We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby, From Sneaker Net!

It seems like just yesterday we were discovering the world of dynamic signage, and loading up our content by manual transmission, ie, flash drives and DVDs, aka, using the “sneakernet.”

Sneaker Net

With a DVD or VHS network you have what is called a “SneakerNet” – can be prone to human errors. Just look back to 2009, when a “sneaker net” system was used in a WalMart department not served by WalMart TV. The porn videos that played in that Arkansas WalMart certainly received a lot of media coverage (pun intended). In case you  don’t recall the millions of tweets, two employees swapped out DVDs in a device controlling 6 TVs in the furniture department. They got caught and the term SneakerNet took on a whole new meaning…

Here’s the point: Because the system is not connected, you have no guarantee the promotion you intended is being played. Making the content in the first place is costly (burning DVDs) and you can really only afford to do this once per month. If you run weekly specials, it’s impossible to advertise those on your screens because you’re running the same loop every week for a month. With a networked system, you’ll be able to change this on the fly easily and have completely synchronized media campaigns, both in-store and in-home. So, you understand how far we’ve come, yes? But, if you are comfortable for a little while longer in sneakers, you can simplify your own process, so read on!

Turtle Content DeliveryA large number of signage deployments today are still actually done by sending around VHS tapes and DVDs by turtle mail. Sometimes this is because when talking with the IT department, someone always says “no”. So the digital sign professionals and the ad agencies serving the client think, “No problem, we’ll just use DVDs!”

If you are starting out, and the sneakernet delivery system is the simple model you or your customer wants to deploy, there are a few tips that will make the picture quality, and your costs, better all around. But remember, that’s not the way to become a well-heeled digital sign pro. Just picture ad agencies, who have high expectations of the direct-out-of-home industry to deliver campaigns as contracted. They are becoming increasingly vigilant in ensuring that they are getting value. They will want proof that the campaigns are running.

Okay, here are your important rules for sneakernet:  First of all, never, ever use a consumer model DVD or BluRay player!  These are rated for about 2000 hours maximum, and certainly not for continuous play! Invest in a commercial player – which is often what your kiosks will feature at one price point – and you won’t be replacing the unit every few months.

Next, consider the video quality. If you are driving a plasma screen with a DVD player over composite video, the picture is going to look pretty ordinary. Now, swap that composite video cable for an HDMI cable, to your commercial screen, and with your commercial DVD player, your image is “up-rezed” and voila! Vastly improved picture quality, not to mention audio is always synchronized!

Now, how about the cost to burn and ship? Here’s a baby step from sneakers to something a bit less informal. Connect with your client’s (or your) IT department and gain access to an FTP site. Upload the files (yes, this takes a little time, but so does uploading and distributing through connected digital sign systems!). Make sure there’s a  DVD or BluRay burner at the other end, and let the IT guy or gal burn the contents to it. Now, load and play! You’ve saved time and cost burning these DVDs for these smaller digital sign projects. You’ve also saved days in transit!

Another step: Some “stand alone” digital sign systems will simply play whatever is on a gig-stick and loaded to its media player. This eliminates the BluRay or DVD player. And then there’s always Apple-TV, but that is another blog for another day.

It is apparent, if you give this some thought, that a simple media player, internet-connected system will ultimately save time and energy, and sneakernets, while still an option, will give way to the need for more frequent updates, reports of play, ROO and ROI calculations, and the chance to finally through away those old tennis shoes.

Just letting you down easy…

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The Display Wars are Over… Sort Of

Remember back in early 2010 when we compared Plasma screens and LCD display technology? Well, that post covered a lot of ground, and the decision-tree is still a valid and great tool. But now we have a third horse in the race, and it looks like a triple-crown winner… if price is no object. LED-lit LCD screens are almost perfect.

