Take a Look at the New-Look Signage

There are not many examples where technology makes an original product bigger, but advances in display manufacture are proving to be the exception to the rule.

Digital signage has revitalized hanging around at airports and train stations. The static information boards are now screens displaying timely information alongside adverts for ways to while away the time that are in the immediate vicinity. Sited in other public areas, they can make adverts more interesting, with video advertisements catching the eye of passers-by as the video plays. Digital signage is also found in private spaces, such as the doctor’s or dentist’s waiting rooms and also in companies, where a video wall can welcome, inform, and entertain visitors. More importantly, the screens can send targeted messages and create an impression of the company or brand as soon as someone enters the building.

Figure 1: Curved screens mean digital signage can appear in more places, like the London Underground. (Picture credit: NEC Displays)

Globally, the digital signage market is estimated to enjoy a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of around seven to eight percent over the next few years to achieve a worldwide worth of over $30 billion by 2023.

With the global interface someone can control or monitor a video wall or display across the world. . . schedule tiling, have images pop or images move from monitor to monitor for a dynamic show on a video wall.

Much of this growth is expected to come from retail and healthcare where digital signage is used for promotional material. An advantage that it offers is that content can be uploaded and displayed with little outlay and can be changed to meet changing market needs. There is also likely to be an increase in use in the corporate hospitality and corporate sectors, as content is created and distributed via screens that are 52-inch and above, according to Grand View Research.

Display Technology
Thin and flexible displays enable them to be used in more locations, such as on the curved walls of the London Underground (Figure 1). Other drivers will be 4K technology, which will be used for sharp images. 4K technology is expected to be exploited in advertising content, while LED-backlit panels will result in energy savings for the always-on signage and encourage enterprises to adopt digital signage in more locations.

Software extends beyond streaming content but can also be used to monitor and control both the content and the display’s operation. Analytics can provide data on footfall past a static location and also provide feedback on how content is viewed, re-posted on social media platforms, and shared.

Research by Orbis Research shows that advances in display technology, such as organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs), electronic paper display (EPD), and quantum dot LED (QLED) are also driving the market.

Innovation is bringing slim, lightweight, and inexpensive screens to market, making multiple displays in one location a cost-effective option. Taking a lead from smartphones, many of the displays used are borderless and capacitive touch screens, bringing interactivity to the display.

It is the rise of social media platforms, data analytics, and advances in display technology that have created a perfect storm. A combination of these three factors means that digital signage can be used more widely and with greater effect—for both the viewer and the owner/operator—than ever before.

Customized Displays
Although hardware plays a significant role, exploiting the thin format, high resolution display technology, it is software that is shaping the future of digital signage.

Dallas-based Lucid Networks builds cloud-based applications and services for video walls and displays which are used in corporate and retail spaces. Using Intel NUC media players, NEC displays, and the company’s own LAVA Controls management and monitoring software, it builds, compiles, and ships cloud-based applications for digital signage.

The company takes an Intel® NUC, a mini PC that measures four inches square, and embellishes it with customized functions for digital signage applications around the world. “We put 16-Gbyte of memory in it, to cache the internet content on it so that it is faster, especially on slower connections like an LTE connection,” explains Stephen Loeckle, CEO of Lucid Networks. Although the NUC box is off-the-shelf, the operating system is a version of Debian Linux and also runs the Chrome browser. It is the browser that displays all the content. The proprietary software performs a lot of self-healing functions. “If Chrome has any issues, the system will automatically perform a number of self-healing functions like restarting Chrome, clearing cache, rebooting the box. It is designed to be hands-off and to run 24/7 for years on end,” says Loeckle. It is a maintenance-free system, continues Loeckle, as the company provides all software updates and security updates, without burdening the IT department. He lets us in on a secret: “[The system] has generally been purchased by the marketing department and IT doesn’t want to have anything to do with digital signage if they can help it, it was purposely built to make it easy for everyone, including us and the end user,” he reveals.

The set pieces are the Intel NUC, NEC displays and video walls. For Internet of Things (IoT) devices, the company also offers LTE systems and Sierra Wireless routers for internet connectivity. The alchemy is in the operating system (OS) that the company puts on the NUC. There are many versions of the NUC, including the NUC8i7HVK and NUC8i7HNK released in January (Figure 2), based on the 8th Gen Intel Core processor, targeting gamers and virtual reality (VR) content creators.

