Digital Signage Transforms Signs From a Product to a Service

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of monthly articles focusing on the digital signage market.

If you’ve been to a fast food franchise, walked a shopping mall, driven on a highway, or been to any number of public and retail locations, you know that digital signage is starting to appear in more and more places. The deployment of digital signage has traditionally—to the extent that any aspect of it can be considered “traditional”—been the purview of A/V installers, but sign industry advocates such as the International Sign Association (ISA) have focused their educational efforts—such as last April’s Sign Expo—to help signmakers take advantage of opportunities in digital signage, as well as reclaim business that may have been lost to A/V installers. After all, said Glenn Feder, Director of Business Development for the ISA, digital signage isn’t too far removed from the signage they are already producing. “It’s in their wheelhouse already,” he said. For example, signmakers can add aesthetic qualities like effective color, typography, and integration and consistency with other non-digital signage.

At this stage in the evolution of digital signage, sign producers, as well as others from traditional printing, have questions galore about nearly every aspect of digital signage. This article kicks off a monthly series dedicated to the various aspects of digital signage. Up first: just what are the components of a digital signage system? And how are they being used?

Parts Is Parts

Digital signage as a technology isn’t especially new, but the low cost of displays combined with an “it takes a crowd to draw a crowd” dynamic have made it the application du jour for many companies. Until recently, out-of-the-box solutions have been in scant supply, but the three basic components of a digital sign solution are:

  • A display, and a commercial grade monitor is essential. The TV you pick up in Best Buy or Walmart for your living room will not physically be able to run for the length of time digital signage requires—and you may void your warranty if you try.
  • A media player. Think of this like a large iPod that connects to the display and pipes the content from the content management system.
  • Content management software. Think of it like iTunes, where the graphics and other files to be displayed are stored, organized, and scheduled.

All of these things can be managed from a Mac or Windows computer—or even an iPad—and like everything else these days, cloud-based content management is becoming the default. Once upon a time (like, yesterday), a high-end Scala system was the most feasible solution for many deployments, but could cost tens of thousands of dollars. Today, out-of-the-box solutions are starting to appear, with Roland’s DisplayStudio offering a robust solution for small-scale deployments. Perhaps more significantly, Google is getting in on the act with its Chromebox media player. The advantage to the Google approach is that content can be managed using Google Calendar and other free, cloud-based Google tools.

Let’s dig in and see how all this works in practice.

Mo’ Beta Blues

FastSigns of Athens, the company’s Athens, GA, FastSigns franchise, has been offering and installing digital signage solutions for its customers for about 10 years, and has specialized in high-end, high-volume deployments for the local civic center, local universities and medical centers, banks, and other sites with multiple screens and wayfinding kiosks, all the way down to simple digital signs for small mom-and-pop shops—and everything in between.

FastSigns of Athens’ most sophisticated deployment was for The Classic Center, Athens’ convention center and performance theater. “We programmed the TVs at our Classic Center to pull events of the day and at the same time run advertisements on a continuous basis,” said Burney Dobbs, owner of FastSigns of Athens. “Wherever anyone goes, the TV screens tell them the events of day and then underneath we’ve got a wayfinding map that tells them where they are.” All the content runs via the company’s Dallas-based server, and Dobbs can even get the feed from the Classic Center’s digital signage right in his office. A deployment on that scale is largely the purview of a closed-end Scala system. “It’s awful expensive and awful repetitive,” said Dobbs. “In other words there are licensing fees.”

Closed-end systems like Scala are for high-end users—like fast food chains like Burger King or McDonald’s—that have many screens that need to be managed from one location. “Scala controls about 35 percent of the world’s digital signs,” Dobbs estimated.

Technology changes, and several years ago Dobbs implemented an Android-based digital signage solution. “Revel Digital had a small Android player that cost me $100 and I’d sell it for $200,” he said. He would also sell the customers a year’s use of software for under $50 a month. Compared to the closed, high-end systems, many customers found that a bargain. Another profit center is templates. “I do a template for them so they can add their own content,” said Dobbs. “Most of our templates are already designed, and most of the time they’ll pay me for a year’s worth of service for the software. And then you’re off and running and finally making good money.”

Dobbs’ FastSigns franchise is currently beta-testing what he believes will be a game-changer for potential digital sign providers: Google Chromebox. A Chromebox is a small 6 x 6 x 1.5-inch box that is essentially a full-blown computer. It has all the usual output ports, such as HDMI to connect it to a display, and it’s programmed using a USB mouse and keyboard. There were a few early kinks to work out, but Dobbs is excited by the capabilities of Google’s digital sign solution. “The cloud-based software can be actually private-labeled,” he said, “and it’s all using HTML5, so you can build any part of the screen that you want in HTML5. All you have to do is link it to the player or the section of the screen you want it to play in.” The Chromebox also integrates with Google Calendar (to schedule content to appear at specific times), Google Spreadsheet (to pipe in and/or change content such as prices or items on a menu, for example), and a new service called Google Bulletin. “If you have a newsletter, you put it into Google Bulletin and it will automatically upload to your screen,” Dobbs said.

Using HTML5, open-ended Chromebox-based digital signs can do all of the things that a closed, high-end system can do, like pipe in the current time, weather, stock figures, ads, logos, videos, and more. “I think FastSigns is going to end up going with the Chromebox because we can private-label it and we know that HTML5 is not going anywhere,” said Dobbs. “That will enable to get more people to get involved and it will be less expensive.”

Like many people, be they involved in digital signs or not, Dobbs has high hopes for HTML5. “That will be the platform of the future,” he said, “and most of these closed systems are going to go away, unless it’s for a extremely large system like Burger King or McDonalds.”

That said, technology does not stand still. “The next big thing that’s coming down the pike,” Dobbs said, is a new Samsung commercial grade series of displays that has a player built inside the TV, running their own software. Not only will the new displays preclude the need for a third-party media player, but, says Dobbs, “you’ll be able to put together a bank of four of any size of their TVs and you can literally set them up with a USB cable going to each one of them. And it will program all four TVs to run one picture.”

Signs as a Service

The important thing to understand about digital signage is that it is less about selling a product—like a print—and more about selling a service. Providers of digital signage solutions sell customers the hardware and software, sure, but they are also selling the maintenance of the signs as a service, whether that be updating content, creating new templates, or doing a rebrand. It can even involve remotely monitoring active signs. Each player has an IP address, which sends signals back to software, allowing users to monitor its location and whether it’s on or off and behaving itself. “We touch base with our customers about once a month, just to see how they’re doing. It gets you to do consultative selling.” It also opens the door to other products a shop produces, like static signs. “Almost everyone that that we’ve sold digital signs to, they’ve bought all their banners and all their other signage from us.”

He thinks of it as akin to razor manufacturers. “They’ll give you the razor, but they just want you to buy the razor blades forever. That’s what the digital sign does for the sign business.”