The difference between plasma and LCD wavered for some time, with each offering different economic and visual benefits depending on the model, price, and time in the life cycle of HDTVs. But in the past couple of years, with the advent of increasingly sophisticated LED backlighting, we finally have a true winner. With its unmatched energy efficiency, LED-based LCD is the best flat-panel HDTV technology. Unfortunately, it’s also generally the most expensive. — CNET Technologies, June 2011

Okay all you traditional (digital print, routing, illuminated channel letter) sign professionals, here’s something you are familiar with: Cold Cathode and LED. Yup. It’s here, too, in dynamic digital signage. Traditional LCD HDTVs use cold cathode fluorescent lights (CCFLs) to illuminate the screen. CCFLs are similar to the fluorescent lights you might see in your lamps and overhead light fixtures. They use a charged gas to produce light. LED-LCD screens, like their name implies, use light emitting diodes (LEDs) to illuminate the display.

LED LCD BrightSo what are the advantages when it comes to digital signs? Well, as you might have guessed, LED-LCD is thinner, brighter, and the contrast ratios are out of this world.

For this advantage, LED HDTVs command a premium; for all major HDTV manufacturers, LED-backlit HDTVs can cost a few hundred dollars more than CCFL-backlit HDTVs of the same size. Generally, plasma HDTVs tend to be the least expensive, priced at equal to or slightly less than CCFL-backlit HDTVs. However, that savings means the screen will be thicker and much more power-hungry, even if it does offer as good a picture as an LED-backlit HDTV.

How good the picture looks, especially if you’re a videophile or a cinema fanatic, is the most vital aspect of any HDTV. Specifically, peak white and black levels determine how detailed a picture can look on a screen. Historically, plasma HDTVs have produced the best black levels, but the domination of plasma in this field, however, is over. The current PC Magazine Editors’ Choice HDTV, the LED-based LG Infinia 47LW5600, puts out only 0.01 cd/m2, the best level we can measure.  Of course it’s an LG – one of LobbyPOP’s favorite brands!

So, you if you recall that decision tree of our LCD-Plasma comparison post, then consider this your update. If energy consumption is important, you will be looking at LCD, of one kind or another. If price is most important, you will be looking at plasma for the larger sizes. If quality, however, is your mantra, and price is no object, then the new LED-LCD screens will be your pick. But always, always, always choose a commercial screen and NOT a consumer model for your sign systems.

It bears more than a mention here: Commercial screens have what it takes to get the job done, vs consumer screens that pale in comparison.

The main differences are:

  • Commercial units have MORE modes of Video/Picture selection.
  • Commercial units have “Adaptive Picture Mode” and consumer units does not.
  • Commercial units allow for PC inputs, which few consumer models offer.
  • Commercial units have more Decorder formats.
  • Commercial unit has actual HDMI in with HDCP. Most consumer units have HDMI  In, as DVI with Adapter.   This is a pretty big difference.
  • Often, commercial units have separate antenna in and separate cable in (more versatility).  The consumer units usually have a single antenna/cable input.
  • Commercial units come with a two- or three-year warranty on-site. If you use a consumer model for a commercial sign application, you void the warranty.
  • Commercial models have heat management systems to accommodate continuous operation. Consumer models are not built for 24-hour operation.

Well, you get the picture! (Pun intended 😉 )

Sounds Like…

When it comes to digital signage and the dimension of audio in the environment, you are bound to see that sound has the ear of many, and important boundaries for others. It would be nice if we could provide a hard and fast rule when it comes to audio enhancements of your dynamic messaging. But we can’t. We can, however, give you the retail environment “rules of thumb” and bend your ear a bit on ways to implement this worthy tool.

First, it helps to think of audio as sugar in your content recipe. You may not need it, and if you add too much, it is just too much. And like sugar, it can add a great deal of appeal, and assist in delivery – the way a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down… In the most delightful way!

Second, you can simply destroy your employees as though using some wicked form of torture, if you play the same audio track over and over and have no way to limit the sound to a particular environment. This is a fact. And it leads to manual disengagement, as in, the volume is turned off.

Third, however, is the new research showing that comprehension, attention, and retention are improved with a good music and voiceover track. In fact, a music bed helps to deepen the experience, and depending on your system objectives, it can enhance a brand’s style.

