like that shown in Figure 1.

Moving forward, the only limit will be the imaginations of digital signage developers.

Figure 1: Digital signage banners catch the eye of shoppers. (Courtesy Texas Instruments, Inc.)

Images Big and Small
Generally, DLP technology systems comprise several functional blocks, including an optical engine and system electronics. The application’s cost target and performance requirements—including brightness, size, resolution and processing functionality like image mapping—will affect the level of integration of these functional blocks, as well as the physical size of the optical engine, optical lenses, and other devices. The system’s illumination source will also play a role in its performance. Fortunately, the type of illumination does not matter in DLP technology, so developers can choose the light source that best meets their needs. Options include incandescent lamps, light-emitting diodes (LEDs), direct laser and laser phosphor.

Figure 2: Using TI DLP technology to make digital signage more effective. (Courtesy Texas Instruments, Inc.)

In response to the wide range of trade-offs and requirements for various signage applications, DLP technology is extremely scalable. Many ready-to-use off-the-shelf DLP technology display solutions are available for applications that must get to market quickly and do not need additional advanced or customized functionality. For the latter type of application, a wide range of DLP technology solutions are available, as well as a comprehensive ecosystem of development tools and drop-in software algorithms for advanced image processing.

At the lower end of the range for purpose-built DLP technology signage systems are low-power, single-chip DLP Pico solutions. Systems based on these devices can be very compact and inconspicuous, yet when installed in indoor applications can project images bright enough to stand out and grab the attention of onlookers, despite relatively high ambient light levels. DLP Pico systems typically project onto screens in the range of 20 to 60 inches diagonally.

It is possible to accommodate screen sizes larger than 60 inches with a single-chip DLP Products-based projector, but this type of system would have to be able to output 2,000 to 3,000 lumens in brightness, significantly greater than Pico projectors. This greater brightness is essential for projecting on larger screens in applications such as stage lighting.

A third class of DLP projectors are targeted at very large venues such as stadiums, airports, convention centers, or other large public spaces. DLP technology is a proven solution for a wide range of display applications for screen sizes that begin at 200 inches diagonally.

Smart Projection Signage
A number of advanced features and innovations resulting from DLP technology have recently been introduced into digital signage and other applications. These new capabilities not only enhance the vibrancy of projected images, but draw the viewer into the experience in a way that encourages interaction. Enabled by what is known as time-of-flight processing technology, features like gesture and touch interactivity, autofocus to eliminate keystoning and other types of image distortion, projection onto curved or irregular surfaces, and other features are now possible, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Digital signage in a retail setting displaying shoe information. (Courtesy Texas Instruments, Inc.)

Time-of-flight technology bounces a light pulse off a screen or display surface to determine the distance from the projector to every pixel in the sign. In autofocusing applications, knowing the depth of every pixel can eliminate unintended and unwanted distortions in the image. For example, a projected image without autofocus might keystone if the projector is placed at an angle to the screen such that the bottom of the screen is closer to the projector than the top. By constantly calculating the depth of each pixel, time-of-flight technology can adjust the image to compensate for keystoning.

Time-of-flight technology also facilitates viewer interaction with images through gestures or by touching the screen. For example, a hand entering the scene or a finger touching a group of pixels on the screen would alter the depth of the pixels, thus triggering responses such as changing the image, displaying a totally new image or other outcomes.

In projection mapping, time-of-flight technology frees DLP projectors from limitations involving perfectly flat-screen surfaces or a few rectangular shapes with only standard aspect ratios. Projection mapping keeps images sharp and clear even when projected onto curved surfaces.

Easy Installation and Management
Several new developments on the horizon will simplify the installation and operation of DLP technology-based digital signage. The IEEE power-over-Ethernet (PoE) specification, for instance, is evolving to support greater power levels along with Ethernet data. The most recent version of the PoE standard, IEEE 802.3at, was approved in 2009, but it only supported approximately 25W of energy on the cable. This results in brightness levels for connected DLP projectors in the 200-300 lumens range. Another version expected next year, IEEE 802.3bt, should support up to 70W and 500-600 lumens.

For a network of signs, the new standard will make it possible to daisy-chain brighter displays or a greater number of signs together on a single Ethernet network without running an individual power line to each projector. A single Category 6 Ethernet cable could power the collective display. Such a system would be advantageous from an operational standpoint, because one central location could control and coordinate multiple digital signs installed in different locations. Depending on conditions in the signage network, the information displayed on any of the screens could be altered or updated, either automatically or manually.

Another innovation for digital signage is the USB Type-C™ connector, which allows a USB cable to carry data and as much as 100W of energy in a point-to-point architecture. As a result, a laptop computer might, for example, deliver images and power to a very vibrant digital sign in a retail store. Should the promoted item on the sign sell out, the store manager could quickly change the sign to another item in inventory.

Thinking outside the box: that’s what digital signage designers are already doing with DLP technology. Soon, you’ll see more and more smart displays comprising high-definition images in vibrant colors and on unexpected contoured surfaces. Certainly, projection signs will go where flat panels cannot, but more importantly, they will offer viewers a different kind of experience entirely: one that’s more immersive, captivating, and engaging.

Vivek Thakur is applications manager, DLP® Products, Texas Instruments, Inc.




Anshul Jain is applications manager, DLP® Products, Texas Instruments, Inc.

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