Figure 2: The latest NUC, launched by Intel this year, includes Radeon RX Vega M Graphics for Virtual Reality/Mixed Reality (VR/MR) content creation.

The light version of the NUC media player is equipped with 4Gbyte RAM and an Intel i3 processor. It is designed for slide displays, whereas the full version has 16Gbyte of RAM and an Intel i5 processor. This model is designed for end-users to show 4K video and social media content. “Some of the graphics in social media analytics can be very large and processor-intensive,” concedes Loeckle, requiring the enhanced processor capability, adding “It is likely that we will release a high-end version with 32Gbyte of RAM and an Intel i7 processor, for people that need the extra horsepower.”

The Role of Software
“We heavily embrace open source software, in operation and in deployment of the equipment,” says Loeckle. “We use Fog [the free, open source network computer cloning and management software] for imaging, whether local or remote.” He adds that the company also uses Debian Linux, another open source operating system (OS). The open source software is integrated with Lucid Networks’ own, custom software.

Lucid Networks uses a light and full version into which standard and Open Pluggable Specification (OPS) cards can be used. The OPS was launched by Intel in 2010 to standardize system architecture between displays and media players. Adding Kingston memory, with Crucial  as a secondary source, the NUC is assembled in either Dallas, Texas, or Manchester, England for installation by local teams in Argentina, Mexico, Canada, South Korea, Australia, Japan, UK, and Poland. “We have boxes and video installations on every continent except Antarctica,” declares Loeckle. Nowhere, however, should be off limits, with remote control and monitoring; there must be a need for displaying environmental data at the McMurdo Station (the US research center) soon!

“For deployment it is more about people than the software,” Loeckle asserts. The boxes are pre-configured in house, “We know exactly where they are going to be deployed, so they are appropriately labelled and configured for any particular video wall or deployment throughout an organization,” Loeckle explains. “Every box is labelled for a purpose and location, so you know which box you are talking to when you get into our web interface.” The web interface is global, controlling all the boxes and sending content. “You can send content to a box in the UK from the US, see what is running on that box, and check the status of the box, all managed through proprietary software,” he adds.

Loeckle cites the example of video walls: “With the global interface someone in the US can completely control or monitor a video wall or display clear across the world. We can schedule tiling where images can span across the entire wall, we can have images pop or images move from monitor to monitor for a dynamic show on a video wall,” he enthuses.

Adding Intelligence
A close relationship with NEC allows part of the software that runs on some of the boxes to be display control software. “We control the display from a power perspective, from an input perspective, we can schedule power on, power off, we can schedule input changes and we also report it back to the cloud,” says Loeckle. He gives an example of remote monitoring. If the temperature of a monitor starts rising quickly, it is generally an indicator that there is a problem, maybe with the monitor, or air-conditioning or the power supply. “We can alert the customer before the monitor dies and they can get a replacement/call tech support and take care of the problem before it becomes an issue,” Loeckle points out. “The thing we like to prevent are the monitors going out or the boxes not working. Probably the most embarrassing things for a digital signage company is to have no content running or a monitor that has gone out and nobody knows about it for days, or weeks,” he adds. Building the monitoring and control features into the system, to provide an understanding of the health of the media player and the monitor are believed to be unique to Lucid Networks. “What no one has done before is combine those two together so that you know what your entire kit is doing. You need to know what the entire kit is doing to have a successful deployment,” confirms Loeckle.

Figure 3: Large screens make arresting displays in retail environments. (Picture credit: NEC Displays)

With these innovations in both hardware and software, where next for digital signage? Loeckle sees the possibilities as endless: “We started displaying social media content, and then it started going to lobbies for large corporations, now it is going into retail. The marketplace for digital signage as we currently call it, isn’t necessarily really digital signage any more. It is displaying content that is on the internet, no matter what that content is. It could be a birthday message, it could be social media analytics, so a large company can understand how their brand is doing on the internet, it could be YouTube videos, sales material, and it could be employee notices. It is so wide ranging that it amazes us how corporations are using our technology to send a message. And that can be any sort of still messages—or any message—to be conveyed.”

Caroline Hayes has been a journalist covering the electronics sector for more than 20 years. She has worked on several European titles, reporting on a variety of industries, including communications, broadcast and automotive.


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