And Fourth, audio will often reach a client before they are aware of a screen. What you have then is the power to draw eyes to your digital display that much earlier.  

So, how do you compromise between engaging the ears, and saving your employees’ sanity? You can and should give serious consideration to a sound cone which hangs over your display, and presents sound waves in a tight dimension around your system. Only when someone is within a few feet of the display can they hear the music. In addition, motion detectors can assure the sound plays only when someone is present.

We like the Cone of Silence offered by Interface Group. The patented design delivers a column of sound directly below the sphere providing crisp clear stereo sound. Outside the column, sound level drops 80% so that adjacent patrons are not bothered by the audio content.  In fact, the Library Journal supplement publication Library By Design featured this product for the library system. So if it works for a librarian, it will work great for your clients as well!

The audio component of your presentation gives you a distinct advantage when it comes to edutainment content. Without music, most material falls a bit flat. Test this yourself: play a movie trailer with and without audio. The impact of a good music score can’t be taken lightly. But if you have no way to control the audio either by motion or a “cone of silence” then you run the risk of creating a negative where there was a positive impression. In your needs analysis, look at your environment and the factors above.

That’s very sound advice 😉

Kiosk, You Ask?

We thank the Kiosk company for assisting with information on the subject of kiosks – a great product for many applications. KIOSK has many years of experience in working with customers to deploy small to medium to very large kiosk projects. They have found six factors to consider when choosing and deploying kiosks for your intended purpose. By no means is this list inclusive of everything -This is a summary of those six considerations:

1)  The Hardware Solution –

You want a kiosk that is build to ADA guidelines and UL specs. And you should choose a form and design that fits your environment, brand and size requirements. In addition, the enclosure and structure should be inviting. There is no reason in today’s market that you should sacrifice esthetics or durability. Every option imaginable is available!

2)  The Application –

Think about your experience when you check in at the airport. Your kiosk operation should be that simple! 2-3 buttons, a clear touchscreen, and simple graphic elements. Who will develop the content and application? You may be able to do that in-house, but there are several companies that do nothing but help companies develop applications, tie in with existing systems/databases and help remotely manage the kiosk.

3) Remote Monitoring/Reporting –

Without remote monitoring/reporting – how will you know what people are doing on the kiosk? Will you know if one of your 2500 screens is down? What about the screen saver- can it be updated to play store specials as they become available?

4) Service –

Think about the warranty, and who actually owns the hardware. If a service call is needed, do you need to outsource on-site maintenance where an outside tech will service the kiosk? You may want to keep spare parts on hand for common replacements.

5) The Kiosk Project –

What is the intended purpose of your kiosks? Decide on 2 or 3 priorities at least initially – you can always add on later. What does a good pilot program look like?  Number of stores? What types of stores?  What’s the budget for the pilot?  The MOST important part of the pilot is determining you success criteria.  What is the budget and who will own the kiosks? It may make sense to lease the hardware.

6) Employee Involvement –

Employees can sometimes feel intimidated or threatened by the kiosk. We’ve seen examples where a kiosk is placed in an existing environment without much employee involvement and the program will fail. 

So, in summary, a kiosk is a great tool and resource, useful for in-store surveys, product descriptions and applications, and guidance for customers. The most important moments in the life of the kiosk campaign are those before it is installed. When you think kiosk, think ASK – the questions above will help guide you to the right answers for you.

How About Color, Contrast and Brightness?

If you’ve been following our posts, you will know that CLEVR is a great acronym to remember when designing digital signage. CLEVR stands for Conspicuity, Legibility, Visibility and Readability – sound principles for those who design content for electronic digital signage. As we learned, these factors are weighted differently according to the application, whether it is a textbook, or a digital print sign, or dynamic signage.

