New Software Adding Value, Opportunities To Digital Signage

Digital signage is poised to become more than just pretty-looking displays, thanks to some newly developed software that's adding value to the emerging technology.

While digital signage was once seen as merely flashy, electronic replacements for traditional billboards and signage, the technology is maturing and offering solution providers opportunities around data collection and analytics.

For example, Intel unveiled plans in January for a set of software tools designed to add functionality to digital signage. Beta testing of this software, the Audience Impression Metric (AIM) Suite, is underway and Intel plans to release it in the second half of 2011, according to Bill Colson, director of digital signage services for the embedded communications group at Intel.

"Intel is looking to be a leader in the digital signage industry," he said. "We've been in the embedded space for over 25 years and have been involved in digital signage through technology enhancements, acquisitions and capital investments."

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Digital signage uses vary from informative screens welcoming customers to a hotel or displaying menu items in restaurants, to interactive touch screen displays in airports or retail outlets. Digital out-of-home (DOOH) networks use digital signage specifically for marketing purposes. The DOOH sector is growing rapidly according to research firm PQ Media, which in February reported 16.3 percent growth in the DOOH market to $6.47 billion in revenue for 2010.

AIM Suite offers new opportunities to digital signage and DOOH operators by providing detailed audience metrics. Using an underlying technology called Anonymous Video Analytics (AVA), AIM Suite collects anonymous information about the audience viewing the sign, including gender and age range. AIM Suite also calculates the number of people viewing a sign and their dwell time using optical devices connected to the digital sign.

This software is useful not only for the digital signage operator, but also for the digital signage market as a whole says Daniel Lorenz, senior sales engineer at Southfield, Mich.-based solution provider Blue Water Technologies. "[AIM Suite] is allowing people, for the first time, to get fairly low cost and very reliable data about how many eyeballs are on the screen," he said. "This certainly benefits advertising networks, but we're also seeing it used for studies in non-revenue based networks to justify the investment in these tools."

Lorenz added that advancements in digital signage analytics represent new opportunities for VARs and solution providers. "It's an additional revenue opportunity as an upsell. The other benefit is the data itself," Lorenz said. "As more data becomes available, digital signage as a whole will be easier to sell. So our expectations are very positive in that direction."

Comparisons between the AIM Suite capabilities and the recognition technology in the Tom Cruise science fiction film "Minority Report" are unfounded, says Colson.

"Our technology wouldn't know who Tom [Cruise] was. We would know he was male and we would know that he fit into an age range," he said. "To be anonymous, there has to be no personal or identifiable attributes captured or stored ever."

Software companies like Ayuda Media Systems are leveraging the AIM Suite API for additional uses. In March, Ayuda launched a concept demo integrating the AIM Suite functionality into its existing Enterprise Resource Management software for DOOH networks, called Splash.

The resulting application bills advertisers based on how many people look at the digital signage display while the ad is running. Ayuda calls the functionality "Pay-per-Look" and beta testing it is currently underway with several existing and prospective customers, said Daniel Fleischer, director of business development at Ayuda.

Fleischer added that traditional billing methods are less precise than the Pay-per-Look model and do not clearly outline the value proposition of digital signage to marketing clients.

"Instead of taking the network's word for who is interacting with the signage, we can show real time proof that the signage has validated, on a one-to-one ratio, every face that has looked at the screen," Fleischer said. "The industry as a whole is trying to show a way to demonstrate the DOOH value. When we saw that Intel was placing resources toward audience analytics and recognition, we saw a way to solve the business problem of an ad network trying to demonstrate the value of DOOH advertising."

NEXT: What's New In Digital Signage Hardware?

The newest hardware technology in digital signage represents advancements on different ends of the screen-size continuum. The two growth areas are in all-in-one form factors, typically used for single person interaction in the digital signage space, and in video walls that are large enough to engage many people at once, according to several experts in the digital signage industry

However, some experts noted that technical advancements in digital signage hardware are incremental, while the cost reduction for existing hardware is significant.

"The evolution of hardware has been an enabler of this industry. It's not that the hardware technology has advanced all that much, but the vast reduction of the cost of the essential hardware has removed the barrier to entry," said Fleischer.

New companies now build video walls with LCD display technology because it has become cost effective, according to Kevin Schroll, a senior product marketing manager for the enterprise business division at Samsung.

"A whole bunch of retailers are trying to get people's attention and designing these LCD video walls for the interior space that are meant to be seen from the outdoors. This is a new market. They never would have conceived of putting a rear-projection video wall in the past because it would have taken up so much floor space," he said.

Video walls also benefit from technical advancements like thinner bezels, the rim around the edge of the screen. "We're seeing the growth of using very thin bezel displays to create video walls in very general retail spaces like hotel lobbies, shopping malls and airports. This trend is possible because LCD technology is more affordable than it used to be and because the bezels are easier to make," Schroll said.

Meanwhile, the all-in-one (AIO) form factor is emerging as a digital signage solution for single person interaction, says Erik Stromquist, COO of CTL, a Portland, Ore.-based solutions provider. "The all-in-one PC is sort of limited to one-on-one interaction, but if you think about small stores or hotels, there are a lot of use cases. They are great when you want a small interaction," he said.

CTL in August launched the All-in-One 650, and a version with touch screen capability called the All-in-One 650T, using Intel's Thin Mini-iTX standard. Intel released this standard in May to create an open architecture for the AIO form factor.

As a result, systems builders can adapt the AIO to meet different needs, while reducing the cost of construction, Stromquist said. He added that this flexibility opens the door for a variety of alternative computing options beyond digital signage, including point-of-sale terminals and gaming.

Technology is not the barrier to entry for the future of digital displays, according to Chris Connery, vice president of the PC and large format commercial display group at research firm Display Search. Connery said the future of the industry hinges on a successful go-to-market strategy.

"The industry's main competitor is a poster board. So we're talking about the infrastructure of a $2,000-$3,000 panel versus paper," he said. "The user needs to be educated by the industry in order to make that investment."