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 😉 )

Part 2: May Your Resolution Be Right

More fun with technology! If you are up to date, you have followed these posts for a while. Our Part 1 of this two-part series on resolution is very important if you plan to use the information provided here, so give it a good read.

Okay, ready?

HD Resolution (or Frame Size):

There are 2 standard HD video resolutions:  1280×720 and 1920×1080 (width x height).  Both are displayed in widescreen (16:9) image format and use square pixels (the tiny individual “dots” of color that collectively make up the full image).  In contrast, standard definition (SD) video is a single resolution of 720×480 (for NTSC), using different pixel aspect ratios (non-square) to create either widescreen (16:9) or standard (4:3) images.  The square pixel format yields a more consistent image on a variety of display types, whether it is a plasma screen, LCD, or LED TV (or computer monitor).

A third format exists, better known as HDV, that is common among consumer-oriented video cameras.  This format is 1440×1080, and uses a non-square pixel size to render a widescreen image.

 Now, factor in Progressive Scan (p) and Interlaced Scan (i) and entire world of bandwidth considerations comes into play. This post is just not big enough to cover the subject, so get the amazing Guide when you register to take the DSCE course. 

Here’s the scoop in a nutshell: In a perfect digital world, we could say that it would always be better to display full frames in a progressive scan format, since each frame is a complete picture … and since current technology is certainly capable of keeping up with huge amounts of bandwidth, why would there be a need to compromise?  Bandwidth is still an issue, however, especially in video transmitted over the Internet or through cellular service.  The other issue is that many consumer or “pro-sumer” video cameras can only record high-resolution (1920×1080) video in interlaced scan format, since the hardware can’t support the higher bandwidth required by progressive.  Don’t lose sleep over this – just use resources provided by your media house to guide in the right file rendering size.

The MP4/H.264/AVC format is capable of producing very high quality video in virtually any common resolution, including HD.  It has been almost universally adopted as the standard for streaming video … and HD video in general.  It is the preferred format for YouTube, Vimeo, and iTunes, and is the most common encoding method for commercial Blu Ray discs.  The H.264 codec can also be used to encode MOV files.  MP4 files can be played by the QuickTime Player on any Mac or Windows computer, the Windows Media Player on all Windows 7 based systems, and by most smart phones.  Most of the currently available digital signage systems are compatible, too … WooHoo!

Multi-tasking mp4For these reasons, we at LobbyPOP prefer to render final video as MP4 files, to ensure compatibility across the spectrum, whether it’s playing from a locally-controlled digital signage player, remotely controlled system, Blu Ray disc, or streaming via YouTube.  Of course, when the need arises, we can render in virtually any desired format … but generally speaking, an MP4 file will work for any computer or digital signage system. 

There are many further details that may be discussed in the future, such as the accompanying audio formats for video files, bitrates, encoding profiles, etc., but it is too much to cover in this installment.  Hopefully this crash course will help to gain an understanding of what HD video is all about.

For more: LobbyPOP provides an excellent Guide for LobbyPOP Pros and Digital Signage Certified Experts. Just sayin… 

 

Part 1: May Your Resolution Be Right

Here’s Part One of Two about the technology that transforms a blank flat panel screen into a communications dynamo! Just what you’ve been waiting for! (Hmmm?). It’s time for a wee bit of technical jargon, and it’s not going to hurt a bit. When it comes to digital signage (the moving kind), the one most confusing piece to translate from our world of static to the calisthenics of dynamic displays is: What resolution for content creation, and what settings for my screen will display it properly?

The easy part is the screen, really, if you can push some buttons enough times, maybe even break down and read the manual, you will find it. (Just practice at your own shop first, on an identical system, so you don’t look silly in front of your client.) As for content, however, you may feel like you’re jumping through hoops to get a handle on this, depending on the application for the content display and delivery. Is it for cellular delivery? Cabled? Wireless? Flash drive? A zone on the screen? HDTV? SD Kiosk?  YouTube? Yep, it can be different for each!

Content Delivery VehiclesFirst, the good news: If you (wisely) use a media house to create and render your content, you shouldn’t have to stress over square vs. rectangular pixels, frame rates, HD vs. SD, and all those other definitions. Now, the not so good news: You need to know this stuff, if you want to guide your clients through the conversation about content so you can order the right thing from your media house!  So, here’s a little bit to get you started. The full blown Guide is available for those seeking their Digital Signage Certified Expert credentials from the Digital Signage Experts Group, if you order through SOSA.

To understand the current standards for HD Video and how it applies to digital signage, we’ll need to take a look at some basic terminology. To create the illusion of motion, video (just as with film movies) consists of a series of images displayed in rapid succession.  Each single image is referred to as a Frame.

The most common frame rates include:

  • 24p – NTSC 24 frames per second in progressive scan format 
  • 25p – PAL 25 frames per second in progressive scan format
  • 30p – 30 frames per second in progressive scan format.  This is the standard video rate for most common applications.
  • 50i – PAL 50 interlaced fields (25 complete frames) per second (see “HD Frame Format” below).  This is the standard video frame rate for PAL television broadcast.
  •  60i – NTSC 60 interlaced fields (30 complete frames) per second.  Technically, it is 59.94 fields, or 29.97 frames, per second.  This is the NTSC standard for all television broadcast, DVD, and consumer camcorder.
  • 50p/60p – 50/60 frames per second in progressive scan format, used in high-end HDTV systems. 
  • 72p – 72 frames per second in progressive format.  This is a more-or-less experimental rate that is finding applications in high-speed video recording, which can then be played back at a lesser rate for ultra clear slow-motion video.  It is also the current maximum rate available for WMV video.