We now want to tackle something that is less the purview of the content designer, and more the responsibility of the display specifier. When it comes to Color, Contrast, and Brightness, you should aim high – as in high contrast, high resolution, and great color rendering. What does this mean for your screens? Are there general rules to follow?  We have been following the plasma / LCD debate for years. One thing for certain is, there is no one right answer. We can, however, give you a decision tree to aid in your selection of screen type, and other features! Follow along here:

Plasma televisions were the first to really change the landscape of modern televisions. Providing large screens at depths fewer than 5 inches, they are easily hung on walls. Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) televisions operate by placing a bulb in the TV that generates light. The light is then passed through millions of red, green or blue liquid crystals where an electric current is applied to turn the colors on and off providing the correct color on the screen.

When comparing Plasma TVs vs LCD TVs we first see two advantages that Plasma TVs have over LCD. The biggest advantage is the size of the television. Plasma televisions can be well over 50 inches, currently as large as 103 inches. LCD TVs are normally less than 50 inches.

Additionally, Plasma should provide a slightly better viewing angle of about 90 degrees compared to the an LCD of about 60 degrees. If you have a wide room that requires viewing the television from areas that are not centered in front of the TV, either of these options will work.

LCD televisions have one advantage over Plasma displays — they are bright, making them an excellent choice for areas where you cannot limit the lighting. The more expensive LCD televisions now have very good response times that are comparable to the other technologies. However the lower end LCD televisions do not. Look for response times below 12 milliseconds with the better TVs around 6-8 milliseconds. Anything higher then 12 milliseconds, you may want to think twice if you are going to watch action video.

Plasmas can be susceptible to the “Burn In” effect. The Burn in effect is what happens when an outline of an image remains on the screen even after the image is gone. This can happen when you have the same shape on a screen for long periods of time. Screens that display the same thing often like stock tickers can cause this. In most cases this will not impact users. And some of the new Plasma televisions have what is called white wash to clear the Burn In, but using this can decrease the life of the Plasma. Today, plasma screens can offer extremely long life – in commercial units – and non-glare surfaces. LobbyPOP professionals offer these advanced features in the units they sell.

So, now why haven’t we yet discussed brightness and color, and contrast (difference between the darkest dark and lightest white), clarity (clean lines, not jagged, around images), etc. Reason for this omission is that the difference in these areas depends on the price and manufacturer of the television, more than on the display technology. Both plasma and LCD perform well in these areas, though you will find the high-end qualities at a better price in the plasma product line – especially when it comes to contrast ratios. Bottom line is that both technologies make for excellent televisions.

There are some differences, which may lead you to one or the other for client digital signage locations, and the Plasma verses LCD decision diagram below should help with those differences.

Plasma vs LCD for Digital Signage - LobbyPOP Blog
Decision Tree for Dynamic Signage Display Selection

Part 4: CLEVR Readability for Dynamic Digital Signs

If you are following this series, you know we are talking about the science behind good sign design, and how this applies to digital sign content as well. In our first post, we reviewed content considerations as  a whole. This brought us to Part 1, CLEVR acronym for Conspicuity, Legibility, Visibility and Readability. We reviewed Conspicuity and what it means in the application called Dynamic Signage. Part 2 discussed Legibility, and how this relates to dynamic content for digital sign systems. Visibility and a great tip for improved dynamic signage was presented in Part 3. If you haven’t read up on the premise, do so with the links above.

And now, to complete the series, Readability is our subject today!

A readable display allows people to quickly and accurately recognize and understand information, in particular, alphanumeric characters. The message should be clear and unambiguous. In traditional sign design, a few words to convey important information is all that is required. The same can be applied to dynamic signage. Again, these displays are not television. It is not a seated audience, for the most part, watching the screen with no other distractions. In an ideal world, there would be nothing but the screen. In reality, there is likely to be other signage, noise, people milling around, and multiple distractions. The dynamic display message, therefore, should be built much like static signage.

This means the concept of readability takes on great importance. If you have only a few minutes to engage your viewer, you should make certain your message is readable – that the message is conveyed quickly and clearly. While we love our HD content, LobbyPOP always includes on-screen text and clear voice-over in bite-sized chunks to assure no part of the message is obscured or lost. Text is often white with a pin-line outline, to assure it shows clearly on any motion background.

Dynamic Signage displays are alphanumeric displays, using letters and numbers, along with graphic images and sound, to convey messages. The contrast ratio for the characters is an important element in readabiliy and legibility.

ReadabilityIn their book, Human Factors in Simple and Complex Systems, Robert W. Proctor, Trisha Van Zandt explain that under optimal conditions, for black text on a white background, the font stock width-to-height ratio is ideally 1:6 to 1:8. For white characters on a black field, the optimal ratio is 1:8 to 1:10. Thinner lines for white on black images are required because of a phenomenon called radiation or sparkle. This is where the light color “bleeds” together due to the contrast -the eye’s reaction.

Keeping the core message concise, and the entire message in a ten to fifteen second clip, is a good rule of thumb. This does not mean that a 30-second spot is not desirable. On the contrary, the core message can be emphasized and repeated in ways that assure readability and recognition. This is the heart of all advertising: Repetition. So whereas traditional static signs can be read several times over in the space of a few seconds, thereby assuring a point is communicated, a dynamic sign can enhance this and “force” repetition upon the viewer by repeating the same points in slightly different ways, with supporting information in concert, much like bullet points in a presentation. 

How many words? How much information per minute? We have validated that seven words or less for the core messaging, and up to eight supporting messages within a 60-second spot can be read and comprehended.  So go forth and multiply your advertising!

Next post: The Power of Imagery – why this is in the wheelhouse of dynamic digital signage!

Part 3: CLEVR Visibility for Digital Content Design

If you are following this series, you know we are talking about the science behind good sign design, and how this applies to digital sign content as well. In our first post, we reviewed content considerations as  a whole. This brought us to Part 1, CLEVR acronym for Conspicuity, Legibility, Visibility and Readability. We reviewed Conspicuity and what it means in the application called Dynamic Signage. Part 2 discussed Legibility, and how this relates to dynamic content for digital sign systems. If you haven’t read up on the premise, do so with the links above.

Today we are examining Visibility, one of the key elements guiding good sign placement and design. This is perhaps one of the most overlooked factors in digital sign system development. As we create stunning graphics, clever messaging, and build meaningful news and live feeds into our dynamic signage, then make sure our sign is conspicuously placed in its new location, we are not looking at visibility the way that traditional sign professionals do.

Visibility is characterized much as you would expect: It is the aspect of “being visible” period. When a sign first becomes visible, you may not yet be able to read or hear the content. You can see the screen flickering in that bright blue fashion indicating an exciting message. With on-premise signage, you can see the illuminated beacon of the Golden Arches in time to cut across three lanes and safely grab a burger. Back a block or two, you couldn’t read the daily specials – all that mattered at that distance was that the sign was visible.

Too often, digital sign screens are placed where you can’t see them until you enter the immediate zone in which they are displayed. This may be appropriate where a touchscreen is used, for instance, to determine the right mattress to purchase, as you stand in the bedding department of the box store. But when signs are to be used for creating awareness of products, guiding shoppers through your facility, or for advising of coming events, these displays are often a few feet lower than they should be. This is likely a phenomenon that comes from the deep hold that our living room television has on society. It is hard to separate digital signage from television, at least in our minds. We are conditioned to expect the screen to be at eye level.

Making Signs VisibleWhat eye-level means for a digital display is that the dress racks, or the cubicle walls, or simply masses of people are blocking visibility of the screens. By installing the screens overhead, instead of at eye level, we achieve maximum reach, better engagement, and more attention. This is the Visibility Factor that LobbyPOP classes address.

For a good example, think of airport signs that show your gate, and your luggage carousels.  These are overhead, visible from far down the corridor.  Want to do a better job with dynamic digital signage? Consider installing more of these screens six feet or higher. Might mean a larger screen is in order, but is that really such a bad thing?

Next and final post in this series: Readability! CLEVR!