HD Video File Formats:

Okay, here’s where it all comes together for useful applications … like digital signage.  HD Video can be created and stored in many different file formats.  The file format you choose should be based on the hardware and software that will be used to view it.  For example, the digital signage software/hardware system you select may specify compatibility only with certain file formats for video.  Here’s a list of the most common file formats and their most-used applications:

MPEG-2:  Blu Ray Disc, DVD

MP4 (or MPEG-4), also known as H.264/AVC:  Blu Ray Disc, Internet Streaming (YouTube, Vimeo, iTunes, etc.), local computer playback (Mac or Windows), mobile devices

WMV (Windows Media Video):  Windows PC playback, Internet Streaming (although your video may be converted by the host)

MOV (QuickTime):  Local computer playback (Mac or Windows), some DSLR (Canon) and camcorder native recording format

AVI:  Windows computer video (massive storage required for uncompressed files!)

But wait … there’s more to the story.  Next Post: HD resolution and the wonders of MP4! In case this is just not quite fun enough, LobbyPOP provides an excellent Guide for LobbyPOP Pros and Digital Signage Certified Experts. Just sayin…

March of the Statistics

Many of our past posts have discussed marketing, retail environments, sign design, content and audio considerations. But why is this dynamic sign technology getting so much attention? Why should you invest in this new learning curve as a digital print or sign professional? From software selection, to network design and configuration, to the right displays and peripherals and then installation and training for the client, it is quite an investment. Is it worth it? Okay, let’s march a few statistics out for March, and then you decide…. (We’ll use plenty of pictures to keep it lively!)

It is no coincidence that with 74% of all purchase decisions in mass merchandisers made in store, an increasing number of brand marketers and retailers invest in this medium.

When electronic digital signage first came onto the scene a few short years ago, there was no way to quantify it in terms of return on investment or impact on the marketplace, or even consumers. With the advent of scanner technology, brand marketers and retailers have been able to immediately determine the effectiveness of P.O.P.

POPAI‘s studies, undertaken from 1994 through this year, have consistently demonstrated significant sales increases for products supported by Retail Marketing across industries and geography.

Digital Signage has been proven to reduce perceived wait time by 40%-60%. That makes for happier, friendlier, more relaxed, and more satisfied clients.

LobbyPOP SayingAt the same time, you have a unique opportunity to tell your audience about additional products and services you offer.  You can be sure they’ll remember… it’s proven that digital signage can increase ad recall by more than 60%. And in case you’re wondering about the bottom line: Digital signage increases sales by 18%-62%!

InfoTrends/CAP Ventures has been tracking the industry since 1999, and adjusted Compound Annual Growth Rates are over 30%.

And, the most recent Digital Signage Pricing Report from Wirespring shows that the cost to deploy displays has dropped 14%. When Wirespring first began tracking in 2004, the cost per node (screen and media player) averaged $8500. In 2010, this had dropped to $3720.

It was only a few short months ago that Walmart released some information pertaining to their (in)famous Smart Network. In case you missed the announcement, the company calculated the following percentage increases in store departments using the Smart Network:

Sales lift by department
  • Electronics: 7%
  • Over-the-counter: 23%
  • Food: 13%
  • Health/beauty: 28%

They also disclosed the point in a product’s life cycle when the network seemed to be most effective:

Sales lift by product type

  • Mature items: 7%
  • Newly-launched items: 9%
  • Seasonal items: 18%
  • Items on rollback: 6%

From two case studies on how the Smart Network affects product sales (thanks to Digital Signage Today for the summaries):

In the first, a breathing-strip manufacturer purchased an endcap campaign, in which a 90- to 120-second message ran on endcap screens with product positioned around it. While the program was running, the brand saw a 100 percent sales lift on the specific product, determined by testing versus a control group.

In another campaign, the retailer wanted to increase the number of shoppers that opted in to receive discounts and offers via SMS. It staged a four-week campaign in which shoppers were told that if they’d sign up by dialing a specific code, they’d get exclusive announcements of new “Rollback” offers. During the four-week period, the retailer saw a three-fold increase in daily opt-ins.

Still with me here? We’re giving you this so you can go forth and conquer your clients’ fears!  Okay, how about YOUR fears 😉 Check this out:

According to data cited by Microsoft’s Edson, there are approximately 2 million digital signs across the US right now, and that number is expected to grow to 7 million over the next 5 years. For that to happen in a nice, linear fashion, it would mean that the industry will deploy 1,000,000 screens every year for the next 5 years.

The above chart shows that Retail remains the largest piece of the digital sign pie, and that Hospitality is second. With Retail, we find every imaginable style of display – from kiosks and endcaps, to video walls and window projections. In Hospitality, the range is not so dramatic. Both present ready opportunities for digital sign professionals.

Hopefully this March round-up of current research has given you a new perspective on your own potential in this arena. Next post, a bit about technology as it relates to content